On a bright afternoon, Alex Magnin, chief revenue officer of the website Thought Catalog, strolled through Dolores Park in San Francisco, sipping a cup of green tea. Magnin, 29 and clad in a rumpled plaid shirt, was visiting from Brooklyn, where Thought Catalog is loosely based (most contributors work out of their homes), to connect with some of the site’s West Coast staff members.
“We happen to have some awesome writers who make stuff people love and can relate to,” he said, blinking into the sun. “We have a vision of building something great and wonderful.”
Magnin is an architect of the nice Internet. Not long ago, the World Wide Web seemed like the Wild, Wild West, with Perez Hilton scrawling obscenities on people of note and Gawker spitting out blind items capable of ending careers and marriages.
But in the last couple of years, heartwarming, advice-heavy headlines have spread like mushrooms on Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere: “I Have a Favor to Ask. Listen to This Beautiful Story About Male Strippers. You’ll Thank Me Later”; “If You Can Watch These Sisters Without Choking Up, You Might Want to Check Your Pulse. Wow”; “It’s Not Bad to Regret Things – It Means You Cared.”
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Anchored by websites including Thought Catalog, Upworthy and ViralNova, this is an Internet that aims to lift up, not take down. The amount of content on these sites and others like them on any given day is mind-boggling: One wonders how so many feel-good stories can possibly be happening at the same time.
But behind their warm and fuzzy veneers, these growing media companies are businesses, and they peddle in uplifting content because they believe it’s profitable.
“Our social channels exist to share interesting and relevant information to the people who want to hear from us,” Roya Soleimani, a Google communications manager, wrote in an email. “Unlike your average 16-year-old, we don’t share every single thing we might have to say.”
Indeed, said Scott DeLong, the founder of ViralNova, a “shareable stories” website that he runs out of his suburban Ohio home, “people don’t really want to share bad news even though they’re drawn to it.”
Every day, DeLong, 32, and a handful of freelancers trawl hundreds of sources looking for stories his readers may want to tell to their friends. They package 20 or more into ViralNova-style posts: lots of photos and captions with a couple of sentences at the top and bottom.
One of ViralNova’s inspirations was Upworthy, the site credited with popularizing the heavily emotional, must-click headline style (for example, “Animals Are a Huge Threat to Our Health and Happiness. Here’s How”). Upworthy also inspired ClickHole, a website started last month by the satirical news service The Onion that parodies viral news sites. A recent post headlined, “This Video Seems Silly, but It Makes a Good Point,” showed a 33-second video of a cartoon dinosaur dancing behind a block of text that reads “Racism Is Bad.”
“There are sites, and there are many of them, at the high point of, I don’t want to say annoyance, but presence,” said Mike McAvoy, president of The Onion. “Our team wanted to satirize all of them but not pick one because in the end, everyone has to find a way to pay for content, high-quality content, so everyone employs some quantity of these tactics.”
He added, “It’s just a question of how much is appropriate.”
One of Upworthy’s founders, Peter Koechley, 33, is the former managing editor of The Onion. He and Eli Pariser, 33, the former executive director of the liberal political action group MoveOn, started the site in 2012. They said Upworthy aims not only to inspire its readers, but also to make them aware of issues that can’t easily be packaged into a top-10 list.
The architects of these social-sharing sites bring to mind mixologists tinkering behind a bar, adding dashes of this and that to come up with the perfect cocktail, the one that will be Instagrammed to oblivion and ordered round after round.
“We are, absolutely, a page-view-driven site even though we don’t want to be,” said Magnin of Thought Catalog. “Every writer wants to do well, and ‘do well’ means get more Twitter followers.”
Quest for shares, likes and followers aside, the leaders in this emerging niche of new media are not cutthroat in the way that some at other news and entertainment organizations are. Instead of stealing scoops and stories from one another, they vie for time that a reader may otherwise spend clicking through an acquaintance’s vacation photos or an ex’s wedding album.
“Anything that might show up in your Facebook news feed is who we’re competing with,” Koechley said. “All other media companies, but also baby pictures and funny music videos and everything else.”