Twitter is for news—ish. Search is for news—full stop. But Facebook?
Of the 20 most viral stories on BuzzFeed’s network, only seven deal with recent events. Only three deal with what you might call national news stories: the Miss America Pageant, Netflix technology, and the Video Music Awards (not quite A1 fare, but news, nonetheless). But the vast majority of these stories aren’t really news, at all. They’re quizzes about your accent, lists of foods and photographs, funny reminders of what life feels like as you age. For lack of a better term: They’re entertainment.
The deeper lesson is that just about any conceivable metric will carry not only virtues and limitations, but also a certain seduction for digital media companies to corrupt it. Let’s quickly review some… Uniques: Unique visitors is a good metric, because it measures monthly readers, not just meaningless clicks. It’s bad because it measures people rather than meaningful engagement. For example, Facebook viral hits now account for a large share of traffic at many sites. There are one-and-done nibblers on the Web and there are loyal readers. Monthly unique visitors can’t tell you the difference. Page Views: They’re good because they measure clicks, which is an indication of engagement that unique visitors doesn’t capture (e.g.: a blog with loyal readers will have a higher ratio of page views-to-visitors, since the same people keep coming back). They’re bad for the same reason that they can be corrupted. A 25-page slideshow of the best cities for college graduates will have up to 25X more views than a one-page article with all the same information. The PV metric says the slideshow is 25X more valuable if ads are reloaded on each page of the slideshow. But that’s ludicrous. Time Spent/Attention Minutes: Page views and uniques tell you an important but incomplete fact: The article page loaded. It doesn’t tell you what happens after the page loads. Did the reader click away? Did he stay for 20 minutes? Did he open the browser tab and never read the story? These would be nice things to know. And measures like attention minutes can begin to tell us. But, as Salmon points out, they still don’t paint a complete picture. Watching a 5 minute video and deciding it was stupid seems less valuable than watching a one minute video that you share with friends and praise. Page views matter, and time spent matters, but reaction matters, too. This suggests two more metrics … Shares and Mentions: “Shares” (on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or Google ) ostensibly tell you something that neither PVs, nor uniques, nor attention minutes can tell you: They tell you that visitors aren’t just visiting. They’re taking action. But what sort of action? A bad column will get passed around on Twitter for a round of mockery. An embarrassing article can go viral on Facebook. Shares and mentions can communicate the magnitude of an article’s attention, but they can’t always tell you the direction of the share vector: Did people share it because they loved it, or because they loved hating it?
The concern in the Wikipedia movement and among people who study it is that smartphones and tablets are designed for “consumer behavior” rather than “creative behavior.” In other words, mobile users are much more likely to read a Wikipedia article than improve it. As a result, the shift to mobile away from desktops could pose long-term problems for Wikipedia, the 13-year-old project to create what the site calls a “free encyclopedia that anyone can edit.” “It’s a big issue for everyone; the mobile phone is not a great input device — especially a smaller phone,” said Judith Donath, author of the coming book “The Social Machine: Designs for Living Online.” Ms. Donath said that while mobile was well-suited to a service like Twitter, with its 140-character entries, “it is not the interface for someone writing a long article with footnotes.” She notes that as the screens used to read news or social media have become smaller, the screens of the so-called creative class have gotten bigger — often two screens together — for writing or designing or coding. The smaller screens of smartphones and tablets do not lend themselves to research and taking notes, or writing long encyclopedia entries.
Kind of stumped as to what to do next? Write from the contrary position. You are bound to discover something.
I only really became aware of the extent of Fail Better’s meme-ification a couple of years ago, on reading an excellent piece by the novelist Ned Beauman in the New Inquiry, in which he tracks its absurd ubiquity from quotation in Timothy Ferriss’ The 4-Hour Workweek to books with titles like The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Great Customer Service. “Watching a liturgy from such a gloomy and merciless author getting repurposed to cheer up mid-level executives,” he writes, “is like watching a neighbor clear out their gutters with a stick they found in the garden, not realizing the stick is in fact a human shinbone.” Until I read Beauman’s piece, I mistakenly thought the line had a fairly niche status as a platitude particular to literary types. I considered it a sort of writerly cliché-in-residence—something you’d likely find propped in postcard form on a novelist’s desk or pinned above the head of at least one bleary-eyed graduate student in any given English department. (I see no point in hiding the fact that this was my laptop’s desktop image through for the first year or so of my Ph.D., for what little good it did me in the long run.)
The NSA and the Internet
This Steven Levy piece is a nice summary of everything that’s happened since Edward Snowden’s NSA documents were published. Keywords: FISA, Prism, Mascular and the telephone-metadata program.
Even so, a decline in trust, or even business, is not the tech companies’ biggest worry in the post-Snowden era. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg believes that the inherent value of the Internet will keep his users coming to the big online services. But he is among those who fear that the NSA revelations have unleashed a potential backlash from other nations that could hurt not only those companies but the net itself. “Part of the reason the US blew it is that governments around the world are now threatening the security of the Internet by passing their own laws that permit intrusions on Internet users,” he says. Zuckerberg is referring to a movement to balkanize the Internet—a long-standing effort that would potentially destroy the web itself. The basic notion is that the personal data of a nation’s citizens should be stored on servers within its borders. For some proponents of the idea it’s a form of protectionism, a prod for nationals to use local IT services. For others it’s a way to make it easier for a country to snoop on its own citizens. The idea never posed much of a threat, until the NSA leaks—and the fears of foreign surveillance they sparked—caused some countries to seriously pursue it. After learning that the NSA had bugged her, Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff began pushing a law requiring that the personal data of Brazilians be stored inside the country. Malaysia recently enacted a similar law, and India is also pursuing data protectionism.