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The Dangers of Viral Content When Facebook Is the Gatekeeper

In a post yesterday on the NewsWhip blog, some pretty astonishing data was revealed on the most viral publishers in November.

Upworthy, an emerging digital publisher of uplifting viral content, racked up 75,000 total Facebook interactions (Shares, Likes, Recommends) per post in the month of November, 12 times higher than Buzzfeed’s 6,000 Facebook interaction per post, according to analysis by the Atlantic.

viral content on Facebook 

Those numbers are amazing on a couple of levels. First, Upworthy is only 20 months old and is growing at a faster rate than both the Huffington Post (the publisher with the most total Facebook interactions in November) and BuzzFeed in their first two years. Fast Company has called Upworthy the “fastest growing media site of all time.”  

Second, Upworthy is only publishing around 200 posts per month, whereas the Huffington Post and BuzzFeed are publishing over 18,000 and 3,000 posts per month, respectively.

What’s interesting about Upworthy is its relentless testing of headlines, up to 25 different ones per post, and its focus on progressive narratives that tackle issues like body image, bullying and discrimination -- topics that tend to compel people to share.

By hitting on the right mix of variables, Upworthy has found a model that’s grown its monthly unique visitors to 87 million in November, directly on pace to catch up with BuzzFeed’s 130 million uniques in November.

Danger Ahead: Facebook as the Gatekeeper  

But all of this growth is an effect of the incredible distribution platform of Facebook, and some commentators, Mathew Ingram at GigaOm especially, see a danger for publishers who are too dependant on viral content. 

Just as quickly as it can be turned into a formula, faster, hungrier competitors can wipe out your lead, and in the long run the value declines.

The other danger is that any changes to Facebook’s News Feed algorithms are bound to have an impact on a publisher’s referring traffic and long term viability.

In its most recent changes to the News Feed, Facebook noted that they would aim to serve “higher quality content” to users, as opposed to memes about cats.

That’s already causing some concern for BuzzFeed, who are understandably worried by the sentiment of Facebook’s VP of Product whom sources suggest has “a problem with BuzzFeed and similar sites.”   

What that means for BuzzFeed, Upworthy and publishers of highly shareable content only time will tell.

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