Last week, a Los Angeles Times article about a minor earthquake was automatically generated by an algorithm and was posted to the newspaper’s website, completely cutting a reporter out of the equation. Why can’t viral content be next?
BuzzFeed, the king of the viral list, has gotten shit from its competitors, from old media, and from me (yammering to colleagues at happy hours) about the amount of writing that goes into creating some of its lists. So far, even if BuzzFeed grabs content for any given list from Reddit, or some article, or some .GIF site, the actual curating is done by humans. But a new partnership with Whisper, a social sharing site that essentially tags and meme-ifies Post Secret-like confessions, could be the first step in cutting human curators completely out of the viral hitmaking process.
Whisper and BuzzFeed announced their new partnership in a New York Times article. According to Neetzan Zimmerman, Whisper’s newly-hired editor-in-chief and former Gawker traffic generator extraordinaire, the partnership will allow as many as 15 BuzzFeed writers to tap into Whisper’s database to grab content they think might work for articles.
Right now, when confessions fall off one of Whisper’s main pages due to being unpopular or old, they’re gone forever. But, under the BuzzFeed partnership, the site will have access to old confessions, a move that Zimmerman says will defeat “content decay.”
“My initial thought was, why are we letting things decay when we see these powerful conversations emerging? Why let those go away forever?” he told me. “The fact is, Whisper is about confessions, but it’s also about letting other people know that there are others out there that are going through what you’re going through.”
That’s where BuzzFeed comes in. The most popular listicles are ones that make a certain demographic go “Hey, that’s totally me.” That’s how you end up with lists like “30 Signs You’re Almost 30” or “22 Signs You Went to the University of Maryland.” These shared experiences make you want to pass the article along to your friends. With just about every niche seemingly worn out (they’ve got to be, at this point, right?), BuzzFeed needs new sources for content, and Whisper provides those. Add in the fact that many BuzzFeed readers are high school and college kids, same as Whisper, and you’ve got a perfect match.
Zimmerman and Whisper are about to make it possible for the arm slinging that shit to be a robotic one, not a human one.
But that’s not why this partnership is interesting. It gets interesting when you consider how Whisper’s content has already been used by BuzzFeed—take a look at “21 Outrageous Party Confessions to Get You Amped for the Weekend” or “25 Things People Do In the Bathroom That Are Better Than Going to the Bathroom.” There’s even less writing on those posts than there are on your standard BuzzFeed list. The authors are serving as little more than content curators. So why not automate the process?
The obvious answer is one of quality control—there's an incredible amount of inane nonsense on Whisper, so, for now, any Whisper-based post is going to require a set of human eyes to make sure it fits whatever theme BuzzFeed is going for. There's no guarantee that algorithms will ever be able to create a coherent list.
But BuzzFeed and other sites focused on creating viral content already employ a shotgun mentality for a lot of this stuff—and endure a lot of criticism for it (while laughing all the way to the bank when a post with 50 words in it racks up 10 million views). Zimmerman and Whisper think they can make it possible to make that process a robotic one.
“We will be moving to automation at some point,” Zimmerman said. “We’re working on an API that will be made available to partners to access the Whisper database that will be able to search it accurately and do anything we can do in house. Right now it’s just in the planning stages.”
That means that, pretty soon (Whisper can likely already do this in-house, and will be helping BuzzFeed do this), a smart programmer can take the Whisper API, plug in a few parameters—say, “#homework,” “#cheating,” and “#highschool”—and create something roughly resembling this BuzzFeed article from last week. Zimmerman said the API will be available to any publication that wants to use it.
Sites already get away with crowdsourcing highly popular articles—Zimmerman says what Whisper is doing with BuzzFeed is similar to what sites who post infuriating tweets after some major event or scandal, but without the work of actually finding those tweets. And, to be fair, a computer isn't making up these confessions, millions of high school and college kids are.
“This is no different than putting together a post of racist people from the Super Bowl or something that always seems to do really well,” he said. “Basically they will approach us with an idea and we’ll help them find material that their readers might find interesting. We have the tools to do that.”
Who knows whether this is actually going anywhere. Frankly, I hope robots never become good journalists, from a purely I-gotta-eat perspective. And I wouldn't be in this profession if I thought robot journalists were ever going to be a thing that could take my job. But I'm not making lists.
For the time being, Zimmerman admits it's just a way for Whisper to get its name out there, and BuzzFeed has a larger megaphone than most: "First and foremost, this is about spreading the word about Whisper," he said. "They haven’t been getting the word out, and BuzzFeed is an obvious choice to help us do that."
BuzzFeed does some excellent journalism, work that's partly supported by the legions of viral-ready lists that are ripe for automation, if the source material and algorithm are good enough. In the early goings, there'll definitely be some kinks and missteps, but when you've already cornered the market on lists, there’s little risk of alienating your readership, especially if you can eliminate costs.
And even if BuzzFeed doesn't do it, some other site will—one savvy programmer could theoretically spit out dozens of computer-generated lists, no problem. When the content comes to you, like it will from Whisper, why bother with humans?