Neetzan’s Dilemma

Viral news can kill viral news, reports Farhad Manjoo in The Wall Street Journal (12/2/13). That’s what Neetzan Zimmerman, whose job it is to feed the viral-news beast on a daily basis for Gawker, worries about. Neetzan generates huge traffic for Gawker by spotting and posting news-stories likely to spread quickly online. The problem is that in recent "years viral news has been co-opted by advertisers, pranksters, political operatives and others looking to sell something." Neetzan feels obligated "to note when a story looks fishy," but when he does, it tends to be a buzz kill.

Neetzan is concerned that if "internet culture eats itself," he’ll be out of a job. "When speaking truth to internet culture doesn’t result in traffic," he worries, "I may lose my edge and I’ll have to find something else to do." For now, however, Neetzan doesn’t seem to have much to worry about: "He posts only about a dozen items a day. Almost every one becomes a big traffic hit – an astonishing rate of success." On a monthly basis, his posts often generate more traffic "than everyone else at Gawker combined," possibly making him "the most popular blogger working on the web today."

Neetzan attributes his hit rate to "a deep connection to his audience’s evolving, irreducibly human, primal sensibilities." He says he can assess a news item’s viral potential within about 15 seconds, crediting a "biological algorithm." His advantage over a machine is his ability to detect subtle shifts in "big story arcs" quickly, feeling "the changes on a day-to-day basis, as the viral news turns." He says it’s like "being plugged into the foundation of man," the "stuff that people really care about, not the stuff they’re pretending to care about at cocktail parties."

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