What’s Next for Facebook and Viral Publishers?

Facebook intends to give users a highly personalized experience akin to reading the morning paper. But how will Facebook determine what makes for high-quality content and will those determinations be in line with user appraisals?


Facebook and Viral Publishers: Strange Bedfellows?

Facebook is tweaking its algorithm to feature “high-quality” content in the News Feed. This means “articles you or others read may show up a bit more prominently in your News Feed, and meme photos may show up a bit less prominently.”

Viral content, however, performs exceedingly well on Facebook, garnering tons of clicks and engagement. Sites like Buzzfeed, Thought Catalog and Elite Daily produce super viral content that make sharing an ego-gratifying, reflexive activity that keeps users highly engaged with their feeds.

“The result of the News Feed after all that sharing and virality? A sort of tabloidized version of Facebook, where ‘junk-food stories with LOLcat art’ do insanely well and show up more often, as one insider put it to me, while perhaps something like a more labor-intensive magazine feature — or even a decent news story — may surface less often in the feed,” writes Mike Isaac for AllThingsD.

Viral content that some users consider little more than click-bait may still flood their newsfeeds, at least in the short term—especially because shared content by one’s friends, or friends of friends, will rank higher in a user’s feed.

And Facebook’s newsfeed tweaks to put “high quality articles” in front of users do not necessarily discount garden-variety tabloid fodder with strong emotional appeal. From the Facebook blog: “People use Facebook to share and connect, including staying current on the latest news, whether it’s about their favorite celebrity or what’s happening in the world.”

Viral Content and Facebook Consumers

What new media has relied upon for at least a decade and what entrepreneurs look for today, niche markets, viral publishers forego in favour of the old media model of creating content with mass appeal.

Buzzfeed led the way for viral publishers like Upworthy, and clones are popping up everyday. These sites are in the business of selling traffic, typically curating and repackaging user-generated viral content found elsewhere on the web.

Viral content uses hooks and triggers—stimuli that remind us of related products and ideas—that make us want to share. The most employed methods include emotional triggers, teaser headlines, listicles, image-heavy content and, of course, GIFs. News sites have criticized BuzzFeed for using this format to explain serious news, including explaining the political climate in Egypt with GIFs from Jurassic Park.

Upworthy’s decriers are mostly annoyed by anti-climactic teaser headlines (“Watch The First 54 Seconds. That’s All I Ask. You’ll Be Hooked After That, I Swear.”), lack of meaningful content on the page (“he speaks the truth at 0:45, says something profound at 1:01, tells it like it is at 1:15, and blows your mind at 2:45”), pop-ups that ask you to click agree/disagree, an insincere tone, and playing on people’s emotions.

Consumers are more media savvy than ever, and will certainly tire of psychological ploys that rely on highly charged emotional (and sensational) content that appeals to fractured attention spans, slactivism and celebrity idolization.

There have been complaints by a more sophisticated demographic of people who happen to make up the largest portion of new Facebook users (last year, the average Facebook user was 40.5 years old). Certainly Facebook wants to deliver content that appeals to those users.