As regular readers know, we here at PA don’t pretend to be on the cutting edge of any technique to maximize readership, other than frequent and reasonably cogent content. We’re using a prehistoric publishing platform (which we hope to upgrade soon) that makes it very difficult to achieve a cool look; Ryan’s much better at using it to display images, but I’m pretty much limited to YouTube videos, on which I rely on far too much. And there are all sorts of issues with formatting, particularly for mobile device users, that we continue to work on within the restraints of an extremely limited budget.
But that doesn’t mean we are unaware of the things, some legitimate, some shady, that are going on elsewhere that make some sites immensely profitable if not necessarily very enlightening. TAP’s Paul Waldman suggests many of today’s click-friendly techniques are in the perpetual process of wearing themselves out:
Buzzfeed (now buzzing: “The 23 Most Important Selfies of 2013”) just announced that it had a stunning 130 million unique visitors in the month of November. The latest hot properties in the clickbait wars are Upworthy and Viral Nova, which unlike sites like Gawker and Buzzfeed, exist solely for the purpose of promoting viral content. They’ve hit on a particular headline formula, one that offers a bit of mystery with the promise of intense emotion if you click. “This 9-year old looked in his grandma’s closet. What he found there will make you cry.” (I made that one up, by the way.)….
Despite variations along the continuum from shock to wonder to tears, the message is essentially, “Oh my god look at this right now oh my god now now now!” If someone in real life, like a co-worker or member of your family, burst into the room and shouted that at you, of course you’d stop what you were doing and look. Even on the web, it takes an act of will to resist when you see a headline like that. The danger is that the formula only works for so long. Once you’ve clicked on a few posts that promised to make you cry or change your view of the world forever but didn’t deliver, your default assumption will become that when you see something like that , it means somebody’s trying to get you to be a part of something artificial. It’s one thing to send something truly inspiring or outrageous to your friends or Twitter followers and brighten their day for a moment, but nobody wants to be a tool of someone else’s phony marketing campaign or mean-spirited hoax.
And I think that’s the danger for these ventures. The more conscious people become that by passing something along they’re not so much participants in a beautiful collective celebration of our shared humanity, but are instead part of an intentionally constructed attempt at content viralization, the less they’ll want to be a part of it.
Paul’s reasonably sure listicles are with us to stay, but it’s possible that a virally spreading antipathy to manipulation of readers by viral content could produce a backlash against all sorts of click-maximizing techniques, even lists. Or maybe I’m just an old goat with dreams of hitting the zeitgeist one last time before I’m hauled off to the dustbin.