Inside the utterly bizarre analytics of Ozy
Read to the end for an extremely unfortunate haircut video
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It’s been an insane week for the digital media company Ozy. On Sunday, spunky up-and-coming blogger Ben Smith wrote a truly unreal story alleging that in February, Ozy’s co-founder and then-chief operating officer Samir Rao impersonated a YouTube executive on a call with investors. The company’s chief executive Carlos Watson told Smith that the entire incident was due to a mental health crisis and that Rao took time off afterwards. But the Ozy story has become a lightning rod in the media world, illustrating the very, very thin line between nonsense startup smoke and mirrors and possible fraud.
The immediate fallout from Smith’s story has been chaotic, to say the least. The company has retained law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP to conduct a review. Ozy’s chairman Marc Lasry resigned, essentially admitting they were in a crisis he did not have the expertise to deal with. And the company’s big hire from the BBC, Katty Kay, has resigned, as well. Watson tweeted that Smith’s article was a “hit job” and then went dark on Twitter.
According to the absolutely bonkers origin story on Ozy’s website, the company was started by Watson and Rao, who worked together at Goldman Sachs. They “ran into each other in a Chipotle parking lot” and “their conversation circled in on a big idea: How could they reimagine the news for a globally minded, discerning and diverse group that they named the Change Generation?” I assume this is how many normal media companies are created.
People have come forward following Smith’s story sharing their own bizarre interactions with the company. Reporter Susie Banikarim tweeted that during a meeting with Watson years ago he described Ozy as the “Uber of media” and seemed extremely confused when she asked him what that meant. And editor-in-chief of Decrypt Media, Daniel Roberts, tweeted that during an interview about a sports editor role, representatives for the company were unable to answer any questions about strategy and spent the meeting touting the viral traffic of a post about chocolate chip cookies.
On my podcast The Content Mines this week, my co-host Luke Bailey and I dug into years worth of Ozy’s social analytics. We expected to find a fairly typical content farm — shameless viral engagement bait, algorithmically pleasing low-value video content, and chumbox adtech. What we discovered instead was unlike anything we’ve really seen before. Our show focuses on the forensics of digital content and we’ve investigated a lot of different shady websites and social publishers, but Ozy is different. Here’s every weird thing we learned about Ozy.
Ozy’s Website Doesn’t Make Any Sense
Ozy’s website at a glance looks like a normal online publisher. It has, seemingly, up-to-date stories on current events from around the world and a slick layout. Though, if you click through to that first link on the top right in the screenshot above, “Hey Neighbor! Imagine a World Beyond Borders,” you’re brought to what is, again, a fairly straightforward roundup of stories published on September 25, 2021. The whole package is being marketed as a “Sunday magazine issue” of Ozy. (I am unclear if a physical Ozy magazine exists.) If you actually look at the stories included in this roundup, though, only three were published by Ozy and none of them are from this year.
I wanted to actually get a sense of how much new content Ozy is currently publishing so I put the site’s RSS feed into Feedly. According to Feedly, their publishing about 10 stories a week, but for the last three days, they’ve only published one piece of actual on-site content a day.
But the strangest thing about Ozy’s website is that there are no ads. Aside from a link to the Ozy store, which actually 404’s when you click it, there is zero advertising. (Though, they are running eight newsletters, all of which appear to be branded in some way.) But here’s what’s weird: According to The Markup’s extremely excellent Blacklight tool, which reveals what user-tracking technology websites are using, Ozy has 20 ad trackers running, 31 third-party cookies, Facebook and Google tracking, and ad tech for Adobe, Alphabet, Amazon, IPONWEB, MediaMath, Neustar, New Relic, Oracle, Quantcast, and Salesforce. To put how crazy this is in perspective, according to the Blacklight report, the average amount of trackers for a website is seven and the average amount of cookies is three.
Their Instagram Likes Come In Bursts
Ozy’s Instagram shows a follower count of 654,000. Which is pretty impressive! Except it hasn’t always been that high. In fact, according to social analytics tool CrowdTangle, their account had about 50,000 followers up until August 14th. Then between late August and September, the page gained 600,000 followers. There is really only one legitimate way this can happen: An incredibly viral post. But if you go through Ozy’s Instagram during that time period, you find something else entirely.
One of Ozy’s most popular posts in August was this photo carousel about the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. And, judging by the comments, its 326 likes seem genuine. But for the most part, Ozy’s August posts were getting under 100 likes. On August 23rd, that changes.
Suddenly this post about US immigration jumps to 1,113 likes. Then, up until this September 14th post about Cedric The Entertainer, every one of Ozy’s Instagram posts is getting around a thousand likes each, with this paid partnership post with Chevrolet on September 7th getting over 80,000 likes. The Chevrolet post has some very pissed off comments, so I assume Ozy paid to promote it around the platform, but none of the posts surrounding it have any comments at all.
What does this mean? Well, unless the entire nature of Instagram changed last month, it appears as though a bunch of likes started coming in before the Chevrolet campaign, peaked around the sponsored post, and then vanished once the campaign was over. And this period of high engagement, crucially, lines up with the 600,000 additional followers the page gained.
They Killed Their Own Facebook Pages
One of the most confusing things that we uncovered was the Ozy World Facebook page. From what we can tell, around 2018, Ozy was actually having some success on Facebook, specifically with world content. This makes sense, there was a real boom at that time in AJ+-style liberal activist content and it seems like Ozy was actually breaking through. We found multiple stories from that era that seemed to be getting real engagement on the platform. Though, based on CrowdTangle data from that time, it seems as though Ozy was also possibly paying to promote their content in non-English-speaking countries on Facebook, perhaps because ad rates would be cheaper. This is reflected in the comment section of a story titled, “Meet the Man Trying to Save the World’s Mini-Elephants”. The commenters on the post are overwhelming from accounts from outside of the US.
It’s also worth noting here that Ozy’s Facebook success came directly after they were outed by a BuzzFeed News report for allegedly buying traffic from shady websites that use pop-under browser windows to inflate their traffic.
But, at the time, Ozy’s pivot to Facebook was working. In August 2018, they had 10 million interactions, according to CrowdTangle — even Ozy’s main page. That month, Ozy World released a video about an LGBTQ rally in South Korea that was watched 3.4 million times, with lots of organic engagement. And it appears to have been actually driving traffic back to the site. Then things started to slow down following Facebook’s controversial 2018 algorithm change. Ozy World’s last update was on April 2020.
Last month, across all Facebook pages, according to CrowdTangle, they had about 3,000 Facebook interactions, which has been true every month since March 2020. And the majority of the content that Ozy is publishing on Facebook is just clips from “The Carlos Watson Show”. Which is what we need to talk about next.
Ozy’s YouTube Traffic Should Be Impossible
For the last year, the company has been producing a YouTube interview show called “The Carlos Watson Show,” which has featured some genuinely huge names. It’s hosted by Watson, a former cable news anchor. According to the page, it has 95,000 subscribers. Though, the videos that have been uploaded to the page in the last week have underperformed even my own YouTube channel, which only has 800 subscribers. So clearly, something’s up here.
If you sort the page by most watched, you’ll find a video called “Jamaal Bowman: Is He the Next AOC?” which was published in August 2020 and has 4.1 million views. Except, it only has 242 likes and 44 comments. In fact, as one commenter wrote, “Can someone explain how this video has 4.1M Views but has 200 likes?????.... and Less than 40 comments as of March 3, 2021 😟” Well, yes, it seems like we can. Ozy appears to have been paying to put entire episodes of “The Carlos Watson Show” in the pre-roll of YouTube videos.
Like their Instagram, the YouTube channel’s videos all have extremely stratified traffic. Videos are getting a million views, then 500,000 views, then 100,000 views, etc. And in-between those bursts, the drop-offs in traffic are, frankly, impossible. Between August 23-August 24, 2020, Ozy published a video that did 244 views, than the Bowman video which did 4.1 million views, then two more videos that did around 200 views. And you see this throughout their page, there are no signs that any of the traffic coming to their YouTube page is organic or sticking around. Also, according to analytics site SocialBlade, they had -9 million views between August and September 2021, which means they’re either making videos private or deleting them.
Though, Ozy’s YouTube page appears to have had some big videos with real traffic. In January 2021, a “Carlos Watson Show” episode with Dr. Anthony Fauci was viewed 2.1 million times and has 17,000 comments — most of them extremely angry at Ozy for platforming Fauci. The video has 8,700 likes and 38,000 dislikes. As one commenter wrote, “The like vs dislike ratio is almost as good as the Rebecca Black - Friday Video LOL”. Probably didn’t feel good for Ozy, but at least it’s real people watching it.
But the clearest picture we have of the bizarre story from inside of Ozy actually comes from a super interesting gap in their YouTube channel. The account doesn’t appear to have always been branded “The Carlos Watson Show,” and in 2018, was actually incredibly active and seemingly growing. It was publishing a mix of clips from Ozy Fest, the company’s live event series, a show called “Breaking Big,” which interviewed famous people about their big professional breaks, and a show about activism called “Take On America”. And things were good. A “Breaking Big” video titled, “Christian Siriano: Making Fashion Assertive” from September 2018 has 233,000 views and 180 comments and an absolutely normal and healthy like/dislike ratio.
Then the channel changed.
The Carlos Watson YouTube Takeover
Looking at Ozy’s YouTube page now, the year-long gap in its archives stands out. The company had been producing a panel show about social justice in collaboration with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting called “Third Rail With Ozy”. The last “Third Rail” video was uploaded April 12, 2019, and then there is nothing until March 23, 2020. Either the page went dark during that period of time or that gap is where the SocialBlade negative traffic is coming from.
Either way, that gap is interesting. The page started posting again in March, putting out a show that Ozy had partnered with Hulu on. Then on July 27, 2020, it started publishing clips from a live panel show called “Take On America,” hosted by Carlos Watson. After about 10 “Take On America” uploads, on July 31, 2020, the page is completely rebranded as “The Carlos Watson Show” and that’s how it’s been ever since. Most interestingly, this Carlos Watson-ification of Ozy’s YouTube also lines up with the discontinuation of the Ozy World Facebook page.
As for what is actually being put out by “The Carlos Watson Show,” it’s basically just 20-minute interviews with celebrities and then a bunch of reuploaded clips from the same interviews. For instance, they interviewed director Kevin Smith and then posted four different clips from that interview throughout the month. And they’re doing this with everyone they interview. And many of these interviews appear to be coming from Ozy Fest panels.
Also, to cap it all off, Ozy is also uploading “Carlos Watson Show” episodes directly to Amazon’s video direct service and then falsely claiming in advertisements that it’s an Amazon Prime show.
A “Neoliberal Nightmare”
In 2018, Rolling Stone took two hosts from Chapo Trap House to Ozy Fest and described its mix of politicians and celebrities as a “neoliberal nightmare”. The idea behind it seems to have been Ted Talk + AtlanticLIVE + South by Southwest.
As I wrote above, over the last year or so, the majority of Ozy’s editorial output has increasingly become a way to distribute clips of “The Carlos Watson Show,” which are, themselves, largely just clips from Ozy Fest. Which, from the outside, seems as if the company is just leaning into what they do best — booking celebrity guests. Except, according to a Forbes story from earlier this week, former employees allege that Ozy was paying celebrities to appear at Ozy Fest, while also embellishing what the event would actually entail. They were also, reportedly, just straight-up lying to guests.
“The way they’d get guests on their TV shows and guests on their festivals is they’d lie and say they already had commitments from X, Y and Z,” an employee told Forbes. “And they were like, oh that person dropped out, oh that person can’t participate. But they never had those people to begin with.”
But Ozy’s false or misleading claims about its own success don’t stop with their live event. Nieman Lab has a great breakdown of how they continue to brag that they “discovered” The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah and US Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, neither of which seem to be true. And The Daily Beast dug into how the company continues to use misleading quotes about Ozy’s success in promotional materials. While we’re at it, their reported traffic numbers don’t make any sense and CNN published a report alleging that working for Ozy was abusive, where employees worked 18-hour days, regularly had panic attacks and, according to Bloomberg, were pressured to take stock options over proper raises.
Oh, also, they took PPP money.
What We Can Learn From The “Cookie Post”
This post is considered to be Ozy’s biggest viral hit. According to CrowdTangle, it has 251,881 total interactions on Facebook and been seen by close to 70 million people. It’s a great viral post if you’re someone who appreciates the genre and not dissimilar from The Awl’s “How To Cook A Fucking Steak” post. Ozy’s cookie post was shared by Facebook mega-publisher I Fucking Love Science and scrolling through it, you can totally understand why it did well.
But, like the success that Ozy had with their World Facebook page and their string of 2018 YouTube videos, it doesn’t seem to have informed anything the company did after. In fact, if you click on the tag for “recipes,” you’re brought to a collection of stories that include posts about Mexican/Indian hybrid cuisine and a Juneteenth explainer.
The story of Ozy — at least according to their analytics — is a confounding and bizarre comedy of errors about a media company that wanted to “spark change” and “be a catalyst for change and inspiration” and then, when faced with the absolutely brutal and constantly evolving world of digital media, instead of leaning into what was working for them, like fun posts about cookies, inspirational stories about elephants, and engaging mini-docs about fashion, they refused to budge. Instead, the former Goldman Sachs employees running the company seemingly tried to throw more and more money at the problem, buying traffic, engagement, video views, and even, allegedly, celebrity guests. And when that failed, they reportedly attempted to outright lie to investors.
It seems like their next big project was licensing. According to an Axios report from January, half of the company’s revenue was coming from TV and podcasts, the rest from digital content. They had deals lined up with companies like Hulu, History Channel, OWN, Amazon, PBS, and BBC. There’s a sense that they were gearing up for a new big pivot. Hilariously, this is almost exactly what VICE announced they were doing in August. Which is actually what this whole thing is about.
Ozy Is Every Digital Media Company
It’s been written elsewhere, but very little of what Ozy was doing was all that different from every other investor-funded media company. Though, the only thing Ozy didn’t seem to do is publicly declare that they were going to launch an investigative journalism operation. (Remember when Unilad did though?) In a sense, every digital content operation is playing a shell game with VC money or ad revenue and constantly moving goal posts for readership metrics.
Whether it’s unique visitors, Facebook shares, time-on-site, subscribers or, the most recent and hollow media innovation, “social impact,” digital media outlets are constantly coming up with arbitrary ways to explain to investors why what they do matters and, most importantly, why it’s working. But with Ozy, these bluffs and pivots were even more extreme. I really can’t think of a more perfect encapsulation of the last 10 stupid and wasteful years of bloated VC-funded digital media than a constantly-pivoting digital publisher launched by two Goldman Sachs employees abusing underpaid staffers, dangling useless stock options in front of them, and possibly committing fraud to help prop up a weird and wildly unpopular YouTube talk show hosted by the site’s founder. You did it! You broke digital media down to its bare essentials!
Also, one last thing, because I have to say something about it. Someone who has access to the Ozy website, please, for the love of god, go in and change this employee photo for your senior vice president of revenue. This does not do you any favors right now!
P.S. here’s an extremely unfortunate haircut video.
***Any typos in this email are on purpose actually***