A recent New Yorker article touches on incentives and dynamics that seem to work against creating viral internet content for the greater good, development and social change.
The January 5 issue of the New Yorker includes a profile of a young man whose life work, so far, is to create viral content on the internet (“The Virologist: How a young entrepreneur built an empire by repackaging memes” by Andrew Marantz). Who wouldn't love to see their content to drawing more attention to our causes in international development?
Emerson Spartz has started up several sites that gather, package and promote those funny lists and videos that our friends share on Facebook – and make lots of money from advertising on the sites when people click to view.
Spartz’s success at capturing attention and leading people to his websites is driven by a lot of data analysis, including ‘headline testing’. This is the common practice of posting articles under different headlines, and then measuring which headline leads people to click the most. Proprietary algorithms are involved. Once a ‘winner’ is identified, it becomes the headline for all of the posts. It sounds like evidence-based communications practice to me!
[I don't know how long it took the good people at Upworthy to come up with this headline, but it makes me giggle every time: His Way Of Looking At Genetically Modified Food Will Make You Go WTF At First And Then — WHOA !!]
Unfortunately, most people in this business don't seem to think much about how to use their capabilities to impact social issues, or respect the original good intentions behind some of the content they ‘recycle’.
A few months ago, a collection of pictures of families from around the world, posed in their kitchens with what they eat in a week, went viral from one of these sites. Maybe some people expanded their awareness of global food cultures, which would be a good thing. But the photographers didn’t get any credit or share of the advertising revenue generated – which could have gone to supporting more creative work.
That’s not cool. And yet, as discussed last week at a conference on science communication, we can hardly complain if we ourselves do not use data and evidence-based tools to get our work out there.
About half-way through the article, Spartz outlines the model he would use if he were interested in making a difference :
… “If I were running a more hard-news-oriented media company and I wanted to inform people about Uganda, first, I would look it up and find out exactly what’s going on there. Then I would find a few really poignant images or story lines, ones that create a lot of resonant emotion, and I would make those into a short video—under three minutes—with clear, simple words and statistics. Short, declarative sentences. And at the end I’d give people something they can do, something to feel hopeful about.”
He makes it sound pretty easy. Maybe we can make some progress, one headline at a time.