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.

In recent years, Facebook was the third most-visited destination of Internet users over 65 (considered the sleeping-giant by marketers and making up one-third of consumer spending overall) but that same market has the lowest share of web visits to Upworthy.com. The lowest household income group represents the highest segment of Upworthy visitors.

Data suggests Facebook now drives more than 1/6 (17.41%) of an average site’s overall traffic. Between September 2012 and September 2013, Buzzfeed saw an increase of 855% in Facebook traffic referrals. But despite the surge in traffic referrals, BuzzFeed’s Facebook interactions dropped from 14.3m to 10.6m in October. UpWorthy dropped from third spot to seventh in October.

According to Adobe’s Social Intelligence Report, While Facebook refers the most visitors of any social network, its referral traffic is down 20 percent compared to 2012, and posts with links or video down 40 percent.

Viral Publishers React To Facebook’s News Feed Updates

Perhaps anticipating a backlash, sites like Buzzfeed and Upworthy are scrambling for content that falls under the informational umbrella. Buzzfeed, for example, is hiring journalists.

Buzzfeed founder, Jonah Peretti, explains why viral videos are vital as investigative journalism. And its chief executive told Mark Sweney at the Advertising Week conference in New York that Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations endorse the company’s strategy of putting more resources into investigative journalism – but stresses that the site will stay true to its viral roots.

Upworthy has recently cut back on its dodgier content, focusing primarily on the causes it champions like women’s issues and marriage equality.

In a timely response to Facebook’s News Feed announcement, Upworthy Insider recently posted that, for them, “headlines are an important means to an even more important end: drawing massive amounts of attention to topics that really matter,” and that it’s highly sharable content that makes their posts go viral, not clicks.

What’s Next?

Ann Friedman, writing for the Columbia Journalism Review, says that not all shareable content is empty clickbait, but asks, “…how does shareability fit into the way editorial decisions are made in the social-media-conscious newsroom? Is there a risk that the potential for social-media popularity could trump more traditional measures of newsworthiness?”

For the time being, we should expect highly shared viral content to maintain its prominence in the News Feed before eventually being dumbed-down by Facebook according to its inherent value, a bit like skimming the fat from the curd.

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, beyond filtering out memes and assigning a higher rank to established news media? And will those determinations be in line with user appraisals?