Another new filtering platform is Medium, whose beta version launched in August. The brains behind the project include Twitter founders Evan Williams and Biz Stone. But the venture isn’t microblogging—rather, it’s more like a professionalization of Blogger, which Williams helped launch back in 1999. Anyone can use Medium to self-publish content, creating topics that contain stories. Those stories are ordered by reader popularity or newness. The topics can be open to user contributions—creating more of a forum or discussion feel—or not, meaning collections can also act as straight-up purveyors of information, still displayed based on what appeals to readers. “Medium is designed to allow people to choose the level of contribution they prefer,” the founders wrote in the site’s introductory note. “We know that most people, most of the time, will simply read and view content, which is fine. Together, the contributions of many add up to create compelling and useful experiences. You may be inspired to post one time or several times a day—either way is okay.” Medium could be a tool that allows existing media companies to rejigger how they offer content, using collections to attach explainers to news updates.
Social media is much more than a filtering tool—it’s already the new news platform in the sense that many websites get the majority of their clicks referred from sites like Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest. At a Future of Media panel held at NYU in May, both Buzzfeed co-founder Jonah Peretti and Jezebel editor in chief Jessica Coen said that Facebook is their biggest traffic source. “I’ve really started to think less about ‘what are people going to search for,’” Coen said, “and more about what can I assign here that I know people feel strongly about.” Now folks like Cory Booker (yes, that Cory Booker) are creating platforms based on the share without worrying about that former pillar of traffic, search engine optimization. The Newark mayor, Nate Richardson (ex-Gilt City), and Sarah Ross (formerly of TechCrunch and Yahoo) are building #waywire, a social video network aimed at young adults slated to launch this fall. “#waywire is constructed to function like a personalized wire service,” Ross said, including a mix of original, in-house content; videos from media partners; and user-generated contributions. Each video will be presented alongside five related videos to help build context into the experience. “We’ve created a system where the video is more easily shared,” said Ross. “You can automatically syndicate that into one of many social networks.”
Other interesting and relatively new sharing tools include Storify, which helps users create narratives by collecting other social-media snippets, like tweets, and CNN iReport, which includes user-generated content in story coverage.
The link offers discrete facts or topics as the atomic news unit, but in that model, readers seek out the information that interests them—it doesn’t have a means of enticing them to click. In social, the click incentive comes from knowing the sharer. When neither scenario applies, enter the meme, a bit of cultural shorthand that reaches the familiarity of slang. Memes are best known as the purview of very unserious Internet trends like Huh’s I Can Has Cheezburger, a bottomless collection of cat pictures with ungrammatical captions. But Buzzfeed, another site known for viral posts of baby animals, is reimagining the meme as a vehicle for news.
In late 2011, site co-founder Peretti started to shift the site’s focus, poaching Buzzfeed’s now editor in chief, Ben Smith, from Politico and hiring a stable of journalists to do original reporting. But the new hires don’t solely post traditional stories. Instead, Buzzfeed aims to make news viral using the same formula it does with a montage of corgis: by making it entertaining. The bottom of every story, just like the bottom of every animal medley, has meme-y reaction buttons like LOL, WIN, OMG, CUTE, and FAIL. As Smith noted in a July interview with Nieman Journalism Lab, some stories are embellished with visual memes; a short dispatch about North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s military promotion included a humorous photo scroll of Kim and a collection of GIFs with celebrities clapping for him.
Another news-as-meme outfit is Upworthy, live since late March, which bills itself as a “social media outfit with a mission: to help people find important content that is as fun to share as a FAIL video of some idiot surfing off his roof.”
Upworthy has intentionally kept its focus, so far, on offering visual content via Facebook. It makes frequent appearances in users’ newsfeeds once they “like” it, presenting important issues with clever headlines and packaging . . . which makes it a kind of meta version of all of the foregoing: It filters memes or links so they can be shared. No pyramids anywhere in sight.