Crowdfunded Info Market Wesearchr Wants To Disrupt Clickbait

Andrea Castillo Program Manager, Technology Policy Program at Mercatus Center
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The Gawker media empire built up quite the reputation before its Hulk Hogan sex tape-induced bankruptcy brought the platform to its knees. Love it or hate it, all could agree that the company pioneered rumormongering as a media industry standard. But Gawker has spurred much more than a new era of clickbait news. Ironically, Gawker has kickstarted a new model of information market that could disrupt the previous disrupters in incredibly short order.

One of the worst kept secrets of the clickbait economy is that its leading platforms do less actual “reporting” than you might imagine. Rather, many popular websites merely pay sources for dirt on personalities of intrigue. In this way, many digital news sources have served as a kind of gatekeeper for Internet outrage. And like most journalists, these gatekeepers tend to be quite liberal in their politics.

It’s not that these gatekeepers have provably maintained high-quality output. On the contrary, this kind of “junk food news” is said to portend “the death of journalism.” Nor have they been equal opportunity scolds: Conservatives and critics of liberalism bear the brunt of their misanthropic muckraking.

One news startup hopes to make money and news by shaming the shaming. It is called Wesearchr and you can think of it as kind of “Kickstarter for Internet dirt.” It’s like Uber, but for Gawker gossip.

Here’s how it is supposed to work. Let’s say you suspect that a high-profile individual is engaged in some kind of fraud. You can become an “Asker” on Wesearchr and put forth that question with a threshold price, called a “Bounty.” Other people that are interested in that information can donate to the Bounty as well.

If the Bounty level is reached, the project is green lit for an army of “Researchers” to do some digging and deliver the goods. If no credible information is returned, the project is rescinded and the Bounty is refunded to donors. If the information is credibly returned, however, the Bounty is split between the winning Researcher, the original Asker, and the Wesearchr platform.

In other words, Wesearchr seems to be operating as a kind of transparent “Gawker market.” The bounties listed so far on the Wesearchr market are the mirror images of the type of salacious content routinely featured on clickbait websites.

In many cases, Wesearchr literally employs Gawker-esque techniques against Gawker itself. One Bounty that has raised over $50,000 seeks evidence of criminal activity committed by Gawker founder Nick Denton. Another for $10,000 asks for proof that Gawker writers plagiarized articles. General leaders like Barack Obama and Donald Trump are up for scrutiny as well, but many of the bounties are directed at toppling the new royalty of the new media.

This young venture has yet to pay out its first successful Bounty. In the meantime, Wesearchr is sure to be mired in controversy for both its founders and its focus of attack. Wesearchr is loudly and proudly operated by two of the most radical figures in media technology: GotNews editor Chuck Johnson and former Business Insider CTO Pax Dickinson.

Johnson and Dickinson do not mince words about their opinions of the new media establishment: They believe them to be unscrupulous, wildly liberal, and cruising for a major bruising. Dickinson, a veteran of the tech scene, experienced the “Hogan treatment” himself when a group of Gawker journalists and allies turned the Internet hate machine on him for a few off-color tweets from years before. Johnson, too, was on Gawker’s shit list, which has described him as “the web’s worst journalist” for such breaches of the journalism establishment’s protocol as investigating the identity of “Jackie” of the Rolling Stone rape hoax fame.

But theoretically, anyone could post a Bounty for any topic — even ones that target the Wesearchr staff themselves. However, because the platform is not fully decentralized, the moderators likely retain ultimate editorial control.

On the other hand, the profit incentive may encourage transparency. If excess editorial censorship does become a problem on Wesearchr, it may struggle to attract platform users and stay in business.

What’s interesting about Wesearchr is that it places many new media platforms in the odd position of having to attack the same techniques at the core of their business models. Wesearchr employs similar practices as giants like Buzzfeed and Gawker and Salon with one important catch. In the old model of new media dirt-digging, the publications had complete editorial discretion and no transparency. With Wesearcher, the market, not the platform, drives stories. Projects like Wesearchr could very well undermine such companies’ already-tenuous authority even further.

Whether or not Wesearchr itself succeeds, this project is a harbinger of a kind of brave new media that only the Internet could deliver. One thing is clear: Those who profited from malicious clickbait have little grounds to complain should the market turn on them.