Dec 29, 2014 · 4 minutes

“Use lists whenever possible. Lists just hijack the brain’s neural circuitry.”

“Try to change every comma to a period.”

These two pearls of wisdom come from Emerson Spartz, a man The New Yorker calls "The Virologist" in a big feature in next week's magazine. Spartz runs a number of truly awful bottom-of-the-barrel "viral sites" -- the kind that, as Spartz advises, are comprised predominantly of lists, many of them stolen wholesale from other sites. Beyond offering up shitbricks of content like "34 People Who Shop At Wal-Mart And Need To Get Their S*** Together," Spartz's headlines seek to capitalize on what's known as the "curiosity gap," teasing a bit of information but saving the real kicker -- which is almost always disappointing -- for those foolish enough to click on the full link. One headline on today's Dose front page reads, "Someone Left This Dog Outside During A Rainstorm...Then This Happened." The "This" that "Happened" was that somebody let the dog in. Say WHAT??

Marantz himself doesn't lionize Spartz, but he does quote a half a dozen others who do. And maybe Spartz's fans have a point. The entrepreneur tells the magazine his sites bring in sixty million pageviews a month; judging by Quantcast's numbers for alone, there's little reason to doubt him. It's all too tempting for cynics to read Marantz's profile and weep for the current state of media, which allows a rehash of that year-old Batkid story -- written so carelessly that it mistakenly refers to The Riddler as The Joker -- to attract more pageviews than a rigorously-reported feature on poverty.

But there's another school of thought, one that fans of smart analysis and lively storytelling can latch onto as we head into 2015 -- that "viral content" is not some inevitable nightmarish future of media, but simply an isolated genre that's a much weaker business than many think.

One of the earliest people to argue this point is a guy who knows a thing or two about fast, cheap content: Bryan Goldberg. Writing at Pando a year ago, Goldberg cites two major reasons why investors shouldn't be too bullish on this space. First, building a business on the back of Facebook is a dangerous game. The network's algorithms are in constant flux -- all the sudden, Facebook could cease to prioritize lazy listicles in News Feeds and begin to promote more substantive stories. In fact, earlier this year, the company began to deemphasize "curiosity gap"-style headlines and other forms of "clickbait," which promise great riches beyond the click, only to provide a grainy video of a woman letting a dog inside, instead. Spartz is open about his sites' reliance on Facebook and admits, “I’m aware that [Facebook] might not be so generous forever.” That said, he doesn't provide a solution for when and if that generosity dries up.

Frankly, I'm doubtful that Facebook will ever really put these viral contents sites out to pasture. The kind of light, clickable, and shareable content they offer leaves users always coming back to Facebook for more. Goldberg's second big point, however, is far more important. Although these sites seek to collect vast amounts of data on their visitors, when it comes to all-purpose viral content farms, advertisers often don't know who they've reached until it's too late:

The problem for sites that depend upon viral traffic is that they have no idea who is going to come to their website one month to the next. This month, an article about adorable cats might go viral, bringing middle-age women to the site. Next month, an article about half-naked Miley Cyrus might go viral, bringing teenage boys to the site. And when a single article often drives 30 percent of a given month’s visitors, it can lead to massive demographic swings.

How can a web property build deep and meaningful relationships with brands over the course of many years, when their own audience has no consistency? Goldberg contrasts these sites with the Verge, which day in and day out attracts tech-savvy twenty- and thirty-somethings with disposable income -- an extremely valuable demographic. The Verge may not have as many readers as the most popular viral mills, but each reader is worth far more. If we put these sites on a matrix measuring reach against engagement, Dose's reach would be huge, but its readers wouldn't be very engaged. Meanwhile, Verge's reach is solid, but its engagement is also deep. Goldberg predicts that brands -- and like it or not, they are the ones paying all of our salaries -- will ultimately prefer to target a smaller number of readers who are deeply engaged and, most importantly, have deep pockets.

I'll add one more big reason why sites like Dose and Distractify and Playbuzz will likely never compete with the Verges and VICEs of the world: Technology. Engagement aside, that latter group of sites offers technological tools and expertise that allow advertisers to create their own high-quality branded content -- content that is infinitely more persuasive than a banner ad or even a sponsored listicle.

That's not to say terrible viral sites like Spartz's are about to disappear, or that their traffic is about to fall off a cliff like some have predicted. I will say, however, that the business prospects of these sites is perhaps overplayed, particularly in features like Marantz's. And best of all, that leaves plenty of advertising money on the table for sites with a commitment to quality, not just "virality."