A BuzzFeed in a Box: The People Behind ViralNova

Alex Litel
A BuzzFeed in a Box: The Person Behind ViralNova
A BuzzFeed in a Box: The Person Behind ViralNova

ViralNova came out of nowhere. A collection of image-heavy, emotionally manipulating posts unabashedly in the style of BuzzFeed and Upworthy, the site launched in May with stories like "14 Photos That Will Warm Your Heart" and "Lioness Saves her Cub Trapped on a Cliff."  There are no good traffic statistics for ViralNova — 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.

Source: Compete.com

In just a few months, Alexa says ViralNova's U.S. traffic has rocketed past publishers like Gizmodo, the New York Post, NPR, and People.  But just for a sense of scale, look at the figures from Compete.com. (Don't pay too much attention to the numbers on the left hand scale; judging by their figures for The Wire, Compete's stats tend to be an order of magnitude smaller than other analytics suites.) In October, the most recent numbers available, ViralNova was already nearly half the size of the sites that inspired it. That kind of success has attracted quite a bit of attention from tech writers, but no one knows who is behind it or what they're planning to do.

RELATED: Jeff Bezos' '60 Minutes' Surprise: Amazon Drones

ViralNova bills itself along similar lines as BuzzFeed and Upworthy: they specialize in viral content, focused on emotionally potent or striking stories that will provoke maximum shareability on Facebook and Twitter. And whereas Upworthy says it aims to bring about social change (it might post a worthwhile video of, say, Robert Reich talking economic inequality under the punchy headline "Trying To Get Richer? Here's Why You Can Pretty Much Give Up Now"), ViralNova's specialty is strictly whatever will get you to click and share. Recent stories on the site include "I've Never Seen Anything So Heartbreaking In My Life. But It's Completely Beautiful At The Same Time" and "If You Think This Is A Normal Wedding, Think Again. What Happened Obliterated My Heart." 

The media insider reaction to ViralNova has been a mixture of scorn and fear. Last month, The Awl's Choire Sicha suggested ViralNova might be the worst site on the internet, ranking it ahead of (or below?) the troll essays of Thought Catalog, pointing to one of the site's more morbid headlines: "This Old Couple Tragically Died In A Car Accident. But What Rescuers Found Inside Was Beautiful." The Guardian's Oliver Burkeman toured the site and concluded that ViralNova "shows what happens when this approach is taken to its logical conclusion. And it's not pretty. … The problem with the relentless 'search for meaning,' though, is that pretty soon it extinguishes all meaning in favour of this pure emotion." Burkeman also pointed out that one of the site's most popular stories—a four-part screenshot of a Tumblr reblog conversation about a rescue dog—is not even remotely true. At BuzzFeed, tech editor John Herrman found ViralNova's traffic stats impressive and concluded that the site is "basically an invisible secret tunnel between the dark internet — chain-letter internet — and Facebook."

RELATED: Scientists Hit the Prehistoric Poop Jackpot

But these fears may miss the mark. ViralNova isn't so much the logical conclusion of this shareable social media era as much as a sign of its end. Unlike BuzzFeed, which has raised $46 million from investors and has hundreds of employees, or Upworthy, which has raised $12 million, as near as we can tell after combing through ViralNova's archives and hours upon hours of web searches, we are pretty sure who is behind the site: a trio of young web designers and SEO consultants based in Ohio. Their opaque About page mocks the numerous "media companies, bloggers, and other professionals" who have inquired and give shadowy hints about its creators. "Where are you located? Internet. Seriously, no office." "How many people work at ViralNova? Take a guess. It’s less than that." When you ask for an interview, as I did, you get a response like this:

Currently, we are not doing any interviews. If you want to send some questions over, I could possibly answer some. I'd also need to know the context of your article as, like you said, many journalists don't like the style of the site. 

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 VoicesPaw My GoshThat 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 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."

RELATED: Thanksgivmukkah Gave Instagram Its Best Day Ever

All of these sites are housed on a IP address range associated with "Edge Interactive LLC," which Delong says he owns in his LinkedIn profile. WHOIS records show Paw My Gosh and That Cute Site are registered to DeLong and Guðjónsson, respectively, and the pair seem to be frequently connected: the two are connected to one another on Google+ and Facebook, and DeLong also leased an apartment in Benidorm, the small Spanish town where Guðjónsson says he lives.

You can also see plenty of similarities between ViralNova and the other sites. Paw My Gosh and ViralNova share similar footer styles: the share button styling on an early version of ViralNova matches that of Paw My Gosh, and the current version of ViralNova shares "LIKE US ON FB :)" and "GET MORE STUFF LIKE THIS IN YOUR INBOX!" copy with Paw My Gosh. The very first post on ViralNova—about a lion rescuing a cub—previously appeared on Must Smile with an extremely similar introductory paragraph and title.

These domains are far from DeLong's first internet ventures. Delong, who graduated from Kent State in 2004, spent two years at The Karcher Group, a local internet firm, before dedicating himself full-time to his own internet businesses. The email address DeLong uses to register domains pops up in a feed for now-defunct NSFW video site Nothing Toxic, and appears on archived versions of Nothing Toxic's contact page (NSFW warning). Nothing Toxic was a portal known for housing a variety graphic videos with extreme violent and sexual content, such as footage of people being murdered or severely injured. DeLong sold Nothing Toxic to another party who later sold Nothing Toxic to male-centric video site Break.com. 

RELATED: Comet ISON Might Not Be Dead after All, Scientists Say

After Nothing Toxic, DeLong dabbled in countless other online ventures, including a host of celebrity, porn and social gaming sites, among others. In the about page of one of the sites, GameRecoil, Scott described himself as someone who "created and ultimately sold several Web site properties in the last three years." His coauthor on GameRecoil was Heddleston, a fellow North Canton resident who is associated with the same address as DeLong though the exact nature of their relationship is unclear. Heddleston, who graduated from Kent State in 2009, also briefly worked at The Karcher Group, and is the only person other than DeLong who lists "Edge Interactive LLC" in their resume. On that resume, Heddleston says she began working at Edge Interactive in May 2007 as an independent contractor, and lists her duties as encompassing things like "General SEO & web marketing," "Daily web marketing research," "Article marketing," and "Content updates (both in blog and video site format)."

RELATED: SpaceX's Thankgiving Launch Didn't Go Well

But perhaps the best glimpse of the world that produced ViralNova,  the pseudonym Drake Hunter, DeLong briefly operated a site in 2010 called PublisherPoint, which aimed to provide advice for "aspiring webmasters [who wished to] make truckloads of cash." There is a page on PublisherPoint in which DeLong describes his journey from humble Halo 2 fan site webmaster who read "an article that talked about simple Adsense tweaks that could increase your earnings" to someone who generated more than $1.5 million in revenues within three years. He also rattles off the following series of accomplishments:

 

A video from PublisherPoint of DeLong (aka "Drake Hunter") talking about his online business exploits.

DeLong's next major internet success was perhaps the polar opposite of Nothing Toxic—a series of affirming, positive Christian sites. In late 2010, DeLong launched the sites GodVineGodShareChristianHut, and BiblicalVine. Unlike the proprietors of most Christian sites, DeLong's motivations were probably not very reverential: in an allusive personal blog post, DeLong, who oddly refers to the Christian website market as "penguins with eating disorders," suggests he created the sites because he saw a market opportunity. GodVine, a Christian viral video site, became particularly popular, and within two years, it averaged 3.5 million monthly visitors and had 2.8 million Facebook likes.  

In October 2012, DeLong sold GodVine to Salem Communications, a conservative and Christian media conglomerate, for $4.2 million. Heddleston says on her LinkedIn profile that she presently works at the Salem Web Network as a "Video Content Specialist," presumably on the GodVine property. When talking about the acquisition on his personal blog, DeLong wrote of the sale, "This pretty much puts me in a position most people dream of – relatively young, financially secure forever, and nothing holding me back. Strangely, as much of a blessing as this is, it also presents a lot of challenges. What do I do now? Where do I go?" 

Though ViralNova is the synthesis of a self-made millionaire's years of experience in SEO-driven content, it also represents the volatility of internet-oriented media—someone without venture capital, publicists, or big-name journalists, effectively built their own immensely successful version of BuzzFeed or Upworthy. As much as those sites might market their proprietary technology and processes, ViralNova suggests it can be reverse engineered fairly quickly by anyone with a careful eye for emulation — which is to say everyone on the Internet. The Washington Post recently bragged that its own Upworthy clone KnowMore recently became the site's leading blog in a matter of weeks, prompting BuzzFeed's Hermann to write that, "Either every publisher that doesn't try to emulate Upworthy's 'curiosity gap' technique is leaving huge amounts of traffic on the table, or this is a temporary, exploitable quirk in the way stories are shared, related to the way Facebook works on a basic level." But drawing a distinction between permanent change and temporary fluke seems to ignore the nature of the web's tendency towards constant impermanence. When BuzzFeed or Upworthy can be bought off the shelf, the question isn't really what does that mean to journalism? It is rather, when the number of viral media sites proliferates across the web, what does that mean for BuzzFeed and Upworthy?

This article was originally published at http://www.thewire.com/technology/2013/12/buzzfeed-box-people-behind-viralnova/71529/