The joy of virality

by Vincenzo Marino – translated by Roberta Aiello

The secret of creating a viral post

In an article entitled «Viral journalism and the Valley of Ambiguity», Annalee Newitz of io9 tries to figure out [tweetable]what is the pattern which influences the virality of online content[/tweetable]. Her theory, she admits, has no scientific validity, and it is based on her own editorial experience. Newitz explains that [tweetable]we define articles viral when they can exercise influence on social media[/tweetable] like Twitter, Reddit, Pinterest and Twitter, irrespective of their editorial value, and on the basis of dynamics yet to be deciphered. The framework outlined by the author shows that ‘unquestionable’ content gains virality because it does not raise doubts, that «you don’t have to worry whether your friends will wonder why you shared this – it’s obvious» and includes a quality range from banal lolcats to the unveiling of “hidden truths” through fact-checking. What is more difficult is to be able to share analysis, longform articles, political comments, for which it is potentially necessary to engage in discussions based on their «ambiguity», hence the title of the article. «There are plenty of stories that get read, but not shared», Newitz concludes, because [tweetable]«we measure success by what people aren’t afraid to share with their neighbors»[/tweetable].

This week the same issue is partly addressed by Derek Thompson of The Atlantic [tweetable]regarding UpWorthy, which is among the more efficient machines in terms of virality[/tweetable] with posts which receive millions of visits. The opportunity comes on behalf of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is going to ‘ride’ the tool to launch its online campaign against global poverty. The staff of the website, which boasts of being the team that scours the Web for «stuff that matters», is famous for generating more than one headline for each post  – so as to test the public and choose the best – with a recurring and recognizable scheme that Thompson calls «unapologetic, sentimental, cliff-hangery as heck, and two sentences long» (an example, «The Things This 4-Year-Old Is Doing Are Cute. The Reason He’s Doing Them Is Heartbreaking»). One of the secrets, the writer explains, is what he calls a «curiosity gap», [tweetable]encouraging the reader to click to satisfy the temporary interest[/tweetable]. However, this is not enough. According to Eli Pariser, co-founder and CEO of UpWorthy, content shared by users, especially videos, is almost always what was worth sharing: «We look at how much people click, but also how much people share [after they click]. The only way to get something that does really well is to deliver  the quality that you’re promising in the headline». Nathan Jurgenson expresses a completely different view on Twitter:  [tweetable]«Upworthy as the Internet’s McRib»[/tweetable] referring to a pre-packaged fast-food sandwich,’ branded’  with the same – unpleasant – side effects.

Catching the attention of readers

One example of virality, with a hybrid content of socialization and news, is represented by «North-o-Meter» of UsVsTh3m. Founded by former UX Lead at the Guardian Martin Belam, UsVsTh3m (a portal that makes the involvement of the user its own core business) has launched, this week, an interactive post of easy questions to test how much of a Northerner the readers are, encouraging who answers to share the results. Created by an internal startup (Trinity Mirror), the game has attracted more than 3 million unique visitors, about 20,000 unique simultaneous visitors, more than one million likes on Facebook and 40,000 tweets. Doomed to mobile first, [tweetable]UsVsTh3m has increased since September to October from a million to two million and a half unique visitors[/tweetable]. According to, the success of this post could get UsVsTh3m to go towards sponsored content, capitalizing on a result that led (from the start until 12 November) 3.6 million people to interact.

[tweetable]The ability to attract the attention of users is the main key of the success for online content[/tweetable]. This is what emerges from Sandvine research on the use of broadband or mobile Internet connections by Americans, which strongly penalizes websites with news content. BuzzFeed is an example: despite being a portal of 85 million visitors each month, it is valued at ‘only’ $200 million compared to $115 billion of  Facebook, which proportionally has ‘only’ 14 times its user base. [tweetable]«The market puts a higher premium on the attention that social networks are able to command, compared to content sites»[/tweetable], summarizes Zachary Seward of Quartz. According to research, Netflix and YouTube (with the predominance of the latter on smartphones and tablets) both on desktop and on mobile capture more users. This would justify the heavy investment that BuzzFeed and Vox Media group are making in video content: [tweetable]«Mobile is where attention is going»[/tweetable].

Vice and Vox Media: new media play hard

The battle for getting the attention of readers provides new tools, new content, a different way of telling stories and of approaching the reader. One of the week’s news items is the expansion of the editorial staff of Vice Media, which will raise the size of its reporting staff to more than one hundred. Born as a free press magazine in North America,[tweetable] Vice is now an editorial reality with numerous offices around the world, and with all the intention of getting serious in the news market[/tweetable]. «I wanted to build the next CNN» Shane Smith, one of the co-founders, told the Guardian optimistically. His intentions are confirmed by what recently happened with the expenditure of $50 million (gleaned mostly thanks to sponsored content) planned for the next three years to enrich the “news” section of the project – historically committed to recount in a particular way current events, surveys and youth cultural phenomena. These trends have been noticed by Mathew Ingram who warns the entire industry: for years Vice has been considered – like BuzzFeed at the time – a little more than a «toy», but it is necessary to be fully aware of the fact that with these investments, and these intentions (especially after Rupert Murdoch bought 5% of it), [tweetable]Vice will be part of the scenario of the future of journalism – whether traditional media like it or not[/tweetable].

At the same time Vox Media – the group that owns The Verge, the sports website SB Nation and the portal on videogaming Polygon – bought the Curbed network for between $20 to $30 million, extending its offer to the estate website of the same name Curbed, to Eater (a blog about restaurants and nightlife) and Racked (shopping and lifestyle). The trio of newly acquired websites would ensure the new owners an average of about more than five million monthly unique visitors, and the opportunity to offer new platforms and new readers to advertisers. Recently the group has allocated a new investment of $34 million. According to data from Quantcast, [tweetable]Vox Media group could reach 57 million unique visits per month, with an increase of 88% on an annual basis[/tweetable]. Founded in 2003, the group is mainly characterized by the combination of technical content, an extensive use of responsive graphics (a recent example is the review of Playstation4) and the alternation between multimedia material, regular updates and original longform articles. Another competitor to notice, according to the definition of Ingram.

Google is worth more than just newspapers and magazines

The traditional publishing industry is not doing well at all, and the comparison with the leaders in new markets appears to be quite eloquent. This week, Henry Blodget, the CEO of Business Insider, presented at “Ignition 2013” a slide that has made a lot of noise in the American media circuit. According to the tables, as to revenue, [tweetable]Google alone would have surpassed the entire US journalistic industry, both newspapers and magazines[/tweetable]. And if the growth of Google now seems obvious, the precipitous decline of the print industry was not obvious at all. That’s not all. Looking closely at the data, it is evident that the historic maximum of Google, reached in 2012, was similar to the average of newspaper and magazine income achieved back in 2009, before the crisis of the newspaper industry became even greater. The data leads one to conclude that it has been a structural and systemic collapse, rather than just a cyclical decline.

According to Tim Worstall of Forbes the real crisis factor does not derive solely from lower prices, but also from the migration of a section of advertising, usually hosted by the printed newspaper, which alone made up about one third of revenues. They are the so-called classified ads (typical of American newspapers: job listings, various announcements, private trades) which would have moved elsewhere, to the Internet, to Monster, e-Bay and Craigslist, leaving the old papers without ads or earnings. National newspapers, in which this advertising system has historically had relatively low penetration, have been affected less than others. Confirmation was found in the fact that local newspapers, which have always relied heavily on classified ads, have suffered a particularly rapid decline.