Dec 2, 2013 · 3 minutes

BuzzFeed announced today that it reached 130 million unique visitors in November, its best-ever traffic month and a 350 percent year-on-year increase. Facebook, as BuzzFeed itself reported, was responsible for a large chunk of that traffic.

The BuzzFeed annonuncement came the morning after the Wall Street Journal published Farhad Manjoo’s profile of Gawker’s Neetzan Zimmerman. In the piece, Manjoo notes that Zimmerman’s posts, which cover such topics as Twitter meltdowns and meta-Rebecca Black, generate more than 30 million pageviews a month.

This is interesting news for the media industry, but it shouldn’t be mistaken as good news. That both BuzzFeed and Gawker are proving adept at generating mass pageviews doesn’t prove much beyond the fact that they’re generating mass pageviews. In effect, their success at gathering large audiences around content, often as a result of giant wallops of referred traffic from Facebook, is just the next stepping stone along from search engine optimization on the pageviews pond.

Just as new media companies such as the Huffington Post specialized in “optimizing” their content so that it would be picked up by Google’s search spiders – a practise that includes loading up a Web page with borderline-gratuitous tags, writing headlines that are ploddingly prosaic, and irrelevantly dropping “Britney Spears” into a story about war in Iraq – today’s new media companies are gussying up their content with the attire that makes it appeal to the crowds who boredly trawl Facebook in search of distraction while at work or school. This time round, at least, publications are optimizing for humans rather than algorithms. But it’s fair to ask about the extent to which these developments can be attributed to “innovation” rather than just plain old psychological manipulation.

Zimmerman and BuzzFeed share an expertise: a seemingly innate sense for what sort of content will “go viral,” reaching millions of readers through social media channels. Some of that viral success comes down to grabby headlines (“Noah Didn’t Think His Glasses Were Cool, So His Mom Got Thousands of Strangers to Convince Him”). And some of its has to do with packaging (lists and videos are popular). A lot of it, however, has to do with exploiting human emotion. Manjoo writes that Zimmerman’s checklist before he plucks a piece of content out of his RSS reader, puts it in a new box, and ties it up with a fresh ribbon, is the following: “Is it cute, outrageous, heartwarming, hilarious, anger-inducing?”

Similarly, the behavioral analyst at Policy Mic, another site that trades on traffic from Facebook, told me that bold language and content that provokes either delight or outrage is bound to strike a chord with potential readers.

Upworthy has found success with similar methods, except with the promise that it is drawing attention to “Things that matter.” Its emotive headlines (sample: “His First 4 Sentences Are Interesting. The 5th Blew My Mind. And Made Me A Little Sick”) helped it reap nearly 50 million uniques in October, an impressive achievement for a one-and-a-half year-old media startup.

For Zimmerman, the ability to divine these viral insights seems almost spiritual. "For me to be plugged into this stuff is like being plugged into the foundation of man," he told Manjoo. He went on to say that he possessed a “biological algorithm.” Unfortunately for Zimmerman, it seems other sentient beings also possess this magical talent.

A slew of new media companies are wising up to the mechanics of “success through social.” This morning, The Wire’s Alex Litel revealed that the latest viral news sensation, ViralNova, is the work of one dude working out of his house in Ohio. There exists a conservative counterpart to Upworthy called the Independent Journal Review, which, according to BuzzFeed, is doing quite well. And, as Business Insider’s Alyson Shontell has pointed out, you can also add Distractify, Twisted Sifter, the Washington Post’s Know More, and FaithIt to the growing list. You can see from the following sample of headlines, that they all lift from the same Heart-Rending Headlines playbook:

  • When Rough Men Approach A Little Girl, I Was Scared. Then I Realized What They Were REALLY Doing. (Distractify)

  • Howard Dean’s Comments About Healthcare Sound Like They Come Straight Out of ‘1984’ (IJR)

  • This Light-Bending Cube of Mirrors Will Really Trip You Out (Twisted Sifter)

  • At Least 73 Abortion Clinics Have Shut Down Since 2011. Here’s Why (Know More)

  • A Retired Mathematician Found A Rotting Cabin From 1830. What He Did With It Is Perfection (ViralNova)

  • This Brilliant Story Proves It: Women, You’re Way More Beautiful Than You Think (FaithIt)

Is it cute? Outrageous? Heartwarming? Hilarious? Anger-inducing? Cringeworthy? Vomit-provoking? Life-threatening? Annoying as hell?

Yes, to all of the above.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman for Pando]