The internet has turned A/B testing, catchy thumbnails, captions, and headlines into an artform.
Image: Ben Von Wong
A woman wearing black body paint with white, circuitlike stripes lays in the middle of a ring of hundreds of old keyboards, a green laptop glow illuminating her white hair. The image is instantly captivating: This is a scene from our cyberpunk future, or at least a scene from The Matrix.
It's one of those photos where the setup of the whole scene, more than the photo itself, is the art. But the photo is staged in more ways than one: The image and its accompanying behind-the-scenes video have been engineered from the start to go viral on Facebook.
They’re part of photographer Ben Von Wong’s Rethink and Recycle campaign, a partnership with Dell that’s designed to get people thinking about e-waste. “I create viral campaigns around boring topics,” Von Wong told me on the new episode of the Radio Motherboard podcast. “You try to create something that is so ideally perfectly optimized for the platform. We went through 25 iterations to create a piece that would ideally resonate the strongest.”
So far, more than 5.2 million people have watched his Facebook video called “We resurrected a lifetime of electronic waste.” Other successes: “Mermaid on 10,000 plastic bottles” (37 million views), “These kids are growing ONE BILLION OYSTERS to save the hudson” (4.7 million views), and “I never knew my laundry was toxic” (1.2 million views.) His art is successful, but it’s not easy to make. Every aspect in front of and behind the camera was thought out in meticulous detail.
“Everytime I create something, I think about how can people talk about this, how can people share it? I could use a $50,000 camera, but that's not relatable,” he said. “What's relatable is a small mirrorless camera, so that's what I use.”
The hope is that he can craft a story—or at least toss enough interesting stuff in the video for you to subconsciously want to share it. Rather than use cinema lighting, he strapped a speedlight to a drone “because it’s really funny to watch.” Volunteers used a leaf blower to simulate wind to blow the model’s hair, because it’s an interesting talking point at the bar.
“I gathered almost 1,000 people on an email newsletter who said ‘Within the first 24 hours of launch, I promise to like, comment, and share it in order to fuck with Facebook's algorithm.’”
“These are the small things that make for a really interesting caption or story,” he said. “I think viewers hop to a judgment within 2-3 seconds, but in the comments you can tell what people find funny or interesting. I spend a lot of time on things nobody pays attention to, but cumulatively people pay attention as you delve deeper into the storyline.”
There is, of course, more to it than simply making a cool image. There’s lots of visually appealing and thought provoking art that ultimately doesn’t go viral. Just as publishers have been forced to contend with the ever-changing algorithms on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. Artists, vloggers, and photographers are also affected whenever a tweak is made. After Facebook’s algorithm shifted to favor engagement and conversation earlier this year, Von Wong had to devise a rollout strategy that would still work. When I spoke to him last week, the video only had roughly 2 million views: “It feels like a good number,” he said, “but it’s never enough. I’m hoping it will catch on at some point.”
Because Von Wong isn’t a daily vlogger (which lends itself to return audiences who watch content every day), he started publishing behind-the-scenes videos and photos on his Instagram story in the weeks leading up to the launch. “I hardcore Instagram-storied for about three weeks to drive email subscriptions toward the launch and to kind of set the deck in my favor,” he said.
“I gathered almost 1,000 people on an email newsletter who said ‘Within the first 24 hours of launch, I promise to like, comment, and share it in order to fuck with Facebook's algorithm,’” he said. “Literally manufacturing popularity in content by making sure these people would see the content within the first certain amount of time that it launches to artificially make it more popular.”
Before posting the video on Facebook, he used software to A/B test different permutations of the video that had different titles and captions. The A/B testing allowed him to pick the most shareable version of his video. He had an average retention rate of roughly 30 seconds and a share-to-like ratio of roughly one-to-one, both of which are “really high for Facebook,” he said. After it finally went live, his like-share-comment army got to work, and Von Wong started pitching it to other Facebook creators and science pages with big followings: “It’s all really mechanical work,” he said.
On some level, the manufactured virality is the art. Going viral is something that many creators try to do with their work, and most fail at it. “It’s the process that is the most interesting part of my work,” he said. But Von Wong’s photography genuinely is thought provoking, generally has a pro-environment message, and he’s not merely shitting out new stuff every day.
A campaign like Rethink and Recycle takes roughly a year from start to finished product, and so a misstep could be catastrophic for his career. In another era, he could likely make art and let the mechanisms of distribution—an ad agency, a museum, a publication—take over. That’s not really the case anymore. Without his meticulous planning, his photos would likely fall into the abyss with so much other work.
“The internet right now is optimized for bullshit content. If i had a video of a dog doing some cute trick, I wouldn't care [about algorithm changes]. It would be great—people could share it. They could make memes out of it. That is what the internet is optimized for right now. It's so broken,” he said. “My greatest fear is as the internet gets more noisy and as the barrier to entry for content creation goes down, at what point does what I do become unsustainable?”