There’s a new kind of profile that’s been gaining steam in the last couple of years: the profile of the tech kingpin. Some self-styled guru of, say, Instagram likes or viral videos. Who almost always has an obnoxious name to match his obnoxious persona (“Shingy,” say). An entire industry has sprung up around twenty-somethings and wannabe twenty somethings exploiting the tech ignorance of an older generation. “Whoa whoa whoa, you say you sell ‘sandwiches?’ Get with the times, grandpa! You need to be engaging with your audience. Vine, Twitter, Tinder, Snapchat – it’s all about reach! Quit thinking local! I want Bangladeshi prostitutes gossiping about your roast beef subs!”
Sadly, it has made plenty of them rich, and thus, profile-worthy. These guys are either harbingers of a new and terrifying world, where the machines have defeated humanity so definitively that the most successful humans are trying to mimic them, or they’re the tech bubble in human form. Types who will disappear as soon as the bullshit they’re selling reveals its essential worthlessness. Either way, they’re fabulously obnoxious.
The latest entry is The New Yorker’s new “The Virologist,” a profile of “the King of Click Bait,” 27-year-old viral media kingpin (I mean, I guess?) Emerson Spartz. Spartz’s goal seems to be to speed along the process of automating the reading experience, to the point that quality will eventually be judged not by emotional impact, but by the split-second decision to click on something. It’s a fantastic hate read, and I recommend the entire thing. But just in case, I’ve excerpted the most infuriating bits below. Applying the original click-bait format to highlight the fundamental soullessness of click bait just seemed right.
Emerson Spartz, an Internet-media entrepreneur in Chicago, left his office and walked several blocks to the Museum of Contemporary Art, where he was scheduled to speak at an event called the Millennial Impact Conference.
The Millenial Impact Conference: Gathering the nation’s foremost blowhards for three days of sweeping generalizations!
When he was growing up, Spartz said, his parents made him read “four short biographies of successful people every single day. Imagine for a second what happens to your brain when you’re twelve and this is how you’re spending your time.” He used his hands to pantomime his mind being blown. “I realized that influence was inextricably linked to impact—the more influence you had, the more impact you could create. . . . The ability to make things go viral felt like the closest that we could get to having a human superpower.”
(*holds up single finger*)
I AM BECOME DEATH, THE DESTROYER OF WORLDS!
(*presses play on video of a chimp peeing in its own mouth*)
As new-media companies like BuzzFeed and Upworthy become established brands, Spartz hopes to disrupt the disrupters.
I believe this is the new version of “Watching the Detectives.” I hope the chorus will once again include “they beat him up until the teardrops start.”
“I keep hearing people around town talking about this young man as a Steve Jobs kind of guy,” Gary Holdren, one of Spartz’s chief investors, told me. “I think his stuff is indicative of where digital media is headed.”
Kill me now.
I had met Spartz a few weeks earlier, at a dinner during a tech-industry conference in Manhattan. When I asked him what he did for a living, he replied, “I’m passionate about virality.”
Ah yes, “virality,” that must be why I can’t stop vomiting.
I don’t usually read straight news. It’s conveyed in a very boring way, and you tend to see the same patterns repeated again and again.”
He went on, “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.”
Ah, so the first step towards reporting on Uganda is Googling “Uganda” to find out where it is and what it’s about, great advice. Are you guys writing this down? This man is a genius!
Spartz thinks that pathbreaking ideas are overvalued. “If you want to build a successful virus, you can start by trying to engineer the DNA from scratch—or, much more efficient, you take a virus that you already know is potent, mutate it a tiny bit, and expose it to a new cluster of people.” Brainwreck’s early posts “leaned more toward originality,” Spartz said—they featured novel combinations of images, with text that reflected at least a few minutes of online research—but with Dose “we’ve stopped doing that as much because more original lists take more time to put together, and we’ve found that people are no more likely to click on them.”
We’ve come to the second epiphany of the piece, that plagiarism is easier and faster. My God, this man is the Henry Ford of dipshits! Quick, get him a polo shirt and headset mic!
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.”
“For instance, our machines have discovered that ‘HUGE TITTED SLUTS IN YOUR AREA HAVE ONE WEIRD TRICK’ performed much better than ‘Earthquake In Japan Kills Six Million’ and we’ve adjusted our coverage accordingly. You’re never too old to learn new things.”
On a weight-lifting bench, Tom [Emerson’s dad] had arranged a two-foot stack of the “short biographies of successful people” that I had heard about from Emerson. They turned out to be extremely short: a single-sided page each, photocopied from a newspaper called Investor’s Business Daily. Each distilled a life of accomplishment into a moral. (Karl Malone: “Practice makes perfect.” Mel Blanc: “Never give up.”)
Yep, these are the insights that blew his 12-year-old mind. I hear he once walked by a kitten poster and shit his pants. “‘Hang in there.’ …It all makes sense now.”
A Katy Perry song was playing on the radio. “Art is that which science has not yet explained,” he said. “Imagine that the vocals are mediocre in an otherwise amazing song. What if you could have forty people record different vocals, and then test it by asking thousands of people, ‘Which one is best?’ To me, that’s a trickle in an ocean of possible ways you could improve every song on the radio.”
Aside from the gleeful soullessness, I do enjoy that this guy thinks he has invented the concept of the focus group. My God, you’ve cracked the code! If only we could focus group everything, things would be perfect!
Spartz calls himself an aggregator, but he is more like a day trader, investing in pieces of content that seem poised to go viral. He and his engineers have developed algorithms that scan the Internet for memes with momentum. The content team then acts as arbitrageurs, cosmetically altering the source material and reposting it under what they hope will be a catchier headline. A meme’s success on Imgur, Topsy, or “certain niche subreddits” might indicate a potential viral hit. He added, “The sources and the rules sound simple, but it takes a lot of experimentation to make it actually useful. It’s a lot of indicators weighed against each other, and they’re always changing.” If an image is popular on Reddit but relatively stagnant on Pinterest, for example, Spartz’s algorithm might pass it up in favor of something more likely to appeal to Dose’s audience.
Banks of monitors with up-to-the-minute charts and graphs, all monitoring what your weird aunt most quickly forwards to her church group. THIS IS THE FUTURE!
“The way we view the world, the ultimate barometer of quality is: if it gets shared, it’s quality. If someone wants to toil in obscurity, if that makes them happy, that’s fine. Not everybody has to change the world.”
Please note here that when he says “not everybody has to change the world,” it’s not a self-deprecating remark referring to him being okay with monetizing Facebook shares of bacon porn. He means that not everyone was cut out for the life of the viral superhero like he is, brilliantly writing headlines by algorithm to repackage years-old content to maximize memeability. Not everyone bout this life, gnome sayin’?
Asked to name the most beautiful prose he had read, he said, “A beautiful book? I don’t even know what that means. Impactful, sure.”
“‘Beautiful?’ Hmm, I don’t understand these analog words. I can tell you the which are the stickiest. The most buzzworthy. The most hashtaggy. I don’t know if Moby Dick is ‘beautiful,’ but the whale on the cover is very impactful and I would probably swipe right.'”
[via The New Yorker]