Future Tense

The Virality of Evil

How BuzzFeed’s translation project will hurt foreign news.

Duolingo owl, Buzzfeed "evil" badge, people use computers at an Internet cafe in Changzhi, north China's Shanxi province June 20, 2007.
Students who sign up for Duolingo’s language courses will be tasked with translating BuzzFeed articles, one sentence at a time. The translated stories will then appear online.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by STR/Reuters

The idea that electronic media would bring the world together is not particularly original—remember Marshall McLuhan’s “global village”?—but its proponents have always been hazy on the details. Are we to celebrate the fact that the “Gangnam Style,” a satire of South Korean hipster lifestyle, has garnered roughly 1.8 billion views on YouTube when most viewers probably never got the joke?

Thanks to social media, ideas can now spread at rapid-fire speed. Just look at “Kony2012,” last year’s ill-fated viral campaign to hunt the Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony. Alas, the speed doesn’t easily translate into action: Instead of deep engagement with an issue by a dozen committed people, we get rather shallow engagement by a few million—and in ways that might undermine efforts to promote global awareness about a problem like guerrilla warfare in Africa. Such viral campaigns might work for highly targeted interventions like fund-raising, but anything beyond that is tricky.

The latest innovation in digital cosmopolitanism comes from BuzzFeed, a site that has rapidly become one of the most visited online properties. In August 2013, BuzzFeed had 85 million visitors, three times more than just a year ago; by next year, it expects to become one of the most popular sites in the world.

By and large, BuzzFeed’s stories are written to be shared—the site used to prominently display the slogan “The Viral Web in Real-Time”—which explains why, according to one recent study, its stories receive more shares on Facebook than stories by any other site, including those of the New York Times and the Guardian. (A typical BuzzFeed story: 10 quotations, with pictures of Kanye West and Freddie Mercury, presented in a quiz-like format under the headline “Who Said It: Kanye West Or Freddie Mercury?”)

Judging by the spectacular results, BuzzFeed has turned “virality” into a science: Thanks to advanced analytics and tools of Big Data, they know exactly what needs to be said—and how—to get the story shared by most people. Its approach is best described as Taylorism of the viral: Just like Frederick Taylor knew how to design the factory floor to maximize efficiency, BuzzFeed knows how to design its articles to produce most clicks and shares. The content of the article is secondary to its viral performance.

Until now, there was just one barrier to BuzzFeed’s plan for world domination: While many of its stories are highly visual, they still contain a fair amount of text—a barrier to non-English speakers. Well, this barrier is no more: BuzzFeed has struck a deal with Duolingo. Duolingo is a promising startup for studying languages that was founded by Luis von Ahn, the person we have to thank (or blame) for inventing the anti-spam CAPTCHA system that prompts us to type what we see in two pictures to make sure we are not robots on a spamming mission. Initially, the CAPTCHA system relied on random text, but then Von Ahn realized that he could get people to fight spam and help to digitize books at the same time: Why have people enter random text if they can be entering hard-to-read text from scanned books?

Internet guru Clay Shirky sees such logic—which he has dubbed “cognitive surplus”—at work in many other parts of digital culture. In his 2010 book of the same name, Shirky argued that we must find ways to harness this “cognitive surplus” and turn it into social good. Duolingo is Von Ahn’s attempt to build a business by leveraging “the cognitive surplus” that is inherent in language learning. Millions—perhaps billions—of sentences are translated every day by students of foreign languages. All those sentences tend to disappear into the void of language textbooks and student notebooks. This is where BuzzFeed comes in: Students who sign up for Duolingo’s language courses would be tasked with translating BuzzFeed articles, one sentence at a time. The translated stories will then appear online. The model is quite elegant: Students have to translate sentences anyway; Duolingo doesn’t charge students for language learning, but BuzzFeed does pay it for the final translations.

Here is BuzzFeed’s version of “global village”: If its plan works, more and more people around the globe will be reading about U.S. popular culture in their native languages. No, what it is interested in is taking viral stories that have already proven their worth in English and taking them global, conquering even more eyeballs that were previously hard to reach due to language barriers.

In the process, it gains even more traffic and could someday enter local advertising markets—BuzzFeed is launching local editions in Spanish, French, and Brazilian Portuguese, too. National news players that produce genuine hard news—the kind that takes money to report and might not receive many likes and shares on social networks, as it focuses on issues that are grim rather than viral—would have a powerful new competitor. There’s no scenario in which BuzzFeed’s “cosmopolitan turn” is good for foreign news sites: They will be pressed to either soften up their own news coverage—to boost social media friendliness—or be faced with the prospect of making even less money off their online advertising.

In some respect, BuzzFeed is putting the toolkits of Big Data and crowdsourcing to logical use—assuming that it doesn’t really see itself as being in the news business. BuzzFeed’s goal, after all, is to get the maximum number of shares and likes on social media—for it’s the shares and likes that determine how much money the site is making. In this, BuzzFeed thinks more like a Silicon Valley startup rather than a traditional journalistic entity, with its outdated civic concerns that go beyond the need to maximize and monetize traffic.

The BuzzFeed-Duolingo partnership reveals the difficulty of operating with apolitical concepts like “cognitive surplus” that are not properly grounded in economics or theories of globalization. On the face of it, Duolingo and BuzzFeed are harnessing plenty of “cognitive surplus,” having found an effective way to tap into the vast market of people who want to learn English to succeed in today’s global economy. But what is here to celebrate?

This particular instance of harnessing of “cognitive surplus”—in the name of building a global village, with BuzzFeed as its most popular international news outlet—might actually undermine the work of news outlets that keep the world informed about news that do not revolve around Kanye West, Hollywood, or cats. 

Will there still be any serious news outlets in the “global village”? Or will it, like most villages, thrive on gossip alone? So far, the latter seems more likely—and for reasons that have everything to do with economics and little to do with technology.

Correction, Oct. 29, 2013: This article originally used different analytics platforms to compare the BBC’s and BuzzFeed’s traffic. The sentence about the BBC has been removed because the comparisons are not exact. The piece also said that “The Viral Web in Real Time” is BuzzFeed’s motto. It was a prominently displayed tag line on the site for some time, but no longer is. The article also said that BuzzFeed is not interested in bringing local foreign news to the English-language blogosphere; BuzzFeed has a foreign editor and correspondents in Turkey, Syria, and Moscow. That sentence has been removed. The article also originally suggested that BuzzFeed is entering local advertising markets in foreign countries. BuzzFeed is not currently in local markets. This article also originally misspelled Duolingo founder Luis von Ahn’s first name.

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.