The Business Of Infecting The Web

Andrew Marantz has a fascinating profile of Emerson Spartz, a 27-year-old who runs (formerly For those of us who care about real journalism, it makes for depressing reading:

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.”

Marantz sees Spartz as something akin to “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.

Apparently, Spartz “does not distinguish between quality and virality”:

He uses “effective,” “successful,” and “good” interchangeably. At one point, he told me, “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.”