The soul of a new machine: Gawker struggles with the slippery slope between viral and true

Does it matter if that viral video that everyone is so busy sharing was a stunt cooked up by a late-night talk show host? Or if that letter from an outraged grandparent to his homophobic daughter isn’t all it appears to be? These are the kinds of ethical dilemmas that tend to crop up when your editorial output is based in part on finding and sharing — and benefiting from the traffic generated by — viral content, the way it is for outlets like Gawker, or BuzzFeed, or Upworthy.

The tension created by that dilemma burst into the open this week in the comments on a recent Gawker post, and eventually pulled in writer Neetzan Zimmerman — who specializes in finding and writing about viral content for the network — as well as founder Nick Denton and Gawker editor John Cook. While they didn’t arrive at any solutions to the problem, at least they are talking about it out in the open where everyone can see them.

Denton tweet

A heart-warming letter from a grandfather

The post that sparked the discussion was one Zimmerman did about a letter that a grandfather supposedly wrote to his daughter, in which he chastised “Christine” for disowning her own child, “Chad,” who had recently come out as gay. A heart-warming and uplifting story, it first emerged on the Facebook page of a gay-friendly and activist-oriented clothing brand called FCKH8 and later made its way to Huffington Post, Upworthy and many other outlets, including Gawker. By late Friday over 17,000 people had “liked” it on Facebook and almost 9,000 had shared it.

Grandfather letter

Denton — along with a number of readers — raised a red flag about the letter in the comments (few founders show up in the comments section of their own sites as much as Denton, who routinely goes there to argue with his own writers and editors). He said he found the letter “even less credible than the last of its type,” which was a letter from a father to his son, who was about to come out of the closet — a letter also shared by FCKH8, with no details or evidence provided about the individuals involved, despite multiple requests. Said Denton:

“These letters are well-written. The hatched paper is a nice touch. The sentiment is almost too touching to be credible — but too viral for most outlets to check. At least twice now Neetzan and other reporters have been thwarted in their efforts to run down the origin.”

To drive traffic, or to tell the truth?

In a reply to Denton, editor-in-chief John Cook agreed that his skepticism was warranted, but then went on to point out that Zimmerman’s job is simply to find and share viral content — not necessarily to track down whether it is ultimately true or not. And in two short paragraphs, he summed up the dilemma at the core of traffic-driven sites like Gawker and BuzzFeed:

“Part of our job is to make sure we’re writing about things that people are talking about on the internet, and the incentive structure of this company is organized to make sure that we are on top of things that are going viral… we are tasked both with extending the legacy of what Gawker has always been — ruthless honesty — and be reliably and speedily on top of internet culture all while getting a shit-ton of traffic. Those goals are sometimes in tension.”

Later, during a related discussion on Twitter involving Reuters blogger Felix Salmon, the Gawker editor said that if truth ever became the ultimate barometer then traffic would plummet:

Denton tweet1

Finally, Zimmerman himself (who was single-handedly responsible for generating over 16 million pageviews in August, more than some entire websites produce with dozens of staff) jumped in and pointed out that poking holes in viral stories makes them dramatically less viral:

“People don’t look to these stories for hard facts and shoe-leather reporting. They look to them for fleeting instances of joy or comfort. That is the part they play in the Internet news hole. Overthinking Internet ephemera is a great way to kill its viral potential.”

If you tell the truth, people might not share it

Grumpy Cat

Zimmerman described one recent post about a firefighter rescuing a kitten from a burning building. The kitten later died — a fact the Gawker writer included. But that “damaged the virality” of the post, he says. “You really can’t have it both ways when it comes to viral content. If you want to capitalize on its sharing prowess and reap the PVs that come with that, then you simply can’t take a hard-boiled approach to fluff. People are just not going to share a cat video of a dead cat.”

Can you serve the needs of your readers for uplifting stories, and the financial needs of your advertising-driven (and therefore traffic-driven) media operation, while still poking holes in happy stories? Denton noted on Twitter that the stories Gawker is best known for — or that he prefers — are journalistically credible, including the iPhone 5 prototype leak and the story about football player Manti Te’o and his imaginary girlfriend.

All of those no doubt also drove lots of traffic — but then so do stories about rescued kittens and heart-warming letters from grandfathers. Do they need to be treated in the same journalistic way, or are they just eye candy that sells the ads that pay for the true stuff?

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock / Donskarpo and Grumpy Cat Inc.