Last week’s Storyology conference, run by the Walkley Foundation, was something of a wake for Australian print journalism.
But for one of the companies presenting—BuzzFeed—there was a lot to crow about.
Its Editorial Director, Jack Shepherd, who also goes by the name of Beast Master because he’s in charge of animal content, had the jaunty step and cocksure delivery of Silicon Valley insider, even though he’s from New York.
That was because he was from one of the only companies in the room making money, and he knew it.
BuzzFeed, for all the triviality of their listicles and unsettling ‘native advertising’, do one thing spectacularly well. They've mastered the science of social sharing.
What this means is that Shepherd and his 250 colleagues know better than anyone in the world what kind of stories you identify with, and what you’ll re-post on your Facebook wall to do all their promotion for them.
Journalism students pay notice because this science of emotional manipulation is going to be what half of you end up doing at the boot-strapping startups and marketing sweatshops that will inevitably dominate media job boards when you graduate.
The way BuzzFeed think about stories, Shepherd told Storyology, is as ‘a gift’.
It’s important to think of content as a gift because the first thing people conditioned to be greedy and shallow do when they receive a present is parade it in front of their peers to invite envy.
Also, people have to take ownership over content to share it, and by definition a gift is something you own.
That’s why, for instance, so many BuzzFeed stories act as explainer articles for social causes that are immediately intelligible to the bored-at-work crowd – identity issues to do with ethical diets and sexuality and listicles servicing the vanities of self-identifying ‘nerds’.
It doesn’t matter that said nerds are usually middle achieving office curmudgeons who overheated at an office drinks function in 2003 and have spent the last 10 years re-phrasing their own arrogance and schizotypal isolation as aloof genius, fleshing out this alluring ignus fatuus by setting up the world’s 874th Tumblr blog on the disruptive potential of 3D printing—an achievement likely to attract Nobel prizes or see its blogmaster spotted from outer space by Sergey Brin and snap-recruited into the role of chief techno-pope or lead futuriser or… end daydream.
It doesn’t matter if these shared identities are fatuous or false. What matters is that people identify with the identities—usually identities that have already been sold to them through a previous listicle—and then perpetuate the identity game by endorsing the content and adding peer pressure and suggestive crypto-bullying to the online echo-chamber to prompt other identity deficient web-corpses to accept the gift.
And getting these web-corpses to Share or Like, Shepherd said, usually boils down to crafting content that generates one of four powerful responses:
Emotion (I know, they’re all emotional responses, but just keep reading)
Or, to use BuzzFeed’s own tags:
In the past content farms like BuzzFeed would try to boost audience by gaming SEO with black-hat headlines like Britney Spears is Dead!!! (‘dead in love with her new Humvee’ LOL idiot!!!). But in 2011 Facebook topped Google as BuzzFeed’s greatest referrer. So the company switched tack and set up content verticals based around emotional tags that readers can attach to stories. There’s a LOL Feed, WIN Feed, OMG Feed, CUTE Feed, TRASHY Feed and a WTF Feed. The rhetoric of sharing – the short emotional responses that make people re-post things to their own walls – has infected and then mentally reprogrammed the entire architecture of BuzzFeed’s site.
Last VC funding round in January this approach saw the company revalued at around USD 200m.
Upworthy – another American startup focused on social sharing – has gone even further. Its website is actually a secondary offer, and immediately prompts you to like their Facebook page with an intrusive pop up box. Its staff spend most of their time writing and workshopping headlines for maximum WINs, OMGs and LOLs.
The business itself is defined by a strap-line that references a whole bunch of emotional responses you might have to their content: Awesome, fun, interesting videos and graphics about stuff that matters.
Since it was set up five minutes ago Upworthy has attracted almost four times the Facebook followers of The Guardian. And it recently raised USD 4m venture capital from investors including BuzzFeed co-founder John Johnson.
Expect more of these ‘gifts’ given that roughly $2.7bn was wiped off the value of Australia’s major newspapers last year, and everyone is scrambling for a solution. The Guardian and Observer newspapers fared not much better, recording an astonishing GBP 44.2m operating loss for 2012 – that’s not a loss related to one-off write-downs, it’s just money they spent that never came back.
As Shepherd said, for content that isn't hitting the share zone right in its LOLar plexus—for instance stories with ‘China’ and ‘Syria’ and ‘War’ in the headline—there really is no solution in the modern media landscape.
Spending extra money on Facebook promotion doesn't work. Neither does running these boring stories at the top of your website.
There’s only one thing to do with reporting that's too complex and makes readers feel gross emotions like doubt and confusion (remember, that sort of non-sharey news feeling?).
In Shepherd’s own words:
‘Sometimes you’ve got to know when to starve a loser.’