I've been writing online for a long time, and I thought I'd address a few questions I've had over the years about how the sausage gets made. Excuse me if this is a little insidery, but I wanted to talk a little about how and why we're now inundated with "You Won't Believe How This Smiling Baby Will Change Your Life!" and "35 Funniest Sidewalk Signs of All Time" posts on Facebook and Twitter.
There are a few types of web content, the most prevalent of them being "online journalism." I wrote a book about it, and it's what I've been doing for most of my professional career. And I'm part of the problem. Let me explain.
For most of the Internet's existence, we didn't have speedy access to images and video. Instead, we pulled down text on poky connections and, if we were lucky, browsed Amazon from work.
Something happned with the rise of social media, however, that has changed that. Instead of long, boring articles about stuff no one cares about, you have lists and slideshows about things that you think you care about and so you click on them.
The Internet, as a whole, is a very addictive substance. While a good news story is, maybe, a puff on a cigarette, a video of a dancing 3-year-old is like a cigar and a glass of brandy -- it makes you feel good and tickles a very specific part of your brain (mostly the limbic system of reward) that makes you happy. We crave that tickle, and when we get it, we're elated.
That's how these modern sites work. By supplying us with new, funny fare constantly, those like Buzzfeed, Upworthy, and Distractify have created a very interesting form of content. I guess we could call it the 24-hour anti-blues life cycle.
Viral content is cheap to make -- it usually appears, randomly, on the Internet or can be recorded by ad agencies and TV stations -- and is easy to spread. What does Buzzfeed get out of it? Millions of pageviews, but, and this is true, not much money. All those companies are in the black, but they're definitely not making ad rates like Us Weekly and People, brands that are well-established and have been tickling our limbic systems for decades.
So next time you click on "15 Amazing Pictures of Kittens That Will Change Your Life" or "Listen to This Woman's Speech About Love and Cupcakes," understand you're being fooled. Is this a bad thing? Probably not, but it will be interesting to watch what happens when we're all so desensitized that we refuse to pin, share, or tweet the latest viral video -- and every other video that comes after it.
Do you find yourself clicking on posts like these and is that a bad thing?
Image via emeryjl/Flickr