Sourced from The Guardian.
It wasn’t anyone’s ideal job, but during my time at a viral website, I repurposed other people’s content then harvested your data to sell on.
Perhaps I found myself in the viral content world because I made the careless mistake of taking an arts degree at university. For over half a decade afterwards, I was lucky enough to work as an actual journalist for a few quasi well-known publications. But after years of trying, I gave up pursuing work with more esteemed outlets because colleagues with qualifications from prestigious institutions were more desirable hires.
After a round of layoffs at my publication and in hefty personal debt, I was forced to accept the first job I could find. So I took a role at a popular viral content site. The writers were young, mainly white men and women, who didn’t exactly pride themselves on cranking out posts about cute dogs and videos of someone almost dying. They were part of a different media audience, one that Snapchatted everything and thought breaking news was “so five minutes ago”. While I didn’t personally click with them, we were still cordial and recognised that the company’s business model was a joke.
Viral content and clickbait sites are different to your classic startups. They often don’t raise any money, instead generating massive amounts of capital per day by posting other people’s kitschy videos and images while plastering them with countless ads. Instead of planning for the future and diversifying their business model, most rely heavily on Facebook and adapt only when the social media company forces their hand by changing the algorithms. The worst part about these companies, however, is the emphasis on volume of product – the content – and the lack of emphasis on the wellbeing of the producers – the writers.
Every junior staff member was in search of a better opportunity
I was assigned to “write” seven posts a day by a team of editors who between them had no previous editorial background whatsoever. My task was to take content from other viral sites that were shared and liked a thousand times over, save the images and videos from those posts, and write “stories” around them – repurposing the works of our competitors. I would also write headlines in a very specific style (“You Won’t Believe So-And-So Did This! AMAZING! LOL!”) and include images that would get people to click on the article. The reason for including various images and headlines was to test them on a select number of readers, and the best-performing ones would automatically end up on our Facebook account to ensure maximum clickability.
Something going viral usually happens purely by fluke on social media, and viral sites simply try to capitalise on that content by reworking it for people who have yet to experience it. If you think about it, this is not so terrible. Sure, it’s pretty low effort to read or write these stories, but there is an audience of hundreds of millions who find joy in watching animal videos, reading about creepy things, and learning DIY crafting tricks.
The majority of these readers consume this low-effort content to escape from the barrage of political news on social media, which is why many viral sites are apolitical. At staff meetings the mere mention of politically or socially leaning topics would be met with a strict rebuke; instead we had to focus on topics with little to no inherent value.
Unfortunately, simply displaying ads was not enough to please the founders of my former company. They tacked on intrusive data-tracking modules to sell user data on the side and partnered with big-name marketing firms to create personality quizzes that were secretly used to test and identify potential sales targets for ad partners. If there was a deceptive ad practice, this company would use it and then some.
Facebook started to tire of clickbait in 2014. Though our site spent nearly six figures on Facebook ads every day, the social network decided to show our stories less. Since our company relied almost entirely on Facebook for distribution, this forced the executives running the site to scramble for ideas.
That’s when they took out their frustration on the writers. Some were fired for no reason other than that a VP was having a really bad day. The rest of us were asked to produce more content, work longer hours, and avoid taking any leave or face the threat of termination. The executives grew anxious, yelling more, and cutting back on the scant in-office perks for writers, such as coffee and snacks.
With morale at an all-time low, every junior staff member was in search of a better opportunity. Some fled to similar sites. Others took odd jobs to pay the rent, avoiding another office like the plague. The company hired freelancers in their place, paying them next to nothing per article and treating them with the same coldness as their former employees.
I didn’t even bother to give my notice before I started as a senior writer for our competitor on a higher salary. When I first spoke with my new employers, they enticed me with the chance to eventually write whatever I wanted and to work with other writers on original content. I learned quickly, however, that like-minded writers had been lured in on the same premise and the company had no intention of ever doing anything original. We were just another clickbait factory with the same deceptive ad practices, temperamental managers, and constant need to copy our competitors and replace their images with lifted ones.
After a year of nothing but repurposing old cat photos and ghost stories, I lucked out by finding myself a position as a writer for a media startup, creating articles and content I can actually include in my writer’s portfolio. Unfortunately, the papers and magazines I hoped to write for have no use for me thanks to the two years I spent in the viral content space. I am forever doomed to work for startups until they can figure out how to use quantum computers to replace me.
On the bright side, Facebook has yet again tweaked its algorithm to prevent clickbait sites from putting deceptively worded headlines and low-quality stories in anyone’s newsfeed. Some viral content sites have responded to this by choosing straightforward headlines with more meaningful stories, ironically almost becoming news sites simply to survive. But others, like my former employers, are struggling to stay afloat, continuing to push out attention-grabbing stories and gaining no traction because that’s the only way they know. I’m lucky to have been able to move my career in a better direction as I watch them try and fail to get clicks.