The other Russian Internet Who's behind the viral websites replacing the news media for Russia's younger generation?
Some of the Russian Internet's biggest “entertainment websites” aren't formally registered as media outlets, but for millions of young people they are trusted and beloved sources of news and information. Visitors populate these communities with their own “demotivators” and GIFs, often creating mashups and memes more popular than any articles or photo galleries published in the traditional media. To learn more about this phenomenon, Meduza special correspondent Ilya Zhegulev spoke to the owners and representatives of three of Russia's best established “entertainment” websites: Fishki.net, Ya Plakal, and Pikabu. They discussed managing businesses built on “entertainment posts,” turning a profit, and moderating “political” pictures. Also, for the first time ever, Maxim Khryashchev, the owner and founder of Pikabu, agreed to disclose his name to Meduza.
62.9 million visits per month (according to Similarweb)
Pikabu's office in Moscow isn't what you'd call “big.” It's just a single room, with a chair, a desk, a computer, and a microwave. Maxim Khryashchev, the community's owner and chief editor, works from 11 am until 7:30 pm, and then he walks home. Online, more than half a million people visit Pikabu every day.
Pikabu features user-created content: photographs and videos posted and “upvoted” by the community itself. Among the most popular stories, you'll find a wide range of information, from accounts of problems with family inheritance to photographs of men's underwear with wolf heads over the crotch. Khryashchev says the site's main audience is college students.
Until now, Khryashchev has refused to disclose his name. Within Pikabu, he was known simply has “Admin Maxim,” and rumored to be a withdrawn and unsocial man. Speaking to Meduza, Khryashchev decided to reveal that he is the one behind Pikabu. He is slender and youthful, resembling a college student with a shy smile. When asked his age, he replied, “How old do you think?”
I guessed twenty, and he shook his head. “That's my problem. Everybody thinks I'm younger. I'm actually 27,” he said blushing.
Khryashchev says he prefers staying out of the limelight, both offline and online. On Facebook (where he describes himself simply as the managing director of Pikabu), he only has about 400 friends. Khryashchev used to work from home, but he decided to rent a small room in a business center, when he became a father.
Khryashchev launched Pikabu in 2009. He studied taxes and auditing in college, at one point building an exchanges network for a project. Later, a more ambitious idea occurred to him: creating an entertainment site—a kind of Russian Reddit. He registered as an entrepreneur and reached out to a programmer he knew. Together, they came up with an engine for a new project. The new website's name would be based on the children's game Peekaboo, and Khryashchev decided to simplify the spelling to Pikabu. He bought the Pikabu.ru domain and also another nine similar spellings.
Khryashchev says they needed very little startup money. Two years after Pikabu launched, when the audience truly started growing rapidly, he decided to hire a few more developers. Khryashchev says the main costs of the site went to renting server space. Today, Pikabu employs 12 people, including a handful of freelancers. The website spends about 12 million rubles ($182,000) a year on operations: half on staff, and half on renting servers in Germany.
According to Khryashchev, none of his employees produce or promote any of the content available on Pikabu, which he says is submitted and developed entirely by the site's users. His staff focuses on inventing incentives for users, to encourage them to post more materials and “like” more content. Pikabu has also developed a program that monitors the site and raises the visibility of posts generating the most interest.
On Pikabu, anyone can post content, whether it's text, video, or a picture. Khryashchev says the site operates much like Facebook in how it promotes top posts, factoring in the time users spend viewing something, the number of “likes” it attracts, and so on, but the final word rests with users, who can upvote or downvote anything, which ultimately determines the position of all content on Pikabu's frontpage. The greater and quicker a post gains popularity, the higher it rises on the website.
Pikabu doesn't have ad banners, but advertisers can pay to place promoted content for 30,000 rubles ($455) a day. The site will run ads for anything except politics. Major companies in Russia have paid to advertise on Pikabu, such as telecommunications operator Beeline, but Khryashchev says he's far from wealthy. He says the website only makes about 1.2-1.3 million rubles (about $19,000) a month in ad revenue.
Khryashchev says he invests all Pikabu's profits back into the website, and his salary isn't any greater than what he pays his employees: less than 100,000 rubles ($1,500) a month.
But Khryashchev hardly regrets his creation. He also claims the Pikabu brand is worth more than $2 million.
32.1 million visits per month (according to Similarweb)
Ya Plakal calls itself “a community for entertainment lovers.” Here, like at Pikabu, you'll also find amusing GIFs, YouTube videos, and ceremonial portraits of Joseph Stalin with the caption, “Moses led the Jews from Egypt, but Stalin got them out of the Politburo.”
According to Meduza's sources in Russia's Internet industry, Ya Plakal is run by Konstantin Shumov, the founder of Viboom, a company registered in Germany that creates and promotes videos on social media. (Shumov told Meduza that he isn't prepared to verify this rumor.) Ya Plakal doesn't even operate a legal entity inside Russia, and it manages its advertising sales through a separate local firm.
In a conversation with Meduza, a representative from Ya Plakal asked to remain anonymous. He says the website began in 2004 as a portal for entertainment and socializing with friends. At the time, Russian office workers were becoming enamored with spamming each other with silly jokes and photos. Ya Plakal, which predates all of Russia's major social networks, emerged a whole two years before Odnoklassniki.
There aren't a whole lot of ads on Ya Plakal. “Advertisers haven't responded to our website as we'd like,” the project's representative told Meduza, throwing his hands up. “Unfortunately, they prefer social networks and super SFW [safe-for-work] websites like Adme.”
But Ya Plakal has other ways of earning cash. For example, the site accepts money to remove negative posts about various activities and companies.
The website's representative told Meduza that Ya Plakal's employees don't create posts themselves. “We're not creative types,” he said, explaining that the website is primarily a social experiment—“an aquarium that helps you view society's moods.”
He says Ya Plakal's audience was 20 percent Ukrainian before the Maidan Revolution and the conflict with Russia, but that share has since dropped to 11 percent. Topics and posts by Ukrainian users, he says, don't attract high ratings from the community; instead, they often provoke strong backlash from “patriotically inclined” Russian users. “The bulk of our audience is decidedly ‘vata’ [in support of Moscow's intervention in Ukraine],” Ya Plakal's representative told Meduza.
And Ya Plakal has no plans to try to change the politics of its community, rejecting anything that might be called an “educational mission.”
“Whatever you get in society, that's what you'll get with our content,” the website's representative says, adding that he insists on remaining anonymous specifically because polemics on Ya Plakal become so heated sometimes that the site's staff fear retaliation by angry users.
49.2 million visits per month (according to Similarweb)
Like Ya Plakal, the website Fishki.net was created in 2004 (also in May). The founder was a 23-year-old man named Alexander Rybak, who—unlike the owners of similar online portals—succeeded in making good money with his project. In 2006, he sold Fishki.net to the news agency RBC for $800,000, and moved to Germany, where he joined Konstantin Shumov to co-own Viboom.
Today, Fishki.net belongs to Mikhail Gurevich. In the late 1990s, he co-owned the Russian-language Israeli news agency Kursor, and later moved to Moscow, where he worked as a parliamentary correspondent and analyst for RosBusinessConsulting. Next, he became RBC's deputy general director, and later he headed a subsidiary company called Mediamir, managing all of RBC's third-party entertainment projects.
Gurevich says Fishki.net was a “promising garbage dump” in 2006, full of everything from political commentary to erotica. Over the next two years, he says, Mediamir managed to comb the site and remove the porn. He says Fishki.net has a 200-percent profit margin, with low operating costs. In 2008, however, a financial crisis hit Russia, and RBC found itself on the verge of bankruptcy.
Fishki.net was sold to new investors, but Gurevich bought it back in 2013, this time as an independent stockholder. He says the money was partly his own, and partly invested by the company 101StartUp, which he founded with partners after leaving RBC. The company bought 25 percent of Fishki.net for $1.2 million. Gurevich won't say how much of the company he owns on his own.
Gurevich says he's not interested in doing journalism in Russia, in the classic sense. “I've always thought that the purpose of the media is providing voters with the right to know. Then I realized that the voter doesn't always have the right to know, and sometimes it's better if he doesn't know anything at all,” Gurevich argues. He says his ideal is building a Russian version of BuzzFeed—a news website with entertaining content that appeals to hundreds of millions of readers.
Gurevich says his Russian version of BuzzFeed will have one important distinction: there won't be anything about politics (until the media situation in Russia changes, he says). Fans of Fishki.net who do like to argue politics, however, can turn to a special section created just for them: “Antifishki,” where users debate in comments and rival posts published by supporters and critics of Vladimir Putin. “But you won't see any of that on the main page,” Gurevich says. “All political posts [outside Antifishki] will be banned immediately.”
Unlike Ya Plakal and Pikabu, the content on Fishki.net's frontpage is generated by the website's editors. Meduza attended one of Fishki.net's staff meetings (at a cafe in Moscow), where Gurevich brainstormed with the website's chief editor, Andrei Zubrilov, and another editor. They discussed what stories should go on the frontpage, agreeing to write “10 recipes for shish kabobs,” “Where to travel for May Day,” and “What we know about Panama.” (The site decided to write about the country, in light of the “Panama Papers” scandal—but not about the scandal itself.) These meetings take place every week, and Fishki.net editors stay in touch every day using the messaging app Slack. The website's formal “newsroom” is located in a converted garage.
From rigidly moderating user content on Fishki.net, the site's editors decided to start producing their own content, in an effort to gain more popularity on Facebook, where they closely monitor how much their articles are shared. Gurevich says Fishki.net doubled its audience in a year, thanks to this new approach.
Gurevich argues that Fishki.net appeals to advertisers because its frontpage features content produced by the site's editors, reassuring businesses that their ad banners won't appear above questionable material. Gurevich says he expects to recoup his investment before the end of the year.
According to Gurevich, Fishki.net's audience is similar to the patriotically-inclined Internet users who like Ya Plakal. “A post with a joke about Stalin always gets laughs, and this doesn't depend on what we do,” Gurevich says. “But it's not our mission to cultivate any one or other view.”
Despite the fact that none of these three enormously popular entertainment websites are formally registered as media outlets, each of them interacts closely with Roskomnadzor, the Russian government's media censor. All three websites unquestioningly remove anything Roskomnadzor tells them to. In most cases, these takedown requests concern content about illegal drugs, suicide, or hate speech.
This text was translated from Russian by Kevin Rothrock.