It is sometimes almost as fun to say that online publishing is alive and kicking as much as it is to say that it’s dead in the ground. Neither are actually true – there is a heartbeat, but it skips. Yet the debate is loud enough to sustain the careers of several ‘news gurus,’ as Dean Starkman calls them – Jeff Jarvis, Clay Shirky, Jay Rosen, Michael Wolff, and a handful of other scribblers scribbling about the state of media and journalism and content. Now throw Joe Hyrkin’s name into that group. The CEO of Issuu, a difficult-to-use glorified magazine PDF reader, has written a blog post on Re/code celebrating the rebirth of longform and the ‘death of snackable content’.
Hyrkin argues, based on a report that found the most-shared articles on BuzzFeed and the Guardian are between 3,000 and 10,000 words, that shorter, more ‘clickable’ content is losing the war against inanity. At first glance, he seems right. For instance, the viral site Upworthy, which in 2013 ruled the content seas with its Facebook-approved curiosity gap-baiting headlines, briefly fell out of the social network’s good graces after an algorithm change, only to regroup and focus on making (relatively) more quality content. They even poached New York Times editor Amy O’Leary, who was largely responsible for the paper’s Innovation Report, to be its new editorial director. It seemed they had made some kind of turnaround.
But, looking at recent Upworthy posts, it hardly seems as if much has changed. The curiosity gap headlines have different wording but the same intent, and the content only has maybe a little more sustenance. Meanwhile, a greater change has appeared on the horizon. Facebook, the new maker-or-breaker of websites, has signed deals with the Times, BBC, BuzzFeed, the Guardian, and others to publish directly onto Facebook so that articles will load faster for iPhone users. Though seemingly minor in the big scheme of things, it’s notable that major international publishers would forego direct traffic ad sales on their own branded websites to have their journalism and listicles become just more Facebook posts in your newsfeed.
Facebook is not Google; the traffic doesn’t come from people looking for anything specific anymore, just people looking for what they want to see. It’s Facebook, after all. And Facebook is rigorous about censoring things it thinks its middle-of-the-road users don’t want to see, from the chosen names of drag performers to breastfeeding. Content, too: Gawker’s Tom Scocca wrote that several Gawker media posts, ranging in subjects from a bruise on Miley Cyrus’s butt to the shooting of Michael Brown were flagged and accounts frozen by Facebook. So what if the New York Times wants to publish a photo essay about a topless drag artist performing a graphic visual piece about Miley Cyrus’s bruised butt and Michael Brown onto Facebook? Time will tell.
Anyway. Whatever ‘snackable’ content is, it’s not going anywhere. The Huffington Post still reigns supreme on Facebook, according to analytics firm NewsWhip, followed by BuzzFeed – and while both websites have upped their games regarding longform content, short nonsense posts are still the bread-and-butter of both sites. Newspapers less prestigious than the New York Times are diving face-first into the aggregation game; in the past year, the Chicago Sun-Times and the London Independent have launched viral content machines – the Sun Times Network and i100, respectively. (I worked for a few months at the Sun Times Network.) The goals of both aggregators seems to follow what reporter and reluctant content creator Luke O’Neil described in Esquire in 2013:
The more in-depth, reported pieces didn’t stand a chance against riffs on things predestined to go viral. That’s the secret that Upworthy, BuzzFeed, MailOnline, Viral Nova, and their dozens of knockoffs have figured out: You don’t need to write anymore—just write a good headline and point. If what you’re pointing at turns out to be a steaming turd, well, then repackage the steam and sell it back to us.
The fact is, while longform ‘content’ is far from gone (see: Longform and Longreads), and viral content sites are growing up, it is only a matter of time until all this comes falling around our ears. Many of the big online media properties of our time – Vox Media, Mic, Mashable, and the rest – have nothing but venture capital behind them, and the bubble will eventually burst. Not all of these sites can make money – those named above do, but barely – and news start-ups fail all the time. Facebook, too, will one day die. What happens when the media’s Great Blue Saviour upends everything once again?
Just because something takes a minute to scroll through doesn’t mean it’s not a ‘snack’. I’ve read many a BuzzFeed and Business Insider post that were little more than excruciatingly long lists of pictures with maybe 1,500 combined words to supplement the pictures. The report Hyrkin cites showed that yes, longer content is being shared more, but posts with lots of images are being shared more than posts with lots of words. It’s not as if BuzzFeed’s 8,000-word investigation as to why residents in a small Kazakh village are randomly falling asleep for days or weeks or the Guardian‘s pithy 6,600-word essay on Politico’s European launch are the ones being shared by your mom or younger siblings on Facebook, after all. Indeed, the two most popular posts in the report cited by Hyrkin are as follows: a BuzzFeed listicle titled ‘32 Pictures That Will Give You Intense Elementary School Flashbacks’ and a Guardian picture gallery about ‘overconsumption’. Snacks if I’ve ever seen one.