You clicked the headline above to get here. Would you click on these stories?
Likely. You might even share them via Facebook or Twitter with friends that will share them as well.
They’re from ViralNova, an obscure website that launched in May with a headline format that suddenly has journalists and bloggers everywhere trying to crack its code. Why? Because the headlines work. They hit an emotional, empathetic, and yes, curious note with readers, and in this click-hungry industry, the new kid on the block is making waves.
But here’s the catch: no one is absolutely sure who the new kid is.
Alex Litel at The Wire did a deep dive into the behind-the-scenes of ViralNova:
There are no good traffic statistics. The site is not tracked by comScore and its “About” page is intentionally vague — but according to Alexa, in May it was the 443,652nd most popular website in the world and now it’s ranked 1,685th.
There’s an FAQ section with snippy answers (“Where are you located?” “The Internet.” “Who’s your audience?” “People.”) and it also states they aren’t running paid ads on their site. Consider big sites like BuzzFeed, Gawker, and Business Insider that are funded and feature sponsored content in order to employ its developers, editors and writers. (“How many people work at ViralNova?” “Take a guess. It’s less than that.”)
Whoever is behind ViralNova doesn’t give interviews.
Despite the attempts to hide their identity, we were able to connect ViralNova through its AdSense account (follow the money) to a number of other sites, including Epic Voices, Paw My Gosh, That Cute Site and Must Smile. And following the trails of those sites, there were three names that consistently came up: Scott DeLong and Sarah Heddleston, a pair of Kent State graduates whose various social media profiles describe them as freelance web developers, and Brynjólfur Guðjónsson, a Icelandic web designer who reports residing on the southern coast of Spain. Neither Heddleston nor Guðjónsson would respond to requests for comment. Although DeLong declined to answer any questions, he did seemingly confirm his involvement in the site: when The Wire reached DeLong at his personal email address, he wrote back, “Also, I replied to you via the viralnova gmail address last week.”
The ordeal rings similar to when BuzzFeed soared to new heights with its discovery of how well the “listicle” worked. People moaned and groaned over it (and some still do), but its clicks don’t lie.
BuzzFeed, now responsible for as many hard-hitting pieces as it is 90s GIFs, earned senior editor Matt Stopera a profile in Bloomberg Businessweek in 2012:
But there’s something about Stopera’s lists on BuzzFeed that calls to mind every bewildering pop-culture streak you’ve ever puzzled over. It suggests somebody has cracked a code.
Luckily, the code switches up every once in a while, but it’s interesting that those responsible for ViralNova don’t want the glory of being the next craze throwing the media world off its game.