Abhishek Madhavan

@AbhishekMadhavn

I reverse-engineered Buzzfeed’s most viral posts and the truth is shocking!

July 4th 2017

Anyone who has ever produced content for the web knows how torturously tough it is to even get people to click on your post and read it; forget going viral, especially when you don’t have any furs in your content. (Read: Cats and dogs, who seem to have a god-given right to internet virality).

How then does BuzzFeed, the random-list generating, cat-pic aggregating, perpetual pop-culture referencer produce viral content day in and day out? What insight into basic human psychology or secrets to Facebook algorithms (more than 60% of BuzzFeed’s traffic comes from Facebook) has it discovered, which ordinary mortals such as you and me seem to struggle with? Deeply intrigued, I set to find out.

Traffic on BuzzFeed doubled to 200 million monthly unique visitors on 2014 while their posts received over 16 billion page views.

Mandatory cat pic to help this post go viral!

The man who bottled up virality!

To chart BuzzFeed’s undeniably meteoric rise, which enabled it to recently raise $50 million, valuing it at an astonishing $850 million, one would have to go back in time to follow the early career path of the man behind it, founder-CEO Jonah Peretti.

The story goes back to 2001 when a young Peretti was still a graduate at MIT. Nike was promoting a new range of customisable sneakers and Peretti, who had read about the inhuman conditions of labourers producing the said sneakers, wanted to imprint the word ‘sweatshop’ on his pair. Nike, refused flat-out, leading to an amusing back and forth of e-mails with a Nike representative. Amused, Peretti forwarded the mail to ten of his friends. and that should have been the end of that.

An excerpt from the series of mails Peretti sent to Nike, only to be repeatedly refused.

But the internet is a curious beast, and something about the mails so irked it that the mails exploded, being forwarded inbox to inbox, catapulting Peretti to something of instant celebrityhood.

While normal folks may have gotten carried away with the intense exhilaration of having been a part of something viral, Peretti was more intrigued by the hows and whys of internet virality.

He had a chat with his friend, Cameron Marlow, now head of Data Sciences at Facebook, then just a fellow graduate writing a thesis on viral phenomena. Marlo insisted that virality was well-nigh impossible to manufacture, as the complexity of human emotions ensured it wasn’t possible to predict what a certain individual would share, with any degree of certainty.

Peretti argued otherwise, both of them made a bet, and the rest as they say, is history.

THE EARLY DAYS

Peretti started BuzzFeed as a side-project in 2006. He knew, if he could reliably churn out contagious content, content that you will want to share, daily on an industrial scale, he would have developed a modern day internet dragon, devouring page-views by the millions and starving the age-old news agencies, already dying out in the digital age.

Jonah Peretti knows you’re crazy!

Peretti basically wanted to develop memes at Buzzfeed, originally coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins (the defining characteristic of memes being that they self-replicate).

Initially, BuzzFeed was just an algorithm to handpick stories from around the vast internet which showed even the slightest inkling of virality. BuzzFeed persuaded partner sites to install code on their website which allowed it to monitor their traffic. (The network now encompasses some 200 sites that serve 355 million users.)

Currently though, BuzzFeed employs editors whose full-time job it is to put out content on the web which consistently gets a huge number of shares and goes ‘viral’ so to speak.

So how do they do it? Since the viral articles and listicles were the end-product of a till-now unknown process, I determined I would need to go down the rabbit-hole back to where it all begins: the content-creation stage.

The results I found were shocking and more importantly, easily repeatable.

Behind the scenes at Buzzfeed:

I went to BuzzFeed.com and started hunting around for something interesting. What caught my eye was a particularly intigruing piece of content titled: “After Finding Out Mid-Wedding That Her Groom Was Unwell, This Bride Married A Wedding Guest Instead”.

This article had generated more than 4 Lakh hits in a few hours and was featured on the front page of BuzzFeed’s India site! It began with the following sentence: “It was like any other wedding ceremony in India, where 25-year-old Jugal Kishore was to wed 23-year-old Indira.”

Curious how BuzzFeed had stumbled onto this particular piece of news, I ran a search on Jugal Kishore and Indira on Google. It instantly threw up an article from ‘The Times of India’ which had the exact same content, only from a couple of days earlier. Fair play to BuzzFeed though, since they gamely admitting to lifting the content from ‘multiple news outlets’.

They basically just added a couple of stock images showing scenes from an Indian wedding to a story already out on various news outlets, appended a clickbait headline and let the magic unfold!

A simple Twitter search throws up most of Buzzfeed’s list

Shocked at how easily I had stumbled upon the source, I determined to reverse-engineer some other posts as well. Another BuzzFeed post trending on the homepage was titled: “24 Pictures That Perfectly Capture How Insane The Snow In New England Is”. This had generated more than 3 million hits at the time of writing.

Seeing that the images were mostly from Twitter where hashtags make it extremely easy to search, I searched for #Boston, #BostonBuried, #Snow, #BOSnow and #BostonSnow. Unsurprisingly enough, I found around 15 of the 24 pictures within just 5 minutes of searching and using just these five hashtags.

Which got me thinking how easy it is to actually make a viral-worthy post on BuzzFeed with a lifted scoop and a simple image search!

Though BuzzFeed has now hired senior journalists and scores of reporters to create content on politics and technology, it is still these light-hearted listicles and clickbait news engineered to go viral that generate a bulk of the site’s traffic and more importantly how thousands are introduced to the site on a daily basis.

Lifting from online Meme havens:

A cursory search on the internet about BuzzFeed’s questionable sourcing policies threw up a few interesting links. A controversial Slate article by Farhad Manjoo tells me that back in 2012, NedHardy.com — a kind of poor man’s BuzzFeed — posted an item called, “7 Pictures That Will Restore Your Faith in Humanity.” Then, the following month, NedHardy posted another piece, “13 Pictures To Help You Restore Your Faith in Humanity.”

Half of the photos in BuzzFeed’s iconic post “21 pictures that will restore your faith in humanity’’ which generated a humongous 20 million views, appeared first in NedHardy’s two compilations. NedHardy isn’t mentioned anywhere in BuzzFeed’s “21 Pictures” post.

Another example is “14 Mistakes That Really Should Never Have Happened.” This post shows workplace failures, e.g., Pineapples in a big box labeled “watermelons.” Under each picture in the post, BuzzFeed includes a tiny link to Imgur, a picture-hosting site.

But there’s something sneaky about the way BuzzFeed links to Imgur. BuzzFeed chooses to link directly to the file name of Imgur images. That means when you click on the link, you see only the photo. It’s only when you remove the “.jpg” from the URL that you see the full Imgur page for the image.

If you do that for all the images in the “14 Mistakes” post, you’ll find that 13 of the images include the phrase “one job” in their titles (as in, “You had only one job to do, and you failed.”) and link back to a Reddit page titled “one job”.

The BuzzFeed school of instant virality:

BuzzFeed defines their biggest demographic as the bored-at-work brigade, which according to Perreti is the single largest demographic of any kind in the world. A close second comes the bored-in-line segment, people browsing through their phones, say while waiting for the tube at the station.

These people ironically enough do not have time to waste, to go through numerous web-pages before they can finally guffaw at something hilarious.

Enter BuzzFeed, which does the heavy lifting for you (via scores of editors and algorithms), unlike other sites such as Reddit, 4Chan and Tumblr, where even though tonnes of interesting content is being constantly produced, you have to wade through hours of threads and decipher tonnes of inside jokes and references before hitting shareable gold.

Once you understand how BuzzFeed actually functions behind the scenes, it’s a bit like a magician revealing his tricks to you. Whenever you see a popular BuzzFeed post, search Reddit, 4Chan, Tumbler or run a simple Google Image search and the truth shall be revealed.

The enchantment fades off and you see BuzzFeed for what it actually is: A cold-blooded early-warning system which triggers off alarms as soon as a particular piece of content from the relatively obscure parts of the web begins generating buzz, repackages the same with clickbait headlines that create what is known as a ‘curiosity gap’ and pushes it to the millions it has access to to manufacture virality.

Peretti himself concedes that some of its ideas have appeared elsewhere online, but he argues that it is extremely difficult to unearth the true creator of content on the web.

I’ll leave it to you to decode the ethical issues surrounding BuzzFeed’s sourcing policies, but my chance peek behind the scenes of BuzzFeed has me convinced that it is indeed possible to create the right environment that optimises content to become contagious.

Not everything may take off with quite the same forward momentum, but whatever does, will inevitably be based on an easily repeatable formula. Because it’s obviously not magic, it’s science.

Do let me know in the comments your views on what spreads and what does not.

NOTE: This post was originally published by me over 2 years back, in early 2015, and is being re-published here, since I felt some of the broader points regarding virality and content are as relevant today as ever. However, I would like to state that I’ve been a long-time fan and admirer of Buzzfeed.

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