BF calls BS

Websites including the Daily Mirror and Metro in the UK and the New York Daily News in the US duly published the story, alongside an image showing the teacher posing poolside in her bikini. “Teacher suspended after sex session with teen pupil ends up on hardcore porn website,” read the Mirror’s headline. The Daily Mail – the most successful English-language newspaper website in the world – even went so far as to claim that there would be a criminal investigation, and that this wasn’t the first time that the teacher in question had sexual relations with a student.
There was just one problem: It wasn’t true.
So how did this fake story make the leap from South America to the English-language press? The answer is tucked away in the bottom right-hand corner of the photo of the woman in her bikini: a credit labelled “CEN”.
Central European News (CEN) and its sister outfit EuroPics are small news agencies, largely unknown outside certain sections of the media, whose headquarters are in Canterbury in the UK (although they claim to have 35 staff based in offices across central and eastern Europe). In recent years, CEN has become one of the Western media’s primary sources of tantalising and attention-grabbing stories. They’re often bizarre, salacious, gruesome, or ideally all three: If you’ve read a story about someone in a strange country cutting off their own penis, the chances are it came from CEN.

The full crazy story here. The same conditions that reward viral news like much of what's on Buzzfeed also work on behalf of CEN. So it's some poetic justice that Buzzfeed did the legwork on debunking so many of CEN's stories. It reminds me of those movies like Blackhat in which the government has to release a hacker from prison to chase down other hackers, or a thief to catch a thief.

At the bottom of the piece, Buzzfeed publishes a list of stories they previously sourced from CEN. It's an amusing collection of headlines.

Buzzfeed: giving you what you'll share

The heavyweight personalization that social networks do either through something like the follow graph on Twitter or through more algorithmic approach on Facebook is designed to give people the stuff that they want. What we're focused on is giving people stuff that they think is worth sharing with other people. We want the stories we're doing to have the biggest possible impact. So if we do personalization, it would be more of a personalization about what you’re most likely to share or discuss with your friends.

That's Jonah Peretti on what type of personalization Buzzfeed focuses on, emphasis mine on what is a subtle but important focusing distinction for the service.

In the traditional news bundle, say in old school print newspapers, the mix of serious versus entertaining content was weighted much more to the former. Now that technology has allowed the creation of more personalized bundles of information, sites like Buzzfeed and the social networks like Facebook and Twitter are showing us people's natural preference in the mix of heavy versus light, and it turns out that ratio is much more weighted towards the fun.

As in the newspaper days, the entertaining content still subsidizes, to a large extent, the serious journalism. Buzzfeed is starting to do some original reporting, but more likely than not it's ad revenue from listicles and the more “frivolous” content that will pick up the tab for both. Plus ça change.

Jonah Peretti

This Felix Salmon interview with Jonah Peretti is terrific. Tracing Peretti's broad and meandering background gives many hints as to how he has come to be the reigning king of viral content, and his interdisciplinary explorations play no small part in his pattern recognition.

[I had no idea until I read this interview that Peretti's sister is Chelsea Peretti (most recently of Brooklyn Nine Nine fame). I saw her open for Sarah Silverman at the Largo in Los Angeles a few times.]

On the origin of the Huffington Post:

I knew that Arianna’s friends, who were on television but not on the Internet, were going to create a sensation if they blogged. You remember when celebrities first started tweeting? Everyone freaked out: “Oh, I can’t believe a celebrity’s tweeting.” Blogging at that time was all about people in their pajamas, the person who couldn’t be on TV, the little guy who finally has a voice. I knew that people would freak out if Larry David or Tina Brown or a senator or a congressman started to blog. We knew we could make that happen. We already had all these people committed, from Alec Baldwin to Larry David and Tina Brown—all going to blog for the first time for us on Huffington Post in the first week that we launched.

I knew that that would create a sensation, that some people would hate it, and that some people would love it, but that it would be an incredibly exciting development that every blogger would have to watch, and be excited to watch, and want to form an opinion on. That was what would generate the viral spike. The question was, all my previous projects did a spike and then crashed.

So I was like, “What keeps people there?” One of the stickiest sites on the Internet was the Drudge Report. With always-fresh headlines and splashes and things like that, people would come back every single day. That site was built over a really, really, long period of time, and had the Lewinsky scoop and other things that drove its usage. Tons of people have created clones that never took off, because they’re sticky but not contagious.

There were these two models that we just kind of bolted together. One was to make the site itself viral, which was celebrities blogging. I was very focused on making sure that they used the default blogging tools of the Internet. I think that everyone expected us to have some Flash site that wasn’t a real blog. I went to Ben and Mena Trott, who had started Six Apart. We used Movable Type, which at the time was the premiere blogging platform. We modified it a lot in order for it to work, but it had permalinks it was reverse chronological. It had all the things that blogs were supposed to have so that people who knew about blogging would see it and say, “Oh, Larry David is blogging.” Not, “Larry David’s doing some weird new thing that Arianna Huffington invented.”

We knew that was the piece that was going to make it take off and be contagious. Then Andrew posting links and headlines that were constantly updated would be the thing that made it sticky. You’d come to see the celebrities blogging, you’d say, “Wow, what does this mean? That blogging has evolved in this different way.” And then you would say, “Oh, there’s a good link here. There’s a good link here.” And you would just keep coming back every day. Even if Larry David didn’t blog again for three months, you’d be checking the site because you’d have great links to content around the web. That was sort of the idea.

On reality TV:

JP: One of the reasons reality TV became so dominant was because people looked at time as being the metric. And the reason that reality TV works well for time is that the classic reality TV formula, in the beginning, was the tribal council and somebody getting eliminated. So you could have 50 percent of the show being boring filler and you’re kind of wanting to change the channel but you’re like, “Oh, but I wonder if my favorite person’s going to get eliminated.” So you have to watch to the end to see the elimination. In a way, that was a way of gaming time. You could look at that and say, “Oh, they spent an hour watching this show, including the commercials. That means it must be a really high quality show.” But it also might just mean that they figured out a hook that incentivizes you to watch to the end and then did a lot of mediocre content in the middle.

On headlines:

FS: John Herrman [then of BuzzFeed, now of The Awl] wrote that piece about headlines.

JP: John wrote a piece saying the Internet provides many headlines for every article, sometimes better than what the author wrote, and that there just shouldn’t be headlines on articles. Headlines are generated on Twitter and all these different places and it is something that we think a lot about. What do people add to a story when they share it? In some cases it’s better than the headline that our team wrote and in some cases shows why content matters to them. Because you say, “I’m sharing this” and explain why you’re sharing it.