I saw this in a Taki column by Ann Sterzinger. I’m not a fan of Sterzinger’s brand of groaty snark. It may be a generational thing. Maybe it is my sexism. Who knows, but the New Yorker piece on the Internet parasite was worth wading through Sterzinger’s many references to bodily functions. Jim Goad has this habit too. Anyone he does not like is compared to a bowel movement or vomit or some other base human function. I don’t get the point of painting such pictures for the reader.
Anyway, the linked piece above is interesting and free of scatological references. The title is what gets me. A virus is always bad. Calling someone a “virologist” should be an insult, unless the person works for the CDC. Even after reading the article, I’m not sure if it is an insult or compliment here. What’s clear is the subject of the story makes his money by deceiving people and stealing the property of others. His sites are built around appropriating the ideas of others to draw an audience.
Deception is the primary line of business.
Much of the company’s success online can be attributed to a proprietary algorithm that it has developed for “headline testing”—a practice that has become standard in the virality industry. When a Dose post is created, it initially appears under as many as two dozen different headlines, distributed at random. Whereas one person’s Facebook news feed shows a link to “You Won’t Believe What This Guy Did with an Abandoned Factory,” another person, two feet away, might see “At First It Looks Like an Old Empty Factory. But Go Inside and . . . WHOA.” Spartz’s algorithm measures which headline is attracting clicks most quickly, and after a few hours, when a statistically significant threshold is reached, the “winning” headline automatically supplants all others. “I’m really, really good at writing headlines,” he told me. “But any human’s intuition can only be so good. If you can build a machine that can solve the problem better than you can, then you really understand the problem.”
At the bottom of a Dose post, there is usually a small “hat tip” (abbreviated as “H/T”). Many people don’t notice this citation, if they even reach the bottom of the post. On Dose’s first day of existence, its most successful list was called “23 Photos of People from All Over the World Next to How Much Food They Eat Per Day.” It was a clever illustration of global diversity and inequity: an American truck driver holding a tray of cheeseburgers and Starbucks Frappuccinos; a Maasai woman posing with eight hundred calories’ worth of milk and porridge. Beneath the final photograph, a line of tiny gray text read “H/T Elite Daily.” It linked to a post that Elite Daily, a Web site based in New York, had published a month earlier (“See the Incredible Differences in the Daily Food Intake of People Around the World”). That post, in turn, had linked to UrbanTimes (“80 People, 30 Countries and How Much They Eat on a Daily Basis”), which had credited Amusing Planet (“What People Eat Around the World”), which had cited a 2010 radio interview with Faith D’Aluisio and Peter Menzel, the writer and the photographer behind the project.
What passes for building a better mousetrap in the new economy is usually just using technology to game the system. In this case, the guy started out by attaching himself to the Harry Potter franchise. Calling it a “fan site” let him skirt the rules governing theft of intellectual property. If he tried selling Harry Potter shirts he would have been sued out of existence. Selling ads on a “fan site” is essentially the same thing, but it skirts the rules just enough to avoid a lawsuit.
The click bait sites are just fraud, for the most part. He’s gaming search engines and he’s misrepresenting his site to get hits. He then uses the traffic to defraud advertises. Increasingly, mainstream sites employ the same tricks. They split stories into many pages to drive up page hits. Bleacher Report has figured out how to game Google so that their crappy pages show up at the top of any sports related search. I’ve had to modify by browser to block that site.
Stealing from one another is not economic activity. There are only three types of economic activity that can increase the nation’s wealth. You either invent things, make things or fix things. Emerson Spartz is not doing any of that. He is siphoning money from people who make things, invent things and fix things. These parasites are the only part of the economy that are growing. The parasite economy has a natural limit. When the host dies, the parasite economy dies with it.