Mark Zuckerberg (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

Wow. Facebook just did something amazing to crummy meme sites. And what they do next might shock everyone

The monster social networking site reworks its algorithm to reward "quality," as defined by ... Facebook


Alex Pareene
February 17, 2014 8:00PM (UTC)

The social media networking site Facebook recently rejiggered the algorithm it uses to determine what its users see highlighted on their "news feeds," the center column of shared links, pictures and posts that determines most of what a user sees at the site.

There is a decent chance that this change will in large part determine what you read on the Internet in 2014. Maybe not "you," the regular Salon reader or relative of the author, but "you" the person who clicked on this story because someone you know shared it on Facebook or Twitter. The purpose of the Facebook change was to encourage the sharing of more "high-quality" news content -- that is, to make sure you are more likely to see it when "high-quality" news content is shared, because Facebook's news feed algorithms do as much hiding as highlighting -- and the result seems to have been an immediate decline in the traffic of all the sites that spent 2013 mastering the art of blowing up on Facebook. (Well, all of them but one, but we'll get to that.)

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There is an entire ecosystem of these sites -- one industry publication uses the term "viral publishers," which works as well as anything else -- and if you use Facebook regularly you probably clicked on a link from one of them at some point in 2013. Elite Daily, Distractify, ViralNova and the grandaddy of them all, Upworthy, the site that essentially invented and perfected the form in the space of a year. Upworthy's headlines may be mockable (I Thought I Knew How to Goad Readers Into Clicking on Something Stupid, but What I Learned Next Changed Everything), but they definitely seemed to work.

Among the few sites with more Facebook "likes" than Upworthy are the Huffington Post (at this point practically old media, by Web standards) and BuzzFeed, the site that made fogies mourn for the future of news before newer, shockingly dumber sites showed up to make BuzzFeed look respectable and sophisticated by comparison.

BuzzFeed and these viral publishers depend, for their very existence, on Facebook. They talk about "social media" and "sharing" generally, but specifically it is as much about gaming Facebook as SEO was about gaming Google.

SEO is "search engine optimization," a now-passé form of traffic goosing, involving a lot of unsexy coding tricks and liberal use of keywords and link spam to win high placement in Google results. These tricks once made various hucksters rich and helped establish the Huffington Post as one of the biggest sites on the Internet. SEO is being supplanted by a new series of tricks designed to manipulate social media. The "social sites" can claim, with some justification, to be packaging content that real people wanted to share, instead of gaming some algorithms. But just because the new techniques involve a dab of psychological manipulation doesn't mean the formula for success isn't just as rote: an arresting image or video still, and a headline that either stokes curiosity without satisfying it, or that promises some fresh, invigorating outrage.

If the stuff below the headline doesn't live up to it, no matter. One of the open secrets of the Internet is that no one reads anything on the Internet. People do go around clicking on all sorts of things, but the majority of people who clicked on this piece stopped reading it a few paragraphs ago.

One slightly terrifying fact (for an employee of an online media organization) about the rise of the viral publishers last year was how each new one was less labor-intensive than the last. Each step on the path from BuzzFeed to Upworthy to ViralNova involved fewer paid humans putting less thought into each iteration of the viral-manipulation industry. Say what you will about BuzzFeed (and I have), but at least they make things. A lot of people work there, creating original stories and videos and other pieces of information and entertainment and journalism known collectively and depressingly as "content." Upworthy makes headlines -- literally dozens of them for each tiny "story" -- and then embeds or links to images and videos created by others. They repackage existing content. Obviously, so does BuzzFeed. And so do Salon, and Slate, and the Entire Internet. But Upworthy realized that all it had to do was repackage existing content, and not bother to create any of its own. And then Upworthy spent 2013 kicking everyone's else's ass.

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ViralNova seemed the logical, terrible endpoint of the entire thing. It is powered purely by cynicism and contempt. The whole site is (was?) literally one guy who realized he could pretty much do exactly what Upworthy was doing, except by himself and without any earnest illusions about making the world a better place. The founder of ViralNova discovered that it didn't even matter if the content was recently created, or from a reliable source, or true, or even plausible. All that mattered was a headline and an image, and the shares would follow. In December 2013, the site had 66 million unique visitors. (That, for the record, is a lot.) The site's creator hopes to unload it for seven figures, in part because he recognizes that Facebook could cripple its traffic in an instant if it decided to.

Facebook seems to have decided to. Facebook may have slayed this entire little industry with one blow:

Between November 2013 and January 2014, a long list of so-called “social publishers” saw their traffic dip substantially, according to comScore. Traffic to Upworthy dropped 51 percent. Traffic to Elite Daily dropped 47 percent. Traffic to Vice dropped 22 percent, to BroBible by 17 percent, to Huffington Post by 16 percent. Between December and January traffic to Distractify and Thought Catalog dropped 30 percent and 7 percent, respectively.

What’s more, traffic to all of those sites was on a broad upward trajectory prior to the January lull. Elite Daily, for example, saw its number of unique users balloon from around 2.3 million in September, to nearly 9 million in December, and attributed the growth to Facebook. Upworthy also enjoyed healthy growth over that period, climbing from 6 million uniques in August to 14 million in November.

A couple of engineers make a couple of tweaks and suddenly what was once the most sharable content on the Web is a lot less shared. It's easy to read into this a slightly ominous message: This is Facebook's Internet, and the media is just attempting to find a way to sustain itself in it.

* * *

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New York Times social media staff editor Michael Roston had some very useful advice: "Don't depend on an outside social network for your traffic." That seems like an obvious lesson, except that everyone forgot to come up with a better idea.

It had been decided by all the gurus that the social media sites were the new home pages, and the future of news distribution. And Facebook is, at the moment, the only truly important social media site. (Journalists all prefer Twitter, because it's more conducive to the sharing of news, but Facebook crushes Twitter in terms of audience size and reach.)

You may have heard that the American newspaper industry collapsed. This was mostly because the Internet ruined its once-lucrative business of charging people a bit of money to run classified ads, and then being the only available source for people who wanted or needed to look at classified ads. Unfortunately, this model is what had been paying for all the journalism (and much of the arts criticism, and comics-drawing, and crossword puzzle-creating) in the country for a century or so. It was replaced by ... online advertising, mostly, which is much cheaper to buy than print advertising, in large part because online it is much easier to measure how little people want to look at or click on an ad.

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So now no one knows how to fund all the journalism! Unless you want to go the truly old-fashioned way of relying on the generosity of vain rich people (and the generosity of vain rich people has funded a great deal of wonderful journalism over the centuries), you need, these days, a large, and preferably growing, number of "unique" visitors to afford a large staff of news-gathering humans. You probably need Facebook to get these uniques. Facebook is now explicitly declaring its intention to decide whether you deserve them.

If Facebook wants to make sure only to highlight high-quality news, then Facebook's standards of quality suddenly start to matter quite a lot. As I said earlier, one of those viral publishers has, so far, not seen any traffic fallout from Facebook's decision. That would be BuzzFeed, whose traffic has only increased since Facebook announced its news feed changes. Business Insider's Nicholas Carson suggested that this may have something to do with BuzzFeed's practice of, quite literally, buying traffic from Facebook. He then updated his post to put that suggestion a bit more delicately, and alongside the counterpoint that maybe BuzzFeed is just more successful because it's so good at making great content. (And here is my regular disclosure that I like and admire many of the people working at BuzzFeed, which does publish some very good reporting and smart commentary.)

Is BuzzFeed's secret payola? Or does Facebook's algorithm simply like its content more because of its innate quality? I don't think there's anything resembling outright bribery going on. I imagine, though, that Facebook's standard of "high quality" will, for the foreseeable future, reward large, traditional news organizations, and, most likely, some of Facebook's most trusted "partners."

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Facebook is currently getting fairly rapturous reviews for its new Paper app, which makes a user's news feed, along with other, curated news feeds, elegant-looking and easy to read. The feeds are curated in part by actual human editorial employees, and this list of outlets Facebook worked with gives some indication of what Facebook is looking for in terms of "high-quality" content.

Facebook has worked closely with about 40 content producers, ranging from big news outlets like The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Associated Press to magazines like National Geographic and Time, to improve the look of their articles on the app. When readers click on an item to read it, they are taken to the website of the original publisher, which can serve ads or promote other content to them.

What a very old-fashioned list. So: Don't rely on Facebook, but if you need to, it helps to be someone Facebook has heard of, from print.

* * *

On the Internet, complaints about the click-bait garbage published by, well, basically everyone are usually made with the understanding that the click-bait garbage is necessary to juice numbers, even if the publication's "brand" is built on smarter stuff. And this is nothing new: In the old days, when classified advertising funded the newspapers, popular sections like the sports page and the Yellow Kid to some degree "subsidized" the city hall reporting. The city hall reporting still happened, partly because the publisher felt some sort of civic obligation to produce quality journalism but also because the publisher was making a fortune anyway. But what happens when no one's making a fortune? Because another open secret on the Internet is that no one is making much money at all. (Besides, obviously, Google.)

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BuzzFeed has come up with a creative response. The solution is to create content for brands -- or, "advertisements" -- and then pay Facebook, which is an advertising platform, to promote the content you create for brands. Soon, you are an advertising agency. Or maybe you already are!

"[BuzzFeed's] brand partners are actually beginning to use its media-buying team as an agency of sorts, asking it to package posts on BuzzFeed with a paid distribution element, too.")

But once you are an ad agency, it seems only a matter of time before you begin to ask yourself why you are paying all these people to make all this other stuff that no one paid for.


Alex Pareene

Alex Pareene writes about politics for Salon and is the author of "The Rude Guide to Mitt." Email him at apareene@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @pareene

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