Managing editor for viral-media start-up
New York, NY
I moved to New York in 2011 with an English literature degree and plans to be a writer. I wasn’t sure if it was going to pan out. I was wasting all my time on BuzzFeed. They have a community site where anybody can write, so I did a couple of posts. I became addicted to the results. I could tell how many people were reading my work — they had those sticker reactions, like smiley faces, and readers could leave comments. BuzzFeed also shows how each post is doing trafficwise, and where the traffic is coming from: Social media? Or, is it organic, like people are actually finding it on their own?
One of the BuzzFeed editors followed me on Twitter. I was like, “oh my god, oh my god, they know I’m real.” Then I got a call. I was like, “is this a joke?”
They ended up contracting me as a freelancer, so I got paid. It snowballed. I got a full-time job with another website. And I ended up as managing editor. That’s how I got into the strange business that is viral content.
The goal is to catch as many people as possible. Quantity over quality. Content that gets shared and then spreads like a virus. Get as many clicks and eyes on the page as you possibly can. The subject matter is an afterthought, if a thought at all.
When I started out, my job was to seek out things in the nooks and crannies of the internet. I found a video about a measuring tape. I was like, oh, this is going to kill. I assigned it to a writer who was like, “Okay, whatever.” I remember thinking, No, no, I’m telling you. We posted it and it immediately got 700 concurrents (the number of people reading at the same time), and then it went up and up and up! I was like, see? It was so satisfying.
I’d think of a concept — maybe, “dogs who were shaven in really funny ways” — and I’d build a list around that. I remember one dog, it’s a Chiweenie (a Chihuahua-dachshund mix). It didn’t have front legs and it was named T. rex. That killed. Cute babies did well when paired with cats or puppies. Any sort of baby-animal combination was automatic gold. Babies and animals were my bread and butter back then. Everything I produced was a listicle — images and one or two short sentences. Lists are easy to digest. I did a list about hippos that I’m still very proud of.
Sometimes I strayed. I once did something about some islands in the Pacific where birds were dying because they were eating plastic. My boss was like, “yeah, can you not do that because that’s way too serious.”
They paid a “traffic bonus,” but only when your work went crazy viral. I think that happened to me once. I did exactly the same amount of work as I would do for any other post, but this just happened to go viral. That drove me nuts. If someone implies that you worked harder because you got more traffic, I’ll go crazy because it’s never that way. You throw a bunch of shit at the wall and see what sticks.
Some places call it “spray and pray”: post ten things a day, maybe one will go viral. A lot of it is guessing what Facebook wants.
That website I used to work at catered to middle-aged women. They were the first demographic to pick up on “clickbait.” They were most likely to share posts. A good measure for popularity was: Think of your mom or your aunts or even your grandmother, will they enjoy this?
There was one list I did when I was starting out, “Reasons Why You Should Have a Mini Pig.” I wrote a disclaimer saying something like, “Mini pigs are usually big. They’re not the size of a potbellied pig, but they can be 100 pounds, which is huge to have in your house.” That got the most clicks of any post I’ve ever done. It was picked up by some mini-pig activist community, and I have never received such vitriol. A woman even called the office and offered to meet me in person, so she could teach me “the truth about pigs.”
In my current job, I edit and manage a team of about ten. I edit about 20 to 40 posts a day, depending on what the Facebook requirements are. Facebook does this algorithm, like, okay, now you have to have 500 words on a page, which means we have to write that much more, and it’s that much more editing. I try to keep morale up because I know it’s a grueling job. The writers do about six to seven posts a day. They churn out content.
We have a few different sites. One is focused on animals; one is just general “viral” stuff. It starts with one person who scours the internet. Then, my boss goes through the list that person has suggested. My boss will accept or reject, and assign a priority level, and then I assign the “stories” to people. The writer will “write” it, and it goes to a preliminary editor. Then, I give it the once-over, and it goes to a separate team that packages all the content. They do the titles and the feature images to get clicks on Facebook. Then, their boss looks at everything and the data people post it. They post it on one of the smaller Facebook pages and watch the numbers over the course of ten minutes or something. From that, they decide whether they’re going to post it on the company’s main page.
It’s a Henry Ford–type setup. We are in an assembly line and content pops out at the end. There’s no attachment to the finished product. Nobody cares about the quality of their work.
Our content is always something that’s already done well on another site, maybe a YouTube video. It has to have some kind of visual component. Things that will always do well: A dog that was found in a plastic bag, or just abandoned somewhere. Abandoned things in pits or holes or bags do well. If you leave a baby animal somewhere, the internet is going to love it.
If you’re reading an article we’ve made — how to put it in a nice way? — you’re not getting a story that will make you feel … challenged. I don’t know exactly who we cater to. Our audience doesn’t understand sarcasm. Everything has to be very earnest, which gets frustrating because I would love to create entertaining content that I would want to read.
I have to constantly remind myself people go to this for escape. You are supposed to feel safe consuming viral media, whether it makes you mad or you think it’s really cute or funny. It’s uncomplicated. It’s designed that way because you’re not going to share something you feel conflicted about.
I enjoy the managerial parts of my job. I’m not actively looking for anything else, but do I see myself at age 50 working in viral content? There’s nobody over the age of 35 in my office. Our website probably won’t even exist when I’m 50. And we’re so dependent on Facebook, who knows what that will be like in two years — in one year, even?
But, I know that I am lucky. I do something semi-creative; my manager is reliable; I work 9 to 6, and I have weekends to myself. I make $60,000. We have the best health insurance I’ve ever had; I’m going to the dermatologist for the first time in my life. My one goal is to clear up my acne before I start getting wrinkles.
There are moments I see people working on podcasts or working for magazines where I get jealous. I definitely do. These people get to come up with original ideas, and talk to people and learn new things and make the world a better place. But as far as media jobs go, it’s very hard to get into a place that isn’t viral and click-based, if you don’t have unpaid internships or Ivy League connections. My family doesn’t have any money. There is a class system built into who gets jobs in New York.
I usually say I work for a crappy clickbait website. If people ask further, I’ll tell them the name, and usually they haven’t heard of it. The only people I’ve ever met who claim to have heard of our website are writers at job interviews for our site. They’re like, “I read it allllllll the time.” No you do not! And if you do, you will not be a good fit for us. Generally, if you are internet savvy and young, you’re not tricked by it. Those of us who create clickbait are not the audience that clicks on it.
*Name has been changed.