Blurred lines

By Lewis G. Parker on October 28th, 2013

Suited and ponytailed, prowling the stage of a tech start-up conference in London, Vincent Dignan looks and sounds like a millionaire in the making. Which is a strange thing to observe, given that twelve months ago, the founder of the yoof-culture website Planet Ivy pleaded with me to work for him, and I declined because not only did I think his site was going nowhere, I was scared of the effect it could have if he succeeded.

“I’ve always seen Planet Ivy as a tech start-up that just happens to be an online magazine,” he says.

Plenty of magazines go under in the first year… because they’re not focused enough on what works.

This is a fairly big sticking point for corny old-timers who, like me (I’m 25), still think a publication’s masthead should stand for certain values beyond its own popularity. Planet Ivy seems to be focused on one thing above all: “Data. We’re very focused on analytics – what does well and iterating around that. Plenty of magazines go under in the first year or two because they’re not focused enough on what works. Using analytics you can find out to the minute what works.

“So in fact the first time we rolled out the site it actually had sport and fashion sections. But they didn’t work next to the other content so they were removed. Music came back in, went back out and now it’s back in again.”

A different shade of green

When Vincent launched the site his ambivalent attitude to values such as quality and style made me think it was probably doomed to failure. With its founder as editor, it published a lot of very bad articles just for the sake of filling the site with content. And while vastly improved – I think some of its recent articles have been very good indeed – most of Planet Ivy’s journalism (if that’s what it is) won’t be troubling the Pulitzer Prize committee any time soon.

But what do I know? Eighteen months since launch, Planet Ivy’s crushing a million page views a month while sharing office space with a charity food bank. They get interviews with world-class authors like George Saunders and banner ads from multinational consumer brands that pay the staff’s wages.

In January, Vincent pitched at a Google Campus event for start-ups and secured a £150,000 investment from Ascension Ventures, a venture capital firm operating under the government’s new Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme (SEIS), which means even if Planet Ivy fails, the former Apple and MTV execs still get most of their money back, so everyone’s a winner, baby.

While their editorial standards still appear to be guided by maths rather than art, the editors genuinely believe they’re fostering rather than hindering good writing. “I actually want it to be something where the writers are stars,” says Vince.

Given the popularity of crass and stupid things on the internet, and given how Planet Ivy is striving desperately to be popular, a lot of its articles are surprisingly serious. “We know that people are going to be interested if it involves things like prejudice or abuse of power, something which is not fun,” says the site’s full-time editor Barney Guiton. “So I guess we have a range of news values that we use whether to decide if something’s going to work or not.”

‘There are mega-mega hits on BuzzFeed… but there’s no point in us doing that because they do it better.’

“People are writing good quality content,” Vincent insists. “They’re investigating things like the rise of atheism in the UK. It’s all been fairly real stuff. I know there are mega-mega hits on BuzzFeed and Gawker, but there’s no point in us doing that because they do it better. Even if we wanted to, we couldn’t enter that space. They’re too good at it.”

Swimming pool

Planet Ivy has a pool of around 500 contributors, the majority in the 18-25 age group, most of whom write for free. But some of them have already started to see some of that mythical mazuma. The front page acts as a shop window for global consumer brands, who not only take out banner ads; they use the rapidly growing yoof juggernaut as a kind of kiddie copywriting agency, taking on the site’s best talent to address the coveted 18-25 market in their corporate literature. The enlisted writers get paid and the site gets a cut.

The editors also hope they’ll soon be able to start paying for editorial content. Although payment will be contingent upon shudderingly new-world values. “How we programme our front page is never on page-views. It’s what the editors feel are the best articles of the day,” Vincent reassures me.

“We’re looking to reward people based on what we call ‘virality’. So the dashboard when you login won’t be just hits. It will be time on page, social shares and comments. A mixture of the four metrics that really matter.”

But this is still technically phase one. The make or break moment – not just for Planet Ivy but for sites of its kind – will be when Vincent removes the editorial safety net (which is currently pretty relaxed anyway) and throws the site wide open, making it a “completely open writing platform”. That means people not having to be commissioned to write, they will be able to upload their work straight to the mainframe. If it’s popular, they’ll get paid.

“The editorial position will still be there but it will be lighter and optional, not mandatory,” says Vincent. “So you can request feedback or get help before you write the article. But if you want to post a rant and it go live, you can.”

This could be empowering for talented young scribblers who want to publish challenging, provocative articles without having their wings clipped by editors. But you don’t need mystical powers to see that the open-door contributions policy will also attract some very bad writing and unsavoury viewpoints.

“We’ll have a yellow list and a red list of words the same way Reddit does,” says Vicent. “There’s something called ‘shadow banning’. You think your post has gone live but it’s actually been nixed.”

This is pretty much unknown territory, legally. Would the publishers be held responsible for any of the libellous hateful content?

“We’ve spoken to media lawyers. We need to have a very clear code of practice and a very clear code of takedown. We’ll have moderators to find [unsuitable] content, which we’ll have to expand. Reddit shut down its ‘R-slash child porn’ but it still has ‘R-slash beating women’. It still has ‘R-slash watch people die’. Reddit is full of that.”

Vincent hopes that Planet Ivy will become a platform “where the writers are stars”, but I can’t help wonder: who would want to be a star on what could become another of the internet’s toilet walls? Probably the kind of writers who are happy to play along with a payment-by-popularity system. Given the way things are going, that could be the entire next generation of writers.

Reader’s choice

Since we’ve already established that my opinion counts for nothing in this scary new world of democratised, bottom-up media, here’s a hit parade of Planet Ivy’s best articles so far, according to Vincent and Barney. You be the judge.