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The Millennia-Long History Behind the Headlines Your Mom Shares on Facebook

From ancient Rome to Upworthy.

by Harry Cheadle
May 23 2014, 2:25pm

It turns out that slapping new names on videos is an extremely strong business model. Photo via Flickr user Steve Rhodes

We might as well accept that the internet has been BuzzFeedified or Upworthied or whatever you want to call it—our Facebook feeds are clogged with photos that Will Restore Your Faith in Humanity and facts that Will Blow Your Mind while our Twitters and Tumblrs bubble over with outrage and joy and schadenfreude. Every website depends on traffic to keep the lights on, which means everyone is looking for viral hits. That results in lots of headlines with phrases like “life-changing” and “mind-blowing” slapped onto collections of photos of sad-looking cats.

The interesting question, for some, is not whether all this is good or bad, but why one sad cat goes viral to the extent that your mom is sharing it and another sad cat languishes in an obscure subreddit. Fortunately, reports the New York Times, academics are studying this viral-content thing, and they think they have it licked:

Scientists are only beginning to explore the psychological motivations that turn a link into "click bait" and propel a piece of content to internet fame.

Their research may have significant implications for the media and advertising businesses, whose profits hinge on winning the cutthroat race for the attention of internet users worldwide. Already, some notions of the ingredients in this modern alchemy are beginning to emerge.

If you want to melt the internet, best to traffic in emotion, researchers have found. The emotional response can be happy or sad, but the more intense it is, the more likely the story is to be passed along.

In order to reach that conclusion—that people share stories that evoke an “intense emotional response”—researchers at the University of Texas and the University of Pennsylvania conducted separate studies that involved hundreds of test subjects. One guy had students run in place for 60 seconds before using the internet in order to see whether people who were “already physiologically aroused” were more likely to email articles to their friends.

These sorts of studies seem to take it for granted that “viral” content is something new and strange, and that media outlets need to be told that emotion sells. In fact, the studies referred to in the Times piece don’t reveal anything that anyone with a basic grasp of human nature didn’t already know—we'd rather be awestruck, titillated, and even horrified than bored.

“Human beings have a taste for sensational stuff, sex and violence especially,” said Mitchell Stephens, a journalism professor at New York University and the author of A History of News. “Journalism plays on basic human emotions: the emotion of fear, the emotion of sex, the emotion of romance, the emotion of schmaltz.”

No known copies of the Roman acta diurna exist, but they were most likely written on metal or stone, like this. Photo via Flickr user Brian J. Geiger

These emotions have been getting exercised by gossip, half-truths, and juicy stories since before anyone called those things “journalism.” One tale that “traveled up and down the beach” among the Pacific Northwest's Nootka tribe, Stephens told me, was about a man who fell into a rain barrel while sneaking out of his lover’s hut. And ancient Rome’s closest equivalent to a daily newspaper, the acta diurna, often focused on sensationalized stories of gladiators and trials to the exclusion of more “serious” news topics. One acta diurna item Stephens mentioned, about a dog that loyally jumped into a river after its master was executed and dumped in the water, could have easily gone viral in our Facebook age. (“I Broke Down and Cried When I Saw What This Dog Did After His Owner Died.”)

As print emerged as a medium, humans retained their appetite for stories that made them feel feelings. In the 19th century, the New York Herald boosted circulation with its lurid coverage of the ax murder of upscale prostitute Helen Jewett; in 1928 the New York Daily News sold a million extra copies of an issue that had a photo of notorious murderess Ruth Snyder getting executed in an electric chair splashed across its front page. You can blame publicity-hungry editors for those decisions if you want, but like the Romans who wrote the acta diurna, they were merely serving up the red meat their audiences craved.

Upworthy, the left-leaning traffic machine that has become famous for churning out viral hits, is in some sense a spiritual descendent of those tabloids; it's in the red-meat business as well. The site’s “viral curators” once made a slideshow describing some of their techniques, and what’s striking is how old-fashioned it is. The keys to “finding epic content” include “a hero,” “a villain,” and “a [sic] emotional story arc”—in other words, the basic building blocks of every story ever told.

As for the existential “Why the hell do people share?” question, the slideshow offers some advice that anyone who has spent a few seconds on the internet—or in a newsroom—should have already figured out: Make people angry and inspired, preferably at the same time. The depressed or complacent don’t share or click, so you have to jolt your audience out of those states.

That jolt could come in the form of a story about an adulterer falling into a rain barrel or a horrific photo of a woman dying. What sets Upworthy’s version of sensationalism apart is that it strives for a relentless brand of positivism—the site’s most popular post, “This Amazing Kid Got To Enjoy 19 Awesome Years On This Planet. What He Left Behind Is Wondtacular,” is a tearjerker about a 14-year-old who discovers he has a rare form of terminal cancer and resolves to make the most of his life by becoming a rock star. The world filtered through old-school New York City tabloids was a zany but horrific place filled with ax murderers and affairs and sleaze; the Upworthy universe is a kinder, gentler one where those bad things are obstacles that good people overcome, thus setting an example for us all. The upbeat tone (which has been aped by many other sites) is a strategy explicitly designed to appeal to middle-aged women, who are “the biggest sharers on the Interwebs.”

For some, this shameless embrace of marketing seems gross and manipulative. Is rebranding infographics to make them more clickable really a decent way for adults to spend their time? Won’t that saccharine shareability get cloying after a while? And aren’t a lot of these “inspiring” stories about people with cancer ultimately pretty mundane and unimportant in the grand scheme of things?

The Upworthy slideshow addresses this issue with a slide titled “You Aren’t a Bad Person”:

This is an old, old response to skepticism about marketing—legendary newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst is supposed to have said basically the same thing: “If you make a product good enough, even though you live in the depths of the forest, the public will make a path to your door, says the philosopher. But if you want the public in sufficient numbers, you better construct a highway.”

The most famous sites associated with schmaltzy sensationalism and lazy clickbait have other arguments at their disposal when accused of being shallow. The vast majority of Upworthy’s content is repurposed from other places, but the site is working on producing original pieces, and in any case it’s all for one worthy cause or another—the “Wondtacular” cancer video led to $450,000 in donations from viewers to cancer research. And though many of BuzzFeed’s image-heavy listicles (which only exist thanks to an odd interpretation of intellectual property law) are exhaustingly stupid, the site has plenty of traditional reporting and occasionally puts out something really excellent.

Things get a little murkier when you look at the sites that have copied Upworthy’s traffic-driving techniques but not its sense of liberal social responsibility. ViralNova, an Upworthy clone that is the worst site on the internet, is a collection of ripped-off images arranged in lists and maybe-true-maybe-not stories straight out of chain emails that has no mission besides making bank for its entrepreneur owner.

And now there’s even sub-ViralNova dreck floating around out there, like, a polyp of a site that has been popping up in my Facebook feed. If you look hard enough, you’ll find a disclaimer that says, “ is a news and political satire web publication with news articles. Some are inspired by real news events, but a few stories are almost entirely works of complete fiction. This site is a source of parody, satire, and humor and is for entertainment purposes only.” Except a lot of articles on don’t try to be funny. Most of them are hastily rewritten and typo-strewn versions of news articles that rarely give an indication of when or where something happened—they’re confusing nuggets of clickbait that contain just enough information to fool some people some of the time.

No doubt is making some guy a bunch of money thanks to the ads crowding every millimeter of the site’s free space. Publishing straight-up gibberish that people will click on is profitable, as is creating Twitter accounts that steal interesting photos and mislead people about where and when they were taken. Sensationalism is nothing new, but thanks to the internet it’s never been so easy to monetize lies: Just set up a website, publish any old bullshit—you can throw up recycled YouTube videos, previously debunked urban legends, whatever—and trick enough people into hitting Like.

That’s not a very wondtacular thought. If only there were something out there that could restore my faith in humanity.

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