Of all of Facebook’s superpowers, perhaps the most disconcerting is how it can make online publishers disappear with the push of a button.
Think I’m exaggerating? Just look at what happened to websites like Upworthy, Viralnova and Distractify, which amassed enormous Facebook followings and then faded from view after the site’s algorithm started to weed out pages that published hyperbolic headlines and low-value fluff. Other publishers that depend on Facebook for a large portion of their traffic — which is to say, most of them — fear they could be next under the guillotine.
But there is also a remarkable story about longevity in the Facebook publishing world. It comes, improbably, from Vilnius, Lithuania, where a small but mighty digital publisher is successfully navigating the changing tides of Facebook’s algorithms. Its story illustrates the qualities needed to survive in today’s Facebook-dominated digital media world: agility, lean operations, a clearly defined brand and a fair bit of luck.
The company, Bored Panda, might not be familiar to you. But if you have a Facebook account and a pulse, you’ve probably seen its handiwork. Maybe it was “10+ Before-And-After Pics That Prove Men Look Better With Beards,” or “41 Times Uber Drivers Surprised Their Clients.” Or perhaps you watched “Shh, Don’t Wake Them,” a 49-second video montage of dogs, cats and hamsters sleeping peacefully.
Lightweight and inoffensive posts like these have made Bored Panda one of the biggest attractions on Facebook. Its page received more than 30 million likes, shares, comments and reactions last month, far more than companies like BuzzFeed, CNN and The New York Times, according to NewsWhip, which compiles data on social media publishers. Its website had 116 million visitors last month, according to its internal analytics.
The company has done all this without raising outside funding, unlike digital powerhouses such as BuzzFeed and Vice, which have collected hundreds of millions of dollars. It also has only 41 employees, and the low operating costs, along with its enormous popularity, have made for good business. Tomas Banisauskas, Bored Panda’s founder, told me he expects to be profitable this year with $20 million to $30 million in revenue, mostly from the advertisements that appear on its website. Roughly 90 percent of its web traffic comes from Facebook, making the social network by far the biggest factor in Bored Panda’s success.
“They’re a really helpful company for us,” Mr. Banisauskas, 31, said of Facebook.
Bored Panda began as a side project in 2009, while Mr. Banisauskas, then a freelance videographer, was studying business administration at Vilnius University. He was inspired by feats of internet creativity like the Million Dollar Homepage, in which an entrepreneur auctioned off a million pixels on a website for $1 each. And he came up with the idea for a website that would, as he put it, “fight boredom with art and good news stories.”
On the content side, Bored Panda’s strategy followed a familiar playbook. It collected user-generated content from Reddit, Instagram, Twitter and other social platforms and repackaged it with tempting headlines. But by focusing on art, photography, and other creative pursuits, and by studiously sticking to the kind of apolitical content that few people object to, Bored Panda has steadily built a feel-good, escapist empire.
Bored Panda has the advantage of getting most of its content free from up-and-coming artists and other creative types who want the kind of exposure a large Facebook page can bring. (And yes, it does ask for permission. I contacted several artists whose work had been featured on Bored Panda, and all said they’d given their blessing.) It has also adopted a quality-over-quantity strategy that appears to have served it well. It published only 519 articles in October, or roughly 16 posts a day, according to NewsWhip. Compare that with CNN, which published 5,595 articles during the month, and Fox News, which published 51,919 articles.
It hasn’t been a straight line to success. In its early days, Bored Panda relied on StumbleUpon, a link aggregation site that was popular at the time, for much of its traffic. But in 2010, according to Mr. Banisauskas, StumbleUpon sharply reduced Bored Panda’s prominence on the site and pressured him to buy ads instead.
As Mr. Banisauskas would later write in a post on Medium, the experience taught him that “the only way to survive in this industry is to build long-term value through loyal followers.”
The next several years were a struggle, but in 2013, Bored Panda began to see a spike in viewers being sent from a new source: Facebook. Its positive, lighthearted content was a hit with the social network’s users, and the site’s traffic grew tenfold in a single year. Soon, despite Mr. Banisauskas’s intentions, Bored Panda was far from self-sufficient — its prospects hinged almost entirely on Facebook.
More recently, while its competitors have hedged their risks by diversifying away from Facebook, Bored Panda has made a conscious effort to pull the platform even closer. It has started several offshoot Facebook brands, including pages for art and animal-themed stories, and a page called Crafty Panda that focuses on D.I.Y. projects. It has begun creating original content, too, and recently set up a video studio in its office, a hospital from the 19th century that was converted into a tech office complex.
“Everyone wants to be not so dependent on Facebook,” Mr. Banisauskas told me. “At the same time, it’s impossible — Facebook is the place where people share their ideas.”
But dependence comes with real risk. Last month, for example, Facebook began testing a new design for its news feed. In this version, which is being tested in six countries, Facebook posts from pages (including businesses, public figures and publishers like Bored Panda) were removed from the regular news feed. They were placed in a separate section called “Explore Feed,” where they appeared less prominently.
This change caused tremors in the Facebook publishing world. Several publishers from countries included in the test complained that their Facebook traffic had plummeted overnight. A social media manager from a news site in Slovakia, one of the countries included in the test, called it the “biggest drop in Facebook organic reach we have ever seen.”
Facebook told me it planned to continue testing the Explore Feed changes for several more months. In a blog post, Adam Mosseri, Facebook’s head of news feed, wrote that the test was meant to “understand if people prefer to have separate places for personal and public content,” but that the company had “no plans to roll this test out further.”
Rafat Ali, a digital publishing veteran and chief executive of the travel media company Skift, said that while these particular algorithmic changes might not come to pass, sites like Bored Panda could still be easily crushed by a future Facebook experiment.
“You never know when the rug could be pulled from under them,” Mr. Ali said. “They could be done in a year or two.”
Mr. Banisauskas knows that Facebook can be a fickle landlord, and he worries that as a small foreign company that specializes in aggregated entertainment content, Bored Panda is in a more precarious position than most. Roughly half of Bored Panda’s Facebook audience is American, and Mr. Banisauskas worries that the site could get punished inadvertently by efforts to combat fake news and Russian-style influence campaigns.
“We’re not part of the problem,” he said, “but we could get the collateral damage.”
Last summer, Mr. Banisauskas traveled to New York to meet with a group of other Facebook-focused publishers. All these companies produce entertaining material that reaches millions of people every day. In another era, that alone might have been enough to guarantee them a stable future. Today, they exist at Facebook’s mercy and might be wiped away at any moment.
For now, though, Bored Panda is charging ahead, and hoping to remain on Facebook’s good side.
“Everyone should be worried,” Mr. Banisauskas said, before he injected a note of Bored Panda-style positivity: “But I believe everything will work out well.”