On a bright afternoon, Alex Magnin, chief revenue officer of the Web site Thought Catalog, strolled through Dolores Park in San Francisco, sipping a cup of green tea. Magnin, 29 and clad in a rumpled plaid shirt, was visiting from Brooklyn, where Thought Catalog is loosely based (most contributors work out of their homes), to connect with some of the site’s west coast staff members.
“We happen to have some awesome writers who make stuff people love and can relate to,” he said, blinking into the sun. “We have a vision of building something great and wonderful.”
Magnin is an architect of the nice Internet. Not long ago, the World Wide Web seemed like the wild, wild West, with Perez Hilton scrawling obscenities on people of note and Gawker spitting out blind items capable of ending careers and marriages.
However, in the past couple of years, heartwarming, advice-heavy headlines have mushroomed on Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere: “I have a favor to ask. Listen to this beautiful story about male strippers. You’ll thank me later”; “If you can watch these sisters without choking up, you might want to check your pulse. Wow”; “It’s not bad to regret things — it means you cared.”
Anchored by Web sites including Thought Catalog, Upworthy and ViralNova, this is an Internet that aims to lift up, not take down. The amount of content on these sites and others like them on any given day is mind-boggling: One wonders how so many feel-good stories can possibly be happening at the same time.
However, behind their warm and fuzzy veneers, these growing media companies are businesses, and they peddle in uplifting content because they believe it is profitable.
“A lot of it is clicky headlines and shareable headlines, and shareable headlines that play with certain identities or badges that people want to share with their friends to self-represent,” Magnin said.
His site has filled a void: Thought Catalog’s compilation of life advice, nostalgic lists and “betcha didn’t know this” type wisdom drew more than 34 million unique visitors last month, according to Quantcast, a digital advertising and audience measurement firm. By contrast, the Time magazine’s Web site had about 2.6 million unique visitors during the same month, according to Quantcast.
The feel-goodiness is even evident on Google. Throughout the World Cup, data scientists, designers and copywriters working for the search giant looked for quirky, cute search trends to share on its World Cup trends page: for example, creating an “infographic” titled “True Sportsmanship” about Germany’s record-setting win over Brazil even though some of the terms most searched online in the host country were “Brazil defeat” and “shame.”
“Our social channels exist to share interesting and relevant information to the people who want to hear from us,” Roya Soleimani, a Google communications manager, wrote in an e-mail. “Unlike your average 16-year-old, we don’t share every single thing we might have to say.”
“People don’t really want to share bad news even though they’re drawn to it,” said Scott DeLong, the founder of ViralNova, a “shareable stories” Web site that he runs out of his suburban Ohio home.
Every day, DeLong, 32, and a handful of freelancers trawl hundreds of sources looking for stories his readers might want to tell to their friends. They package 20 or more into ViralNova-style posts: lots of photos and captions, with a couple of sentences at the top and bottom.
While his team spends hours coming up with headlines designed to play on readers’ emotions (“Seeing what these stray puppies do together just destroyed me. Even though it’s pretty genius,” reads the title of a post about dogs in China who huddle around a stove to keep warm), DeLong’s end goal is simple.
“I want to post stuff most people will enjoy,” he said. “If someone cries or is amazed by something, it’s their natural psychological reaction to pass that on so their friends can feel it too.”
This kind of caring-is-sharing logic helped ViralNova amass more than 1.6 million Facebook fans in the 14 months it has been online.
Late last year, DeLong said he was considering selling the site, which cost him US$50 to start. No longer.
“We’re transforming it into something much bigger and better while retaining the same appeal,” he wrote in an e-mail. “A year from now, we will have continued to grow the base and expand upon what’s working in a much bigger way.”
One of ViralNova’s inspirations was Upworthy, the site credited with popularizing the heavily emotional, must-click headline style (for example, “Animals are a huge threat to our health and happiness. Here’s how”). Upworthy also inspired ClickHole, a Web site started last month by the satirical news service The Onion that parodies viral news sites. A recent post headlined “This video seems silly, but it makes a good point” showed a 33-second video of a cartoon dinosaur dancing behind a block of text that reads “Racism is bad.”
“There are sites, and there are many of them, at the high point of, I don’t want to say annoyance, but presence,” said Mike McAvoy, president of The Onion. “Our team wanted to satirize all of them, but not pick one, because in the end, everyone has to find a way to pay for content, high-quality content, so everyone employs some quantity of these tactics. It’s just a question of how much is appropriate.”
One of Upworthy’s founders, Peter Koechley, 33, is the former managing editor of The Onion. He and Eli Pariser, 33, a former executive director of the liberal political action group MoveOn, started the site in 2012. They said Upworthy aims not only to inspire its readers, but also to make them aware of issues that can not easily be packaged into a top-10 list.
The New York-based site lacks obvious advertisements, but in April, Upworthy introduced Upworthy Collaborations, a program that allows brands like Unilever to promote their own posts, sponsor curated topics and get consultation on how to make their content more apt for Internet sharing. Nonprofits have helped the site too: The Gates Foundation has funded coverage of global health and poverty.
“We care about things being energizing a lot more than we care about them being positive,” Koechley said, though a story “shouldn’t be so depressing you want to stab your eyes out with a fork, and it shouldn’t be dry either.”
To that end, Upworthy’s two dozen writers (or curators, as the company calls them), most of whom work remotely from 19 cities around the country, can cover any topic they want, as long as they abide by one rule.
“No great speeches to empty rooms,” Pariser said. “No finding a great piece of content, but not doing the work to draw people’s attention to it. There’s a strange disconnect where you’re not supposed to care if anyone reads your thing, that it’s all about the intrinsic quality of the piece of work.”
The architects of these social-sharing sites bring to mind mixologists tinkering behind a bar, adding dashes of this and that to come up with the perfect cocktail, the one that will be Instagrammed to oblivion and ordered round after round.
“We are, absolutely, a page-view-driven site even though we don’t want to be,” Magnin said of Thought Catalog. “Every writer wants to do well, and ‘do well’ means get more Twitter followers.”
Quest for shares, likes and followers aside, the leaders in this emerging niche of new media are not cutthroat in the way that some at other news and entertainment organizations are. Instead of stealing scoops and stories from one another, they vie for time that a reader may otherwise spend clicking through an acquaintance’s vacation photos or an ex’s wedding album.
“Anything that might show up in your Facebook news feed is who we’re competing with,” Koechley said. “All other media companies, but also baby pictures and funny music videos and everything else.”
Ultimately, that often means churning out content that makes people feel good.
Back in Dolores Park, Magnin recalled a nonprofit he worked for in his 20s, Every Person Has a Story, in which donors paid for technology that enabled them to follow the lives of children in Rwanda, Haiti and other developing countries on social media. He stepped back from it after Thought Catalog took off.
“It is really hard to get people to pay attention to something uncomfortable, given the choice set,” he said. “People don’t want to see poverty every day.”
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