Why comments and likes matter in the (new) media world

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The number of comments or likes or tweets on an online news article or Op-ed do not determine its real worth, just its popularity. What is popular on news sites is ‘common’, ‘low-brow’ perhaps ‘sensational’ maybe even ‘gripping’ but it is rarely what is ‘good journalism’ or ‘valuable opinion’. Therefore, clicks, hits, comments and likes are definitely not a measure of success for a ‘real’ writer or journalist.

This is what the old vanguard of journalists, columnists, bloggers and writers of all-sorts would have you believe.

Being an editor for an online news desk has left me open to frequent attacks using the above argument in all its many forms, given that above all else, I value the number of clicks, comments, likes and tweets an article gets. In fact, more often than not, that is what forms the basis for my editorial judgment, particularly when it comes to story selection, story treatment and story layout.

“Sacrilege! Foul! Pathetic! No wonder you have an Imran Khan article stuffed into every nook and cranny of The Express Tribune website” argue the old vanguard. I wouldn’t deny them their criticism. The fear is warranted and very real.

Is journalism just about feeding the horde whatever rubbish they wish to fill their bellies with?

Isn’t it about providing a guiding light or beacon towards truth, accountability and justice, regardless of the cost and regardless of whether the report is ‘popular’?

Beyond that, wouldn’t this reduce the role of the journalist or columnist to a mindless automaton churning out article after article following ‘trends’ set by whatever article, topic or viewpoint is garnering the most clicks and likes at the moment?

On the face of it, this line of reasoning presented by the old vanguard is iron clad, but it is only so because it is fed to us with a set of unspoken assumptions that the writers of yesteryear (knowingly or unknowingly) wish to feed us piecemeal with the follow up to their argument:

Now go read my frankly stellar piece which did not get quite as many hits, and was perhaps not so popular, but is nevertheless (oh, the arrogance) possibly due to its lack of Facebook likes, a tad better than the usual crap you find online.

These journalists and intellectuals of a bygone era say this because they are, generally speaking, screwed. They play upon a number of assumptions about human nature which the internet, more so than any other medium due to its ability to allow a two-way dialogue, has undone.

Assumption 1: People are stupider than I am.

Assumption 2: If I tell people what to think, they will listen to me.

Assumption 3: If they do not listen to me, they will make grave mistakes and leave themselves open to exploitation, lies and worst of all, just plain wasting their time.

If you look at the old vanguard in print news (those ‘real’ journalists and columnists who don’t give a damn about anything; not readership, not advertising or business models, not nothing except their penned words and those of their ilk), you will see the above assumptions strike at you most glaringly in their criticism of the new ‘if it clicks, it’s good’ argument.

If you look at the TV industry, where ratings count to some degree and viewers can call in or appear onscreen to voice their opinion and engage with their content a little more than the teeny tiny letters to the editor column, you will see TV media folk put on at least the occasional pretense of respect for the “masses” who are grudgingly catered to – just enough to retain advertising on the news channel.

That is why TV is quite stupid and vacuous, holding little depth, argue the old vanguard. That is why print is the ultimate medium they say.

Well, what of the internet then?

Here is a medium that allows each user to not only consume content, but also enables them to respond to content, rate content, share content, engage the creators of the content and even make their own content. Suddenly, consumption of content (that which print and TV survive on) is no longer the sole driving force of the medium.

This is where those arcane assumptions listed above and held so dear (knowingly or unknowingly) by the old vanguard fall apart. The internet is, by its very nature, social, dynamic, responsive – an entity of information.

So are people stupid? Yes, they can be, but no more or less so than any other. For now, the stupidities of journalists and columnists are all visible as well. People are now accountable and contactable and their facts and ‘expert viewpoint’ can never truly match that of a targeted Google search. The flow of information (feedback and criticism, or the lack thereof) can be a truly humbling experience.

Will people listen to the old vanguard if they continue stuffing their material down people’s throats? No, they don’t have to – they have many other outlets for the very specific types of information they may be seeking. They may even be making their own. Telling people what to think no longer works like it used to when the very medium (TV, print, radio) was largely one way, with only a limited number of individuals contributing to the content. In fact, telling people what to think can seriously backfire in an online world, as it turns out, such an approach can be interpreted as “you think I’m an idiot?” – a message easily exchanged on the two-way internet highway.

Lastly, are people going to make greater mistakes, be exploited and lied to more easily now that the internet has fundamentally changed the nature of the dialogue and information flow by which decisions are made, life is lived? No. That was far more true for the old world, where a small vanguard of media folk in their mistaken belief about their inherent superiority, built up a limited (sometimes make-believe) world view which people turned to as the only truths available.

Let us come back to clicks, likes and tweets. But first I must point out, I myself have made a few generalisations in this article about the old vanguard, which is not an attack on the old forms of journalism, editorial judgment and writing, but an attempt to encapsulate the profound shift media has made online, and hopefully to address some misconceptions floating out there among media folk. The old vanguard are not (always) evil or arrogant, they are most commonly just mistaken and ignorant.

Let me take a sizable chunk out of Why Publishers Are About to Go Data Crazy by Sachin Kamdar, CEO and co-founder of Parse.ly, to explain:

After years of “one size fits all” social media measurement platforms, 2012 will be the year that publishers are going to be served with a variety of completely new offerings that are purpose-built for content-centric businesses (instead of bending an all-purpose tool to their will).

Publishers need to know what exactly caused an article to go viral — was it timely content that created a new trend? The guest author and her accompanying network? A particularly influential commenter? A confluence of factors?

Publishers generally already know what happened in the past. But what about the future?

Publishers need to know what content will perform well tomorrow, not just what did well last month. Cause and effect analysis on content that spreads through the social web is going to make the difference between tracking performance and optimizing for the future. It’s the difference between reactive and proactive.

You can expect to see a significant effort in the social media space to address the needs of publishers and content-driven organizations in 2012.

As social media tools that actively address the specific needs of publishers find their way into capable hands expect it to give birth to a completely new breed of journalist.

This is the new age of journalism; one where we will have to rethink what we term ‘good journalism’ or a ‘good editorial decision’ and the role of a good ‘opinion leader’. To continue to quote Kamdar:

If you saw “Page One,” the documentary about The New York Times, you might remember several scenes where editors sat around a big table discussing what stories should make the front page for the next day’s paper.

It’s almost comical, looking forward to 2012, to think of a newsroom going purely off of gut and intuition when making those decisions.

Next year, these editorial decisions will still require the knowledge and experience of editors who know their readership intimately well; but those editors will soon have a wealth of data at their fingertips to inform their opinions and, ultimately, editorial decisions.

Predictive analytics will give them a sense of how a story will perform, and real-time analytics will give them an up-to-the-second understanding of the collective interests of their readership.

But hunches and instinct will take a back seat to new kinds of technology-driven metrics.

Many newsrooms already use data to inform editorial decisions, but in 2012, it will become common practice to “interview the data” when designing an editorial calendar, or selecting featured articles and posts for the near future. In fact, many newsrooms will require it.

Some in the industry are concerned that the data-driven approach undermines the merits of existing methodologies. For instance, are we just creating an echo chamber if we do what the data says? Shouldn’t we publish an article that may not be in demand, but is important for our readers to see?

I’d argue that data-driven journalism isn’t so much about the data as it is absorbing it into the existing editorial decision-making processes. This creates a 1+1=3 effect whereby editors are given a new set of highly functional capabilities that improve their abilities to do what they do best. Think augmentation, heightening and exploring — not replacement or marginalization.

Herein lays the crux of Kumdar’s argument, and mine as well. What is popular – what drives clicks, likes and tweets cannot be misconstrued or devalued just because it does not fit into an old world view of what is ‘good’ in media. It is in fact, of primary value and will in future, drive editorial direction and policy making, not to mention hopefully restore the notion of a real business model for print, whereby media folk produce content people actually want and are willing to pay for. For those terrified of such an alien media landscape, this form of journalism is not out to replace or marginalize the old set of ideas, but is out to give it (us media folk) a major rethink and a major revision of our fundamental assumptions about the stupidity of those who consume the content we produce.

That is why when I make editorial decisions online on my desk, I always turn to the numbers, not because I am putting aside my own judgment, but because I wish to respect my readers enough to take a look. There are a number of occasions where the readers are wrong and some issues must be highlighted regardless of the clicks, Facebook likes and tweets (the 2011 floods in Pakistan being just one example), but media folk, trust me (until you start following your own analytics data more closely), the world of journalism is a lot freer and a lot more dynamic and intelligent due to reader input – whether that be in the form of a Facebook like, a tweet, a comment, or even the more passive click-through to an article.

Published in Tribune Blogs.

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