The nice Internet clicks with users tired of Web nastiness

  • Article by: Sheila marikar
  • New York Times
  • August 11, 2014 - 8:22 AM

Not long ago, the World Wide Web seemed like the wild, Wild West, with Perez Hilton scrawling obscenities on people of note and Gawker spitting out blind items capable of ending careers and marriages.

Then along came the nice Internet.

In the past couple of years, heartwarming, advice-heavy headlines have spread like mushrooms: “Listen to This Beautiful Story About Male Strippers. You’ll Thank Me Later.” “If You Can Watch These Sisters Without Choking Up, You Might Want to Check Your Pulse. Wow.” “It’s Not Bad to Regret Things — It Means You Cared.”

Anchored by websites including Thought Catalog, Upworthy and ViralNova, this is an Internet that aims to lift up, not take down. The amount of content on these sites and others like them on any given day is mind-boggling: One wonders how so many feel-good stories can possibly be happening at the same time.

But behind their warm and fuzzy veneers, these growing media companies are businesses, and they peddle in uplifting content because they believe it’s profitable.

“A lot of it is clicky headlines and shareable headlines, and shareable headlines that play with certain identities or badges that people want to share with their friends to self-represent,” said Alex Magnin, chief revenue officer of Thought Catalog.

His site has filled a void: Thought Catalog’s compilation of life advice, nostalgic lists and “betcha didn’t know this” type wisdom drew more than 34 million unique visitors in June, according to Quantcast, a digital advertising and audience measurement firm. By contrast, the website of Time magazine had about 2.6 million unique visitors during the same month.

“Our social channels exist to share interesting and relevant information to the people who want to hear from us,” Roya Soleimani, a Google communications manager, wrote in an e-mail. “Unlike your average 16-year-old, we don’t share every single thing we might have to say.”

Indeed, said Scott DeLong, the founder of ViralNova, a “shareable stories” website. “People don’t really want to share bad news even though they’re drawn to it,” he said.

Every day, DeLong and a handful of freelancers trawl hundreds of sources looking for stories readers may want to tell to their friends. They package 20 or more into posts featuring lots of photos and captions with a couple of sentences at the top and bottom.

His team spends hours coming up with headlines designed to play on readers’ emotions: “Seeing What These Stray Puppies Do Together Just Destroyed Me. Even Though It’s Pretty Genius,” reads the title of a post about dogs in China who huddle around a stove to keep warm. But DeLong’s end goal is simple.

“I want to post stuff most people will enjoy,” he said. “If someone cries or is amazed by something, it’s their natural psychological reaction to pass that on so their friends can feel it, too.”

This kind of caring-is-sharing logic helped ViralNova amass more than 1.6 million Facebook fans in the 14 months it has been online.

One of ViralNova’s inspirations was Upworthy, the site credited with popularizing the heavily emotional, must-click headline style. Upworthy also inspired ClickHole, a website started by the satirical news service the Onion that parodies viral news sites. A post headlined, “This Video Seems Silly, but It Makes a Good Point,” showed a 33-second clip of a cartoon dinosaur dancing behind a block of text that reads “Racism Is Bad.”

“There are sites, and there are many of them, at the high point of, I don’t want to say annoyance, but presence,” said Mike McAvoy, president of the Onion. “Our team wanted to satirize all of them but not pick one because, in the end, everyone has to find a way to pay for content, high-quality content, so everyone employs some quantity of these tactics.”

He added, “It’s just a question of how much is appropriate.”

Magnin recalled a nonprofit he used to worked for, Every Person Has a Story, in which donors paid for technology that enabled them to follow the lives of children in Rwanda, Haiti and other developing countries on social media. He stepped back from it after Thought Catalog took off.

“It is really hard to get people to pay attention to something uncomfortable, given the choice set,” he said. “People don’t want to see poverty every day.”


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