How the Media Came to Embrace Clickbait: An Internet History

Jonah Peretti of Buzzfeed speaks at TechCrunch's Disrupt NY in 2013. (Brian Ach/Getty Images for TechCrunch)

From the book THE ATTENTION MERCHANTS, by Tim Wu. Copyright © 2016 by Tim Wu. Published by arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

Back in 2001, at MIT’s media laboratory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a former schoolteacher named Jonah Peretti was sitting at his desk and, like so many graduate students, not doing his work. Peretti was meant to be plugging away at his master’s thesis; instead he was playing around with what was already the greatest procrastination aide ever devised, the World Wide Web.

Born in California to a Jewish mother and Italian-American father, Peretti was a pretty ordinary and sober-looking young guy. But there was always a slight smile on his lips, a clue to the inveterate prankster beneath the facade of the typical grad student. In fact, he was fascinated by the line between the serious and the absurd, which in his mind also often delineated art from commerce, if not always respectively. Most of his ventures, even those that would prove important, seem to have been conceived as a kind of inside joke, and a test of the limits of possibility.

While goofing off—“surfing the web” in the vernacular of the time— Peretti went to Nike’s website and noticed a feature allowing customers to order shoes personalized with any word they might like. On a whim, he placed an order for Nike Zoom XC USA running shoes with the fol- lowing embroidered on them:

SWEATSHOP

He thought nothing more of it until the next day, when he received the following email:

From: Personalize, NIKE iD To: Jonah H. Peretti

Subject: RE: Your NIKE iD order o16468000

Your NIKE iD order was cancelled for one or more of the following reasons.

1) Your Personal iD contains another party’s trademark or other intellectual property.

2) Your Personal iD contains the name of an athlete or team we do not have the legal right to use.

3) Your Personal iD was left blank. Did you not want any personalization?

4) Your Personal iD contains profanity or inappropriate If you wish to reorder your NIKE iD product with a new personaliza- tion please visit us again at www.nike.com.

Thank you, NIKE iD

Seeing comic potential, Peretti wrote back asking just which rule he had broken. A Nike customer service representative replied: “Your NIKE iD order was cancelled because the iD you have chosen contains, as stated in the previous e-mail correspondence, ‘inappropriate slang.’ ”

Peretti, just warming up, wrote back:

Dear NIKE iD,

Thank you for your quick response to my inquiry about my custom ZOOM XC USA running shoes. Although I commend you for your prompt customer service, I disagree with the claim that my personal iD was inappropriate slang. After consulting Webster’s Dictionary, I discovered that “sweatshop” is in fact part of standard English, and not slang. The word means: “a shop or factory in which workers are employed for long hours at low wages and under unhealthy conditions” and its origin dates from 1892. So my personal iD does meet the criteria detailed in your first email. Your web site advertises that the NIKE iD program is “about freedom to choose and freedom to express who you are.” I share Nike’s love of freedom and personal expression. The site also says that “If you want it done right . . . build it yourself.” I was thrilled to be able to build my own shoes, and my personal iD was offered as a small token of appreciation for the sweatshop workers poised to help me realize my vision. I hope that you will value my freedom of expression and reconsider your decision to reject my order.

Thank you, Jonah Peretti

In response, Nike simply canceled the order. Peretti wrote one last one email:

From: Jonah H. Peretti
To: Personalize, NIKE iD
Subject: RE: Your NIKE iD order o16468000

Dear NIKE iD,

Thank you for the time and energy you have spent on my request. I have decided to order the shoes with a different iD, but I would like to make one small request. Could you please send me a color snapshot of the ten-year-old Vietnamese girl who makes my shoes?

Thanks, Jonah Peretti

Amused, Peretti sent a copy of the email chain to 12 or so friends, including one who posted it on his personal website. Within a week, Peretti’s exchange had been shared by people far and wide; first thousands and within a few weeks, millions. Along the way, it was picked up by mainstream media outlets around the world. To use a phrase that did not exist in 2001, the email “went viral.”

“So then I found myself on the ‘Today’ show talking with Katie Couric about sweatshop labor,” says Peretti. “It was, like, what do I know about sweatshops?” Here was that mind-warping rush of unexpected renown, of reaching an audience way beyond your wildest expectations. Peretti would later remember it simply: “Something very small became something very big.” Unbeknownst to him at the time, the experience would end up changing his career and his life.

Popular email chains have been around nearly as long as email itself, but back in 2001 words like “viral,” “Internet meme,” and “clickbait” were as yet unknown. What Peretti naively experienced was an early version of what would become a pervasive means of harvesting attention in the early 21st century. Peretti, who has a curious, scientific mind, started to consider the phenomenon carefully and systematically. “I looked at stories like the Nike shoe story, and there were actually plenty of other ones. Someone did something, it went big for a while, but then that’s where the story ends.” Having done it once, by accident, he wanted to see if he could make it happen at will. He wanted to see if he could understand what it took to make something “go viral.” For he realized that his weird experience had a deeper significance; it marked a change, made possible by the Internet, in how attention might be cap- tured, and from whom.

A Media Contagion Posse

A few months later, Peretti left MIT to take a job at the Eyebeam art and technology center, a giant space in New York’s West Chelsea neighbor- hood; from the outside it looked like many of the art galleries that sur- rounded it. Here, in his “contagious media laboratory,” he tried to figure out if he could make lightning in a bottle.

Peretti started throwing stuff against the web to see if anything might stick. It turned out he was not alone; there were others who shared his fascination with creating zany stuff that might, almost magically, erupt across the Internet. He got to know a man who called himself “Ze Frank,” a sort of self-styled web-jester. Ze Frank’s own road to Damas- cus had involved a web-based birthday invitation in which he was featured, performing funny dance moves; it had earned millions of hits and won him a Webby Award. Peretti also met Cory Arcangel, a conceptual artist who, among other things, had made art that required him to hack Nintendo’s Super Mario Brothers. Then there was a social scientist, Duncan Watts, who tried to understand media contagion with mathematical models. In these guys, Peretti found a posse.

His sister, Chelsea Peretti, also got in on the act. Together, they launched www.blackpeopleloveus.com, a fake website featuring a white couple inordinately proud of having made black friends; it attracted 600,000 hits. There was also the “Rejection Line,” a service for those who found it too inconvenient to reject people themselves. As the site said:

Someone won’t leave you alone?
Give them “your” number: 212-479-7990 The official New York Rejection Line! (operators are standing by!)

It was as if stories from The Onion had actually been put into production.

Peretti and his pals definitely had some fun at Eyebeam. They held how- to workshops for the public with titles like “The Mass Hoax.” In 2005 they hosted something called the “Contagious Media Showdown,” giv- ing contestants three weeks to get as much traffic as they could. Entries included “hire-a-killer.com,” “Crying While Eating,” “email god,” and “change your race”; the winner (possibly as a result of cheating) was “Forget-me-not-panties.com,” a prank site purporting to sell women’s underwear that broadcasts the wearer’s location to possessive fathers and husbands. “Unlike the cumbersome and uncomfortable chastity belts of the past, these panties are 100% cotton, and use cutting-edge technology to help you protect what matters most.” The site suckered both bloggers and mainstream press, remaining operational for quite some time, albeit with a notice that stock was currently sold out.

Peretti may not have been able to create anything while at Eyebeam on the scale of his Nike experience, but he would author a 23-point manifesto that he called “Notes on Contagious Media,” expound- ing just what distinguished that variety from others. Some of it was obvious: “Contagious media is the kind of media you immediately want to share with all your friends. This requires that you take pleasure in consuming the media but also pleasure in the social process of passing it on.” Some more theoretical: “Contagious media is a form of pop conceptual art” in which “the idea is the machine that makes the art (LeWitt, 1967) and the idea is interesting to ordinary people.” For that reason, “a contagious media project should represent the simplest form of an idea. Fancy design or extraneous content made media less contagious. Anything inessential constituted a ‘payload’ that the contagion must drag along as it spreads. The bigger the payload, the more slowly the entire project spreads.” Peretti had more or less made himself the world’s expert on contagious media, but the recognition of peers was not enough; the measure of his success would be the ability to generate traffic. “For the artist, a work can be celebrated even if the only people who like it are a small group of curators and collectors,” he wrote. “For the contagious media designer, all that matters is how other people see the work. If people don’t share the work with their friends, it is a failure regardless of the opinion of the creator, critics, or other elites.”

The Birth of HuffPo

In 2004, Peretti was still puttering around at Eyebeam, teaching and throwing stuff on the web, when he was approached by Ken Lerer, a for- mer communications executive at AOL and a committed political activ- ist. A journalist by training and adept at raising money, Lerer presented what he considered an urgent project. Despite every kind of blunder in office, President George W. Bush seemed likely to be re-elected. This was incomprehensible to Lerer and other Democrats, who considered Bush an obvious incompetent; in their view, the internet was in part to blame. The right-wing blogs—above all, the Drudge Report, the most widely read aggregator of news links—just captured more attention than all the left-wing ones. “You know the Internet, let’s build something,” Lerer cajoled Peretti, who would later explain, “I’m the son of a public defender and a public school teacher” and “it seemed pretty important.”

“Something” was at first quite vague. As it evolved, the idea seemed to be this: leverage the left’s superior hold on Hollywood celebrities, as well as Peretti’s knack for driving traffic and Lerer’s touch for fundraising, to create a counterweight to conservative online media. The celebrity part, they decided, was best handled by the third partner, and by far the best connected, Arianna Huffington.

On May 10, 2005, just two days after the contagious media contest, the Huffington Post, an online aggregator of news, blogs, and other content, debuted to widespread mainstream coverage. The first issue featured blog posts by Huffington herself and, as planned, various famous people: the renowned historian and Kennedy confidant Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.; the actor John Cusack; Larry David, producer of “Seinfeld”; the husband- and-wife acting pair Julia Louis-Dreyfus (also of “Seinfeld”) and Brad Hall, jointly posting on the issue of gun violence.

Some credited the idea, but in media it’s not the thought that counts; critics were harsher and louder. And no one came in for more abuse than the partner who’d lent her name. “Celebs to the Slaughter,” wrote LA Weekly: “Judging from Monday’s horrific debut of the humongously pre-hyped celebrity blog the Huffington Post, the Madonna of the mediapolitic world has undergone one reinvention too many. She has now made an online ass of herself. . . . Her blog is such a bomb that it’s the movie equivalent of “Gigli,” “Ishtar” and “Heaven’s Gate” rolled into one.”

In retrospect, critics like the LA Weekly’s were only proving how little they understood the Internet. Peretti, Lerer, and Huffington were each masters of attention capture, and their collaboration proved more than the sum of its parts. Over time, the political mission was dialed back somewhat—Huffington herself had, after all, previously been a conservative pundit who’d called for the resignation of President Clinton. Soon the Huffington Post was inviting not just celebrities to contribute but students, politicos, activists, book authors—just about anyone except the professional reporter or normal freelancer who expected to be paid. It was a degree of openness more akin to the early days of the web and blogosphere than any older model of media. Minimal costs, maximum traffic, and irresistible content above all—that was the formula.

In pursuit of the third element of its triad, the HuffPo pioneered what would become known as clickbait: sensationally headlined articles, paired with provocative pictures—a bikini-clad celebrity was always good. (“Watch Naked Heidi Klum in Seal’s New Video”). When properly calibrated, such content seemed to take control of the mind, causing the hand almost involuntarily to click on whatever was there. The HuffPo’s “news” was more provocative, more enticing—more clickable— than its competitors’; even for serious topics it managed to channel lurid fascination. To the chagrin of its critics, it quickly outpaced sites like LA Weekly and by the fall of 2007 was capturing more attention than other web magazines like Slate and Salon, despite their paid writers. By 2010 it was beating most of the newspapers as well. With 24 million monthly readers, it was slightly behind The New York Times, but ahead of The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the rest of what was then called the mainstream media. As the Columbia Journalism Review put it, “The Huffington Post has mastered and fine-tuned not just aggregation, but also social media, comments from readers, and most of all, a sense of what its public wants.”

Clicks Not Bucks

And yet the Huffington Post never actually made much money. While its financials have never been fully public, there is good reason to believe it has never turned a solid profit. For one thing, advertisers categorized the Huffington Post as political commentary, and generally, the big-brand advertisers, the Fortune 500, despite the numbers weren’t willing to put their names on HuffPo’s pages. Others tended to credit Google for its traffic. All of this combined to make the site able to sell its impressions for only the lowest rates to bottom-tier advertisers (e.g., “This weird trick can take an inch off your waistline”). The Huffington Post wasn’t making money, but it was nonetheless sucking attention from everything else— especially journalists—on the web. That’s probably why The Washington Post’s executive editor slammed it and similar sites as “parasites living off journalism produced by others.”

The Huffington Post wasn’t alone. Over the 2000s, none of the pure, content-driven attention merchants were lucrative. This was, in part, because advertisers realized with so many attention merchants in competition, they didn’t necessarily need to “underwrite” the media industry in the manner that they had for newspapers, radio, or television. As advertising executive Rishad Tobaccowala put it in 2010, advertisers long since had grown tired and resentful of any project other than reaching consumers with ads. Fundamentally they “don’t want to pay for creation of content.”

So while the Huffington Post certainly succeeded in its original goal of driving more web traffic toward the political left, in most other ways it ended up pleasing no one. Established, traditional newspapers, with their crushing overhead, hated it most. Bill Keller, the executive editor of The New York Times, was indignant. “Too often it amounts to taking words written by other people, packaging them on your own Web site and harvesting revenue that might otherwise be directed to the originators of the material. In Somalia this would be called piracy. In the mediasphere, it is a respected business model.” Meanwhile, for the dreamers and idealists who always wanted the web to be not just different but loftier and better, the HuffPo’s relentless dependence on celebrity and clickbait was something of a bitter pill.

If they weren’t good at making money, no one could deny that those running the site knew how to harvest attention, and for that reason it changed the rules of the game. Like the New York Sun in the 1830s or People magazine in the 1970s, HuffPo forced the competition to become more like it. Relatively sober sites like Slate and Salon grew more gossipy, superficial, and click-driven; in time, even traditional newspaper websites were also forced to adapt themselves to the standard set by a site with unpaid writers and features on celebrity sideboob. To varying degrees, the style of everything seemed to drift toward tabloid and away from broadsheet, to borrow the parlance of print.

AOL, seeking its own resurrection, and having noticed the gap between the Huffington Post’s traffic and its advertising rates, bought the site in 2011 for $315 million and began throwing money at it in an effort to make the site more respectable. This bearing upwind, a variant on CBS’s “Tiffany” strategy from the 1930s, would, it was hoped, attract a higher class of advertiser. With more money, the Huffington Post was now able to hire seasoned reporters who were given full freedom and resources to write on what they wanted. The strategy yielded a Pulitzer Prize for the Huffington Post’s David Wood, a war correspondent who’d cut his teeth at Time in the 1970s and had also worked at the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun and other papers. So the HuffPost gained some dignity, but because it was expensive still failed to create large profits. Yet by 2015, it was attracting more attention than ever, and management was still saying things like “We could make it profitable right now if we wanted it to be.” Perhaps the site was by its nature never really meant to be a business exactly, but instead just a giant vacuum sucking up human attention.

The Web Hits Bottom, or …. BuzzFeed

“Which Ousted Arab Spring Ruler Are You?” “

“You Might Be Cleaning Your Penis Wrong”

“37 Things Conservatives Would Rather Do Than Watch Obama’s State of the Union Speech”

“29 Cats Who Failed So Hard They Won”

Here was BuzzFeed, at its height in the 2010s, undisputed king of clickbait, and the grandmaster of virality. As a cofounder of The Huffington Post, Jonah Peretti had gained a measure of success, rec- ognition, and personal wealth. But it wouldn’t be long before he lost interest in the operation, which had begun to run itself, and felt compelled to return to his original passion: the pure art and science of harvesting attention with “contagious” or “viral” media. He was still at the Huffington Post when he began to conceive the endpoint, or perhaps the punch line, to his long obsession: a site whose mission would be nothing but to build pure contagion and launch it into the ether.

BuzzFeed billed itself as the “first true social news organization,” which meant it was designed for a post-Facebook and post-Twitter world, where news gained currency by being shared on social networks, through news feeds, Twitter feeds, and the like. It was also designed to be read on the now ubiquitous mobile platforms; by 2015, 60 percent of its traffic was via phones and other wireless devices (including 21 percent from Snapchat)—the key to success was now getting people to share stuff socially from mobile.

By the time Peretti built BuzzFeed, viral media were not an occasional phenomenon, but reaching the public like successive waves crashing on a metaphorical shore, they thus both rivaled and complemented (depending on the context) existing means of capturing attention. It was a time when a random picture of a grumpy-looking cat (Grumpy Cat) posted on the online bulletin board Reddit made a viable career for its owners; when a ridiculous dance video like “Gangnam Style” amassed more than 2.4 billion online views (while the 2014 World Cup, the most watched event in human history, reached about 1 billion).

As nothing but a pure embodiment of Peretti’s techniques, BuzzFeed did without even the pretense of a public mission, the only goal being to amuse viewers enough to trigger their sharing. With content often nearly devoid of any meaningful communication, the medium truly was the message. And while this might sound like unprecedented cynicism vis-à- vis the audience, the idea was to transfer creative intention to them; they alone would “decide if the project reaches 10 people or 10 million people.” To help them decide, BuzzFeed pioneered techniques like “headline optimization,” which was meant to make the piece irresistible and clicking on it virtually involuntary. In the hands of the headline doctors, a video like “Zach Wahls Speaks About Family” became “Two Lesbians Raised a Baby and This Is What They Got”—and earned 18 million views. BuzzFeed’s lead data scientist, Ky Harlin, once crisply explained the paradoxical logic of headlining: “You can usually get somebody to click on something just based on their own curiosity or something like that, but it doesn’t mean that they’re actually going to end up liking the content.”

BuzzFeed also developed the statistical analysis of sharing, keeping detailed information on various metrics, especially the one they called “viral lift.” Let’s take, for example, a story entitled “48 Pictures That Capture the 1990s,” which garnered over 1.2 million views. BuzzFeed would measure how many people read it (views), and of those, how many went on to share it, whether on Twitter, Facebook, or other sites. If, say, 22 people with whom the link was shared were moved to click on it, the story would be said to have a viral lift of 22x. Such data would help BuzzFeed’s experts refine their understanding of what gets shared, and what doesn’t.

Collectively BuzzFeed and its rivals—Mashable, Upworthy, and in time parts of the mainstream media—began to crack the code; eventually they could consistently make content go viral. Much of what they discovered validated Peretti’s original theories—particularly about the necessity of stimulating “pleasure in the social process of passing” something along and of ensuring that the contagion “represent[s] the simplest form of an idea.” But the “pleasure” of sharing did not necessarily mean that viewing the content had been pleasurable. The urge to share was activated by a spectrum of “high-arousal” emotions, like awe, outrage, and anxiety. A story with a headline like “When All Else Fails, Blaming the Patient Often Comes Next,” or “What Red Ink? Wall Street Paid Hefty Bonuses,” or “Rare Treatment Is Reported to Cure AIDS Patient” would trigger one of these emotions—or even better, several at once.

From ClickHole, The Onion’s parody site of viral videos:

Naked plays for attention always draw scorn, and as BuzzFeed’s fortunes rose in the 2010s, it was no exception. As Ben Cohen, founder of the journalism site The Daily Banter, wrote: “I loathe BuzzFeed and pretty much everything they do. . . . It could well trump Fox News as the single biggest threat to journalism ever created.”When BuzzFeed presented the Egyptian democratic revolution as a series of GIFs from the film “Jurassic Park,” Cohen fulminated: “To say this is childish, puerile bullshit would be a massive understatement. . . . Doing funny GIF posts about cats and hangovers is one thing, but reducing a highly complex political crisis into 2 second moving screen shots of a children’s dinosaur movie is something completely different. If BuzzFeed really is the future of journalism, we’re completely and utterly fucked.” Indeed, by 2012, the scramble for eyeballs against forces like BuzzFeed seemed to bring news media to a new low. When Fox News broadcast a video of a man com-mitting suicide and BuzzFeed reposted the link, the Columbia Journalism Review was compelled to ask, “Who’s worse? @FoxNews for airing the suicide, or @BuzzFeed for re-posting the video just in case you missed it the first time?”

The Gold Standard for Attention Capture

BuzzFeed was indeed proving the envy of all other online attention merchants, in traffic at least. By 2015, its 200+ million monthly unique viewers exceeded most of its competitors, and 75 percent of its traffic was coming from social media. Ultimately its techniques were widely copied, not just by its direct competitors like the Daily Mail or Cracked.com but by the Huffington Post, Peretti’s previous venture, and more obliquely, by magazines like Slate as well as newspapers like The Washington Post. Even literary magazines like The Atlantic and The New Yorker got in on the act. BuzzFeed thus became the reference point, the gold standard, for attention capture on the web.

Not that BuzzFeed was terribly profitable. It lost money for most of its early years, only began to turn a profit in 2013, and never exceeded $10 million (while hardly a fair comparison, Apple’s iTunes store alone, also in the content business, and not considered highly profitable, has been estimated to clear $1 billion in profit per year). Its fortunes reflected the still-low price of digital ads; BuzzFeed’s annual ad revenues of roughly $100 million were still far less than, say, People magazine (about $1 billion). Nonetheless, BuzzFeed was still growing, and as the decade reached its midpoint, was pegged at $850 million in value; then, over the summer of 2015, the cable giant Comcast bought a stake that valued the company at $1.5 billion.

Comcast’s investment in BuzzFeed was at last a consummation of the union between the old and the new media such as Microsoft and AOL– Time Warner had once contemplated, though now involving far less money than in those headier days. For comparison’s sake, though, it is worth remarking that The Washington Post, with its 47 Pulitzer Prizes, was purchased by Amazon for $250 million in 2013—old media valuations clearly weren’t what they used to be, either. And yet even if BuzzFeed had attracted real dollars, the deal with Comcast nonetheless seemed to diminish the new media in some way. Blogging and other forces that others had predicted were going to demolish the establishment had eventually yielded to BuzzFeed. BuzzFeed was then bought by old media for what amounted to chump change.

So much for all of that.

How the Media Came to Embrace Clickbait: An Internet History 29 December,2017Jon Brooks

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