John and Leo Resig are amazed I don’t know what "horse-masking" is. "You haven’t seen that?" Leo asks in disbelief, over the phone last week.
Clearly, I’m not one of the 8.4 million humans (according to Quantcast) who visited the brothers’ website TheChive.com and its affiliates last month, a network of photo sites dedicated to Shit Bros Like: redheads in bikinis, the aftermath of drinking escapades, animals embarrassing themselves, as well as memes like planking or “horse-masking,”—which Google reveals as a selfie with a mask of a horse that looks like its getting a suppository (nostrils flaring, jaw agape).
You might call it BuzzFeed without the political coverage and with way more near-nudity. In Leo’s words: “We’re always on the cusp of what’s new, relevant, and attractive.” Three times, the brothers created Internet hoaxes compelling enough to convince mainstream news organizations to report them as valid—including the rumor that Donald Trump had left a $10,000-tip at a restaurant in Santa Monica.
That such a blend of content has raked in millions of eyeballs—particularly from men, who contribute 80% of clicks—may not come as a surprise. But more recently, the media company discovered that its community, much like Reddit’s, is willing to come to bat for one another, even when that means opening their wallets.
“We started seeing these charity type requests, where Chivers would reach out in need, asking for small favors, big favors, anything for help,” says Leo. Last May, Leo and John decided to post a heart-strings tugging video about Taylor Morris, a 23-year-old Afghanistan War veteran who lost all four limbs after stepping on an IED.
“The more I looked deeper into the story, the more compelling it was,” John told me. After the explosion, “[Morris] wouldn’t let anybody come get him until they cleared the mine field, so he was more concerned with other people even though he was bleeding to death.” Morris’s medical bills were covered by the military, but he told John he’d always dreamed of a log cabin by a lake. “And I thought, ‘We could probably get enough money for a down payment on something like that.’”
Morris’s story on TheChive was accompanied by a request to donate $30,000 to a foundation set up by his family. Within 36 hours, TheChive’s readers—many of whom are in the military themselves, according to the Resigs—had given $250,000.
Based on this success, the Chive team decided to take their philanthropic platform to the next level, with a dedicated 501(c)3, Chive Charities tasked with championing “orphaned causes in need of public awareness,” and two full-time employees responsible for in-house vetting of readers’ requests for help—hundreds every month.
So far, they’ve posted six. There’s Farrah Soudani, a victim of the Aurora, Colorado, shooting who Chivers gave $155,000. And Zoe Lush, a two-year-old awarded $100,000 to help pay for surgeries required by her rare condition, Brittle Bone disorder.
“All of our charities stories, you’ll notice, have a good touching story, and that’s what we’re trying to do—produce a moving narrative that activates the audience to help others,” John says. The goal is to roll out a new story every six weeks, for now. All of the funds raised by each campaign support that campaign directly (as opposed to the bank account of a larger nonprofit).
Vetting causes to make sure they are true may seem like a remarkable pivot from a couple of “good ol’ boys from Indiana” (in John’s words) who pay the bills, in part, by selling ads against pictures of T & A and viral hoaxes. But John says the methods are the same. “At the core of a hoax, it goes viral, it’s a good story, well told. And so we thought 'Let’s get rid of the hoaxes because our community doesn’t really need that any more, but let’s take the idea of a story-well-told and retrofit it to charity.'"
In a way, it flies in the face of what we’re told about building online communities—that you have to tell the truth and be authentic to get the audience’s trust. Yet the Chive community, described on the charity site as "easily the most generous community on the web today," has given hundreds of thousands to an organization it entrusts to tell the truth and deal honestly with their money, even when the site has taken an Onion-style approach to the truth in the past.
It goes to show that, on the Internet at least, honesty and authenticity aren’t necessarily the same thing, and perhaps, authenticity’s more important. The Resigs haven’t created a hoax in two years—but even when they were into hoaxes, their connection to readers was what was most important. Unlike other media sites and brands that walk-the-walk, TheChive takes seriously the idea of "listening to its audience"—whether it’s responding to which photos get the most likes or a desire to give back. "We listen to feedback, and recognize trends," John explains. "If people are latching on to one thing, we steer the ship that way."
So for now, that means more charity cases, no more hoaxes, and, obviously, no more "horse-masking" pics. According to Leo, "People tell us to knock that shit off after two weeks."