When content becomes a virus, the viral scientists ultimately win

The week or so between Christmas and New Year’s is always a slow period, even on social networks like Twitter, but one article made my feed light up despite the slowdown, at least for the media folks that I follow: namely, a piece in the New Yorker about Emerson Spartz, a 27-year-old entrepreneur the magazine refers to as the “King of Clickbait.” For most of my Twitter stream, the reaction to this piece was a combination of horror, disgust and resignation.

As depressing as the profile might be for those interested in “serious” journalism, however, I think it should be mandatory reading in all newsrooms, both traditional and digital. You may not like his work, but Spartz is learning everything he can about how content works online — which is more than I can say for plenty of other outlets. And the less we all know about that subject, the more likely it is that Spartz and his ilk will win.

By now, many media-watchers have grown accustomed to reading about viral content or “clickbait” specialists like Upworthy or BuzzFeed — which founder Jonah Peretti started as a kind of laboratory to test his theories about how and why content gets shared. People are pretty familiar with “attention gap” headlines and other tricks of the trade used by such outlets to drive huge amounts of traffic. But Emerson Spartz and his network of click factories make most of these sites look like the New York Times by comparison.

Spartz started at 12

I confess that I had never heard of Spartz before, nor most of his websites, and I expect I am not alone, even among those who follow the online media industry. His company is simply called Spartz Inc., and the names of the websites he runs are continually changing — and in any case their actual names or brands are almost irrelevant, as the New Yorker piece points out. All that matters is traffic, the vast majority of which (not surprisingly) comes from Facebook:

“The company operates thirty sites, which have no unifying aesthetic. Their home pages, which can be chaotic and full of old links, don’t always feature a Spartz logo; traffic is generated almost entirely through Facebook, so brand recognition is relatively unimportant. Most of the company’s innovations concern not the content itself but how it is promoted and packaged.”

Figuring out how content works online is something Spartz has been doing since he was a child: at the age of 12, he built and ran what became one of the largest and most popular sites devoted to Harry Potter, called MuggleNet. He used the funds from that to start a series of other sites — devoted to online memes, or inspirational content, or amazing facts. The main site in the Spartz stable right now is a site called Dose.com, formerly known as Brainwreck.


Put together, the sites run by Spartz and his team — which consists of about 35 people based in Chicago — are generating more than 60 million pageviews a month, with Dose.com accounting for about half that. By way of comparison, the Gawker Media empire of blogs like Gizmodo, Jezebel and Deadspin generates about 500 million pageviews in an average month and founder Nick Denton estimates the company is worth about $200 million. Emerson Spartz raised $8 million in venture financing last year, the New Yorker piece says, and made several million more in advertising revenue.

Does giving credit matter?

The fact that Spartz is building a company by trying to engineer viral content similar to BuzzFeed didn’t come as a surprise to anyone — but many in the traditional media industry did seem shocked by Spartz’s somewhat cavalier attitude towards crediting the sources of the content he uses (something BuzzFeed has also been criticized for). It’s almost as though he doesn’t see the actual source of the content as having any value at all:

“If you want to build a successful virus, you can start by trying to engineer the DNA from scratch — or, much more efficient, you take a virus that you already know is potent, mutate it a tiny bit, and expose it to a new cluster of people… more original lists take more time to put together, and we’ve found that people are no more likely to click on them.”

Providing either no credit or very little credit (usually by way of a “hat tip” link near the bottom) is arguably unethical, most of the media types in my stream pointed out. But the reality is that many readers don’t care where a piece of content came from, or even if it’s true or not — regardless of whether you think they should. I’m not saying that’s right, I’m simply pointing out that it’s a fact, one that people like Emerson Spartz will always use to their advantage.

virus sign

The other thing that seemed to horrify many of the media people I follow was the fact that Spartz is not particularly interested in objective measures of quality — the only factor that determines whether his content matters is whether people share it or not. As he puts it in the New Yorker piece: “The way we view the world, the ultimate barometer of quality is: if it gets shared, it’s quality.”

What do readers want?

Journalists and publishers, of course, prefer to define quality in terms of the industry awards that their content wins, or the attention that it gets from a specific audience. But in a very real sense, Spartz is right — you can produce the best content you want, but if it doesn’t reach readers, then on some level it has failed. And how does it reach readers? That’s the part we all need to understand, and currently people like Jonah Peretti and Emerson Spartz are doing a better job of it than many traditional media companies.

Does that mean you have to indulge in clickbait? Not at all. But it does mean that you have to pay attention to how your content is (or isn’t) flowing and moving and being shared online, and that means devoting resources to it. BuzzFeed thinks so highly of data around this question that it recently appointed Dao Nguyen, the head of its data team, as publisher. Mashable doesn’t have a front-page editor — its front page is created algorithmically based on what people are reading and what they are sharing.

Media companies are still used to thinking of themselves as being in control of content, and of having some say in how and when it reaches readers, but this is a fiction. What control they used to have over distribution channels is gone — Facebook and Twitter and SnapChat control it now. Content has been freed from its restraints, like a virus escaping from a test tube. We can figure out how it works and what it wants, or we can twiddle our thumbs while others do.

This post was updated to correct the number of pageviews that Gawker Media gets per month. A previous version said it was 55 million but that’s the number for one of Gawker’s sites — the correct number for the entire network according to Quantcast is 500 million.