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.