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December 03, 2013 1:34 PM Facebook and the Virality Virus

By Ryan Cooper

We here at Monthly HQ have never quite mastered the art of viral content. (As in, we’re so far from the cutting edge don’t even bother to try.) Everyone knows about Upworthy and other tricksy methods of gaming web traffic, but what I didn’t quite realize is that scale of what’s happening—when I read this, from a Farhad Manjoo profile of Gawker’s viral specialist Neetzan Zimmerman, it was kind of shocking:

I first noticed Mr. Zimmerman’s popularity a few months ago, when I saw an astonishing chart of traffic at Gawker. In a good month, the second-most-popular writer at the site will earn about five million page views (which isn’t anything to sneeze at). Mr. Zimmerman usually generates many times that amount, often more than everyone else at Gawker combined.

Seriously, check out this chart. Last month Zimmerman pulled down 33.8 million pageviews by himself.

The bulk of this traffic is coming from Facebook. Putting it cynically, these specialists have figured out how to manipulate both Facebook’s user base and its timeline algorithm. But via an nice Ezra Klein post, word is that Facebook might slow down on this practice:

We’ve noticed that people enjoy seeing articles on Facebook, and so we’re now paying closer attention to what makes for high quality content, and how often articles are clicked on from News Feed on mobile. What this means is that you may start to notice links to articles a little more often (particularly on mobile).
Why are we doing this? Our surveys show that on average people prefer links to high quality articles about current events, their favorite sports team or shared interests, to the latest meme. Starting soon, we’ll be doing a better job of distinguishing between a high quality article on a website versus a meme photo hosted somewhere other than Facebook when people click on those stories on mobile. This means that high quality 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.

In a way this isn’t so surprising. I’ve never liked Facebook much, but these days I find it all but intolerable. Half the content anymore is mawkishly sentimental and/or transparently manipulative stuff that feels like an army of door-to-door homeopathic remedy salesmen elbowing each other out of the way on my doorstep. Re-tuning its algorithm to choke off the viral arms race might make Facebook better for everyone.

UPDATE: See what I mean?

Ryan Cooper is a National Correspondent at The Week, and a former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @ryanlcooper

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