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King of Clickbait | The New Yorker

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Through trial and error Emerson Spartz discovered that people want optimism. 

Web development is a low-overhead enterprise, especially when you live with your parents. MuggleNet made hundreds of thousands of dollars through advertising, and Spartz funnelled his earnings into a new company: Spartz, Inc. His first employee was his younger brother Dylan, who designed the site; during college, at Notre Dame, Emerson started working with Gaby Montero, then his girlfriend and now his wife. After graduation, they started building rudimentary Web sites, sometimes as many as one a month: GivesMeHope (“ ‘Chicken Soup for the Soul’—the twenty-first-century, Twitter-style version”); Memestache (“All the Funny Memes”); OMG Facts (“The World’s #1 Fact Source”). Many of the sites fizzled out; others gained a following. When Internet culture developed a fascination with “fails”—news bloopers, errant autocorrects—Spartz created a site where users could post funny mistakes from Facebook (Unfriendable), a site featuring gaffes from television (As Failed On TV), and one about garbled text messages (SmartphOWNED). When the data indicated that optimism was attracting more visitors than Schadenfreude, Spartz let his “fail” sites languish and focussed on promoting GivesMeHope, a repository for anonymous, uplifting anecdotes.

Spartz is less about which content and more about how to get as many people as possible to see it.

Last year, Spartz, Inc., raised eight million dollars in venture-capital funding and made several million more in advertising revenue. As new-media companies like BuzzFeed and Upworthy become established brands, Spartz hopes to disrupt the disrupters. He employs three dozen people full time, in addition to several freelancers. 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: placing unusually large share buttons at the top and the bottom of posts; experimenting with which headlines and photographs would be more seductive; devising strategies for making posts show up prominently in Facebook’s news feed. “I keep hearing people around town talking about this young man as a Steve Jobs kind of guy,” Gary Holdren, one of Spartz’s chief investors, told me. “I think his stuff is indicative of where digital media is headed.”

Ability to make things go viral is a superpower:

He offered practical tips: “Facebook should be eighty per cent of your effort, if you’re focussed on social media”; “Try to change every comma to a period”; “Use lists whenever possible. Lists just hijack the brain’s neural circuitry.” Behind me, two women in their fifties took notes on legal pads. In summary, Spartz said, “The more awesome you are, the more emotion you create, the more viral it is.” One of the women whispered, “Really impressive.”

Redesigning and rebranding:

On the day I arrived, the company was in the process of reconceiving its flagship site. In the morning, it was named (“The #2 Most Addicting Site”); by the afternoon, it had been re-branded as (“Your Daily Dose of Amazing”). The new design, Spartz explained, had a more “premium” feel, with cleaner lines and more muted colors. If the name Brainwreck invoked self-destructiveness, Dose was ambiguous—suggesting either a dose of Vicodin or a dose of vitamins—and this allowed for more tonal flexibility. Few people would take seriously a site called Brainwreck Politics or Brainwreck Travel, but Dose could in theory expand in almost any direction.

For now, Dose is a simple photo- and video-aggregation site. Around the office, posts on Dose are called “lists,” and one hears comments like “The list about albino animals is crushing it right now.” The posts are collections of images arranged to tell a story (“This Dad Decided to Embarrass His Son in the Most Elaborate Way Possible. LOL”), make an argument (“Bacon-Wrapped Onion Rings Are Perfect for Appetizers, Burgers, and Life”), or offer variations on a theme (“The 21 Most Unusual Horses That Make Even Unicorns Seem Basic”). A bored teen-ager absent-mindedly clicking links will eventually end up on a site like Dose. Spartz’s goal is to make the site so “sticky”—attention-grabbing and easy to navigate—that the teen-ager will stay for a while. Money is generated through ads—sometimes there are as many as ten on a page—and Spartz hopes to develop traffic-boosting software that he can sell to publishers and advertisers.

Most of Spartz’s old sites are still online, but, because their content is user generated, they run largely on autopilot. The company now devotes much of its attention to promoting Dose, which in November received thirty-three million page views. (In aggregate, Spartz says, the company’s sites attract sixty million page views a month.) When I was at the office, Spartz’s engineers were also building two smartphone apps: Blanks, a mobile version of the party game Cards Against Humanity; and Twirl, a gay version of the dating app Tinder. Spartz thinks that pathbreaking ideas are overvalued. “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.” Brainwreck’s early posts “leaned more toward originality,” Spartz said—they featured novel combinations of images, with text that reflected at least a few minutes of online research—but with Dose “we’ve stopped doing that as much because more original lists take more time to put together, and we’ve found that people are no more likely to click on them.”

They reuse content with sensational headlines to get humans to click on them:

Much of the company’s success online can be attributed to a proprietary algorithm that it has developed for “headline testing”—a practice that has become standard in the virality industry. When a Dose post is created, it initially appears under as many as two dozen different headlines, distributed at random. Whereas one person’s Facebook news feed shows a link to “You Won’t Believe What This Guy Did with an Abandoned Factory,” another person, two feet away, might see “At First It Looks Like an Old Empty Factory. But Go Inside and . . . WHOA.” Spartz’s algorithm measures which headline is attracting clicks most quickly, and after a few hours, when a statistically significant threshold is reached, the “winning” headline automatically supplants all others. “I’m really, really good at writing headlines,” he told me. “But any human’s intuition can only be so good. If you can build a machine that can solve the problem better than you can, then you really understand the problem.”

At the bottom of a Dose post, there is usually a small “hat tip” (abbreviated as “H/T”). Many people don’t notice this citation, if they even reach the bottom of the post. On Dose’s first day of existence, its most successful list was called “23 Photos of People from All Over the World Next to How Much Food They Eat Per Day.” It was a clever illustration of global diversity and inequity: an American truck driver holding a tray of cheeseburgers and Starbucks Frappuccinos; a Maasai woman posing with eight hundred calories’ worth of milk and porridge. Beneath the final photograph, a line of tiny gray text read “H/T Elite Daily.” It linked to a post that Elite Daily, a Web site based in New York, had published a month earlier (“See the Incredible Differences in the Daily Food Intake of People Around the World”). That post, in turn, had linked to UrbanTimes (“80 People, 30 Countries and How Much They Eat on a Daily Basis”), which had credited Amusing Planet (“What People Eat Around the World”), which had cited a 2010 radio interview with Faith D’Aluisio and Peter Menzel, the writer and the photographer behind the project.

The Dose post, which received more Facebook shares than its precursors, briefly mentioned D’Aluisio and Menzel (though D’Aluisio’s name was misspelled). But their book, “What I Eat,” went unmentioned, and they certainly did not share in the advertising revenue. “This took us four years and almost a million dollars, all self-funded,” Menzel told me. “We are trying to make that money back by selling the book and licensing the images. But these viral sites—the gee-whiz types that are just trying to attract eyeballs—they don’t pay for licensing. They just grab stuff and hope they don’t get caught. I don’t want to make a comparison to Ebola, but I do think it’s no accident that they use the metaphor of a virus.”


Spartz calls himself an aggregator, but he is more like a day trader, investing in pieces of content that seem poised to go viral. He and his engineers have developed algorithms that scan the Internet for memes with momentum. The content team then acts as arbitrageurs, cosmetically altering the source material and reposting it under what they hope will be a catchier headline. A meme’s success on Imgur, Topsy, or “certain niche subreddits” might indicate a potential viral hit. He added, “The sources and the rules sound simple, but it takes a lot of experimentation to make it actually useful. It’s a lot of indicators weighed against each other, and they’re always changing.” If an image is popular on Reddit but relatively stagnant on Pinterest, for example, Spartz’s algorithm might pass it up in favor of something more likely to appeal to Dose’s audience.

The future is personalization.

Neetzan Zimmerman, formerly the chief aggregator of viral content at Gawker, is the editor of a secret-sharing app called Whisper. He told me that Spartz’s approach seemed most indebted to Upworthy, which became famous for tantalizing viewers with headlines containing such phrases as “You Won’t Believe What Happened Next.” “If you consider Upworthy to be the starting point for a genre of site that trades in the curiosity gap, then I think Dose and sites like it are the logical conclusion of that trend,” Zimmerman said. “Upworthy at least goes through the process of finding the content themselves. On Dose, you see entire lists that are ripped wholesale from other Web sites and passed off as their work. I think there is a cynicism to that.” He added, “But that’s an abstract conversation—it doesn’t make what they’re doing any less effective as a business.”

Kathleen Sweeney, who teaches courses about viral media at the New School, told me, “There’s a difference between ‘I want to change the world’ and ‘I want to change the world, and along the way I want to make millions of dollars.’ You can start off with one mission, but then you start to notice, We get way more traffic when we put up cat videos, and your mission shifts.”

Spartz never had to shift in the first place. “We considered making Dose more mission-driven,” he said. “Then I thought, rather than facing that dilemma every day—what’s going to get views versus what’s going to create positive social impact?—it would be simpler to just focus on traffic.” He sometimes phrases this sentiment in the snappy style of Dose headlines: “You can have whatever personal values you want, but businesses that don’t provide what the customers want don’t remain businesses. Literally, never.”

Earlier, in Casterly Rock, Spartz and I had spoken about targeted advertising. “The future of media is an ever-increasing degree of personalization,” he said. “My CNN won’t look like your CNN. So we want Dose, eventually, to be tailored to each user. You shouldn’t have to choose what you want, because we will be able to get enough data to know what you want better than you do.”

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