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.
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.
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."
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, and Upworthy, which has raised $12 million, as near as we can tell after combing through hours upon hours of web searches, the person behind ViralNova is a young web designer and SEO consultant based in Ohio. The site's opaque About page refers to the numerous "media companies, bloggers, and other professionals" who have inquired and gives 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 its creator's 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 is one name that consistently came up: Scott DeLong, a Kent State graduate whose various social media profiles describe him as a freelance web developer. 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."
Update: This piece previously identified a trio of people behind the site. DeLong contacted us after publication and said that one (an ex-girlfriend) and the other (a web designer) had collaborated in the past, but ViralNoval is a one-person effort. "I work out of my house in Ohio with a corn field for a view," he wrote in an email. He asked us to remove their names, which we have. "I have given them both random freelance jobs in the past," DeLong wrote. "They both work on other things now, not ViralNova. I care about both of them and hate to see their names brought into the 'controversy' here."
All of the sites we found sharing the Adsense account 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 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 a now-defunct video site Nothing Toxic, and appears on archived versions of Nothing Toxic's contact page. Nothing Toxic was a portal known for housing a variety of graphic videos with extreme violent and sexual content, such as footage of people being murdered or severely injured. DeLong told us he doesn't like being linked to the sexual content that was added after he sold a majority of the site in 2007. "I built it to capitalize on the growing craze for accident videos, like skateboards falling down and shocking stuff. I then sold it to a small company in Russia in early 2007 who wanted to keep me around to continue running things. But from there, it started to become more and more NSFW, trading traffic with some adult sites," he wrote. Nothing Toxic was sold again to male-centric video site Break.com.
After Nothing Toxic, DeLong dabbled in countless other online ventures, including a host of celebrity and social gaming sites, among others. In the About page of one of the sites, GameRecoil, DeLong described himself as someone who "created and ultimately sold several Web site properties in the last three years."
In perhaps the best glimpse of the world that produced ViralNova, under 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:
- My largest individual accomplishment was starting a video site (pre-YouTube) for $100 and ultimately selling it in 2008 for $800,000. In the months I owned it, I made as much as $55,000/mo in revenue.
- I have started and ran two extremely profitable link sites. What I mean by a link site is basically a “middle man” for traffic going to and from multiple other sites. I started one in May 2006 and sold it in May 2007 for $120,000. The other I started in July 2007 and sold in May 2008 for $175,000. While owning these sites, I made as much as $20,000/mo from them.
- During the MySpace resource site craze, I started one as well. I put exactly 3 hours of work into it and made over $20,000 in a year. I am still collecting revenue from this site and haven’t even visited it in months.
- In May 2009, I started a text-based browser game for $1500. It made $2000-3000 per month for a year before I got too busy with other things to continue maintaining it. It still makes over $500/month on auto pilot to this day.
- On December 23rd, 2009, I started a new video site just as an experiment to see if it was still possible to make money in the market with the dominance of YouTube. It cost me $1000 to make it, and it made $1000/month for 3 months before I sold it in April 2010 for $8000.
- In 2005, when I first started researching ways to make money online, I launched 3 sites in very obscure markets. Each site had 3 pages each and took me about an hour each to complete. I literally did nothing to them since then, and honestly, I don’t even know the FTP information to them anymore. It’s been 5 years, and they still make me $100/month and have brought in a few thousand dollars since launching. Not bad for 3 hours of work.
- In August 2008, I purchased a celebrity site for $50,000. I made the $50,000 back by March and have been profiting $2-6k per month from the site ever since.
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 GodVine, GodShare, ChristianHut, and BiblicalVine. Unlike the proprietors of most Christian sites, DeLong's motivations were probably not very reverential: in an allusive personal blog post, DeLong suggests he created the sites because he saw a market opportunity. "There wasn’t a lot of competition in this market except for one major company," he wrote. "They were No. 1 for several years until I entered the picture and somewhat quickly overtook them with a combination of innovation and luck." 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. 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?