The $100 Million Content Farm That's Killing the Internet
The dream of the highbrow internet is dead.
The dream of the highbrow internet is dead.
This week, the viral aggregator ViralNova was acquired for $100 million dollars. Meanwhile, the Pitchfork spin-off film criticism site The Dissolve ceased operations with an internet_meaningful blogpost entitled "The End." The divergence between the missions and lifecycles of these two media projects that both launched in 2013 leave me wondering, "WTF is value?" It is certainly not creating #niche content for 'intelligent audiences.'
Over the past two years, we've learned that there isn't any actual monetizable 'cultural value' in building a content farm with an authoritative voice or domination of a niche area. Instead, it is more important to chase quantifiable human metrics by shoving lowbrow content in front of Facebook users. This is exactly what ViralNova has done better than most content farms--it figured out the current system and #growth_hacked the hell out of it. ViralNova out-media-companied The Dissolve.
You've got to give the people what they want. And by 'people', I mean seemingly abstract traffic data that adds value to your media company.
ViralNova achieved $100 million in value not just because of its deep well of forgettable content--it's also a 'technology company' with its own content management system and the analytic tools to find out what is going viral. They have innovative technology that allows them to A/B test their Facebook headlines. It has a staff of 24, and it is likely a few content farmers' jobs to sift through memes of the day from other sources (and identical sites), shoving them in front of millions of likers.
It's not that complicated--it's only the algorithm of scalable media.
No one should kid themselves with romantic notions of internet media. It's not about engaging media, words, or the voice of passionate content creators. This era of media is about the endless opportunity to demonstrate a trajectory of growth. Something that only a literal viral supernova of a website can do. A murderer's row of loquacious internet writers chillin' on their niche section of Twitter all day can not create content that scales to the mass of traffic data that matters. Like every other industry, creating value in the new media paradigm isn't a mystery--it's the business of creating growth and building the tools to track and illustrate your growth better than anyone else.
The infiniteness of the internet is yours to capitalize on, and that's what ViralSupernova's founder Scott DeLong did with the help of only two freelance writers. The small team grew the site to the size of Buzzfeed with just three content farmers. I'm not even mad. That's impressive (and sorta sad) [via content enslaving yourself]. But I guess that's the definition of internet sweat equity.
Niche expertise in anything, such as The Dissolve's tasteful take on film criticism, isn't valuable. Most people on the internet just want endless stuff to click on, so why would you waste your time/voice/resources pretending to be passionate about anything else?
The highbrow internet is based upon the misguided idea that there is a certain consumer who turns to the internet for well-written, informative content in the form of thinkpieces, #longform, podcasts and 'well thought out glorified blog posts.' Eventually, an authority in the niche provides a website with the ability to perform sustainable day to day farming. Based on an audience of 'educated' people who 'spend money,' you would think that the relative scale of these niche content farms with 'an interesting take' on culture + [niche] would be sustainable. They aren't.
They're all going to die because of the toxic byproducts of viral supernova sites.
According to reports, Zealot acquired ViralNova's important tools for the purpose of scaling their own video content in the food/lifestyle/travel segment and music/entertainment.' In the past year, Zealot has #acquired multiple content farms, ad agencies, and other miscellaneous webby companies. I'm not sure if there is any point in this entire narrative of acquisitions or if any of their properties are 'special'/authoritative. Above all values, Zealot continuing to grow at all costs, which also means acquiring smaller companies that are growing at all costs. They probably have a plan that is in line with the ability to monetize 'the content that matters' on the internet than just 'writing with passion' about something that not enough people care about.
Don't tell that to the highbrow internet. They are busy caring about their niche stuff, believing that somehow online media can still 'take their niche interests to the mainstream.' Unfortunately, the mainstream is just interested in what's eternally trending. and the most engaged audiences on the internet are those who are interested in eternally trending generalist content. Everyone else is too complicated to reach and you can't even rely on them to use the most scalable medium of Facebook in a functional way.
The core idea behind content farms like ViralNova is that there is an infinite amount of internet. Every human on the planet can be reached with strategically generated content that is usually just a re-headlined Youtube video. The site launched in 2013 and is on track to generate $35 million this year. This has all been done with a staff that has grown to 24, which is a pretty ridiculously profitable 'small business.' Imagine how many thinkpieces you could have paid writers $100 for on a #highbrow content farm.
The $100 million acquisition proves that there is no more bar for 'quality content.' Quality content is only a fraction of the equation for illustrating #value in a media brand. Projecting the idea of having 'quality content' might even be more important than spending money on the production of quality content. It's just bad business.
The funny thing is that Dissolve probably had everything a niche content farm needs to be successful. The reach, built-in readership of Pitchfork and even some sort of 'dedicated ad sales team' that specialized in convincing brands with ad budgets that their content is 'real' and 'actually reaches the people who care the most in America.' You aren't just buying mindless ads on pageviews served to robots and humans--you're buying the ability to get integrated into content that #matters to real people. But you can't really justify a 'team' of writers producing long content that doesn't even #perform by today's content economy standards.
A site like ViralNova demonstrates just how a generalist content site ruined the web. It neutered the massmarket perception of a niche site like Pitchfork. It leveled the playing field of early 'niche' authoritative sites by wildly scaling enough to make their #value inarguable. Would a longtail Facebook user even know what Pitchfork 'was'? Legacy brand equity doesn't really matter if you can growth_hack 100 million pageviews in about two years.
I'm not sure who is actually passionate about ViralNova, despite their reach/success/millions/contemporary media value. It's hard for me to understand the #pump_and_dump strategy of selling your site that has claimed a tiny fraction of the infinite real estate of the internet.
Do you ever wonder if any1 says that ViralNova is their favorite internet website?
Do they want a ViralNova television network?
Am I just trapped on the highbrow niche internet believing that my #take matters?
Would this post perform better if I had ViralNova's tools for scaling?
Instead of trying to understand any particular [niche] interest, should we just live asynchronously in our Facebook feed, attaching ourselves only to timeless memes of heartwarming cuteness and/or outrage?
Facebook has found itself to blame for the rise of garbage sites like PlayBuzz, Distractify, and ViralNova. If Facebook is the great facilitator of the $100 million dollar rise of a ViralNova, what incentive do they have to continue to allow the numerous sites to #scale on their platform? Instead, Facebook has been testing partnerships with premium media brands like the New York Times, National Geographic, BuzzFeed, NBC News, The Atlantic, The Guardian, and the BBC, where the content is actually hosted inside of Facebook.
Like Instagram, the most monetizable future of Facebook could come from minimizing the amount of outbound links to garbage sites that 'give Facebook a bad name.' They don't have to waste time regulating algorithms and placing barriers on media companies to reach their fans. This move will allow both the premium media company and Facebook the chance to monetize the content without sending the user into an infinite spiral of paid/recommended links. Why should Facebook's brand take a hit because these lifeless content farms are perpetually gaming the algorithm?
The highbrow internet has perpetually #backlashed against their infinitely scalable competitors like Buzzfeed, Upworthy, and even Playbuzz.' This may or may not just be a valuation strategy. Each site represents the drive to infinitely scale, achieving analytic milestones that may or may not be real or validated. Every site looks to build a case as to why their content is actually the best content, and this is usually more valuable. They can create stories of traffic source diversification, regency, and custom platforms that adapt to virality before virality even happens. They are lean, diversified, and ready to pivot their value narrative into the next paradigm of infinite scalability.
What is even being bought and sold?
Will the endless game of trying to add value and cultural narratives to bodies of internet clicks ever amount to 'something meaningful'?
Can niche/highbrow internet be monetized?
Does the highbrow even deserve 2 beat the lowbrow internet?
There is nothing of value being purchased in any media acquisition besides the momentary medium of reach and influence. This definition is accepted by groups of shareholders seeking the highest valuations of arbitrary regions of the infinite internet.