The rise of ‘social headlines’ is not the end of search

At the launch of BuzzFeed Australia on Friday, Scott Lamb gave an interesting keynote aimed at puncturing some commonly-held myths about the internet and social sharing. It was a good speech, well written up here, but at one point he gave a view that social is essentially an evolution of the net. His idea – at least as I understood it – was that the internet had gone from portals, through search, and was now at social; that search is something of the past.

Perhaps it’s not possible to say this clearly enough. Search and social as they’re currently used are two sides of the same coin – two strategies for discovering information that serve two very different purposes. Search is where you go to find information you already know exists; social is where you go to be surprised with something you didn’t know you wanted. If you know something’s happened very recently, these days, you might go to Twitter rather than Google, but once you’re there, you search. And if a clever headline crafted for Twitter doesn’t contain the keywords someone’s going to search for, then it’s going to be as impossible to find it on Twitter as it is in Google. It’s easy to forget that a hashtag is just a link to a Twitter search.

But Twitter isn’t what we’re really talking about here. “Social” when it comes to traffic, at the moment, is a code word that means Facebook – in much the same way that “social” for news journalists is a code word that means Twitter. And optimising headlines exclusively for Facebook gives you about as much leeway to be creative and clever as optimising exclusively for Google. You can do whatever you want as long as you follow the rules for what works, and those rules are surprisingly restrictive.

Lamb, to give him credit, pointed out the problem with the current over-reliance on Facebook: they burn their partners, they have full control over their feeds and what appears in them, and they have shown no hesitation in the past in shifting traffic away from publishers if it serves them or their users. All the same problems as a lot of sites have with Google.

David Higgerson has an interesting post that feeds into this issue, asking whether the growth of social and mobile has “saved the clever headline”. He writes that instead of straight keyword optimisation, social headlines require a reaction from the reader, and says:

This should be great news for publishers steeped in writing great headlines. Just as having a website isn’t quite like having multiple editions throughout the day, the need to force a smile or an emotion in a headline doesn’t mean the days of punderful headlines can return, but there are similarities we can draw on.

Lamb also said that optimising for search is all about optimising for machines, while social is all about optimising for people. Like Higgerson, he expressed a hope that social headlines mean a more creative approach – and the idea that now we’re moving past the machine-led algorithms news can be more human.

But search, like social is people; social, like search, is machines. Online we are all people mediated by machines, and we find content through algorithms that drive our news feeds and search results. Optimising purely for Facebook’s algorithm produces different results to optimising purely for Google’s, but it’s no less risky a strategy – and no more or less human.

8 tips for writing good web headlines

A very basic guide for people who write for the web and find themselves trying to build an audience.

ONE. Give people a reason to click

Why is your work worth anyone’s attention? That’s not a mean question: you must think it’s worth people’s time, otherwise why publish at all? So your headline has to explain in some way why they should click on you, why they should care about your thing ahead of the seventy billion other things people are trying to make them care about right now. If you can’t work out a value proposition and express it clearly in a headline, it might be worth editing your piece.

TWO. It has to work out of context

In print, you have lots of elements to work with that can tell a reader what something’s about – intros, pull quotes, images and head all work together. On the web, even if your site uses all those things as part of its design, your headline is going to appear in many places you can’t control, all on its own. Twitter, Facebook, Google and any number of other social sites are going to strip it from its context and force it to perform. If it doesn’t make sense when you look at it on its own, it won’t work as a web head.

THREE. It should probably mention what the piece is about

That might sound obvious, but it’s worth stating – it’s surprising how many fascinating pieces have incredibly obscure headlines. Anyone who finds you through search because they’re looking for the thing you’re talking about is almost certainly going to be lost if you don’t mention it in the headline.

FOUR. People like lists

That doesn’t mean you should write a list if your piece isn’t already a list. But if you’re writing a list and you don’t take the opportunity to use a number in the headline, you’re probably missing a trick.

FIVE. People like useful

This ought to be self-evident. Are you giving people instructions, a helpful way to do things, or information they might find useful? Then make sure your headline says so.

SIX. Don’t make promises you can’t keep

Make sure people know they can trust what they’re clicking on. Don’t pretend what you’ve written is better or more comprehensive or more emotional than it is. No one likes feeling foolish or disappointed, and people aren’t going to share things that create those feelings.

SEVEN. Keep it snappy

Too long, and it’s going to end up truncated in most of the places that count – Twitter has a character limit, Google has a display limit – and look ugly on your site on mobile, unless you’re specifically designing for it. You’re going to lose attention. Simple tends to be better; shorter tends to be better; if you can make it elegant, alliterative or amusing at the same time, that’s icing on the cake.

EIGHT. Work out what your audience responds to

This is the golden rule. It’s one reason why Upworthy is so good at the sharing game: Upworthy’s headlines are designed around two clauses, one with an emotional pull, because that’s what its core audience of mothers shares most. If you’re making things aimed at a certain audience and you know they respond to a certain type of sell, then you can cheerfully ignore the rest of this list, safe in the knowledge that your readers won’t care.

Break news everywhere, not just on Twitter

Steve Buttry has a great response to a reporter worried about being scooped by the competition if they post on Twitter. He argues that: “You can’t get scooped because competition gets tipped to a story when you tweet about it. Your tweets already scooped the competition.”

That’s true, but not quite complete. You may have scooped the competition, but you’ve only scooped them on Twitter – for readers who don’t use Twitter or who don’t follow you there, you might not have broken any news at all. The choice of where to break stories or how to develop them live isn’t just “Twitter and/or your own website”. Twitter matters, that’s certain, but what’s less cut and dried is whether it matters more than anywhere else, for you and for your readers.

Sometimes being first on Twitter is worth a huge amount of prestige and traffic for your work. Sometimes, in all honesty, it’s just nice-to-have – the traffic and prestige you really want is elsewhere. Would you rather be first to tweet, or would you rather be the first thing people see in their Facebook newsfeed or the first with a chance at a link from r/worldnews? Is the audience for what you’re writing actually using Twitter, or are they elsewhere? Are you better off dashing off an alert to your mobile app users, or an email to a specialised list, before you take to Twitter?

All Buttry’s advice for how to report live, digitally and socially, is excellent. And it all also has platform-agnostic applications. You can post to a brand Facebook page as well as – or instead of – a brand Twitter account; at the moment, with all the dials turned up, that’s likely to have a significant effect.

You can argue the Facebook audience will most likely disappear when Facebook makes another newsfeed tweak; that ignores the fact that right now is a good time to put your work in front of people who might never have seen it before and might never see it again unless you go where they are and show them.

It also misses the important point here, which is that no one platform is the answer in all situations for every news organisation all of the time. You have to build a strategy that will be flexible enough to respond when something changes, positively or negatively, on a social platform. Social and search sites do not owe you traffic, and relying on one at the expense of others is not sensible in the long term. You have to be willing to allocate resources away from the shiny media-friendly very-visible things and towards the more oblique, less obvious, less sexy things. You have to be able to go where your audience is, not just where you are as a journalist. If your audience is all hanging out on an obscure forum, go post there.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t or can’t also try to be first on Twitter – if you’re doing news seriously, you absolutely should. Twitter’s huge, and hugely important, but it isn’t all there is to social news, and it’s crucial to think about where else your readers might be. If you’re only thinking about breaking news on Twitter, you’re not thinking broadly enough yet. Break news in weird places, if that’s where your audience is.

Tabloid vs broadsheet, Facebook edition

There’s a lot of chatter around about Facebook at the moment in the light of the high levels of traffic it’s driving to publishers, and the way it’s trying to define itself as a news destination as well as a social one. Particularly interesting post on this topic at AllThings D today, which talks about the not-entirely-successful news feed redesign, and the dichotomy between what Facebook seems to want for itself and what its users seem to want from it.

Most people think of Facebook in a similar way: It’s a place to share photos of your kids. It’s a way to keep up with friends and family members. It’s a place to share a funny, viral story or LOLcat picture you’ve stumbled upon on the Web.

This is not how Facebook thinks of Facebook. In Mark Zuckerberg’s mind, Facebook should be “the best personalized newspaper in the world.” He wants a design-and-content mix that plays up a wide array of “high-quality” stories and photos.

The gap between these two Facebooks — the one its managers want to see, and the one its users like using today — is starting to become visible.

I’m not a fan of the constant return to the print metaphor whenever we talk about new ways of depicting news online – the newspaper idea – because it tends so badly to limit the scope of what’s possible to what’s already been done. It’s an appeal to authority, the old authority of print pages, the idea not just of a curated experience delivered as a package but also a powerful force in the political world. An authoritative voice. And it’s likely that Facebook would not be upset if, as a side effect of becoming a more newspaper-ish experience, it also gained more power.

But what we’re talking about here isn’t just a newspaper-Facebook vs a not-a-newspaper-Facebook. It’s the tension between tabloid and broadsheet style, played out in microcosm in the news feed, just as it’s being played out in a lot of news organisations that used to be newspapers. It’s the question of whether you can really wield power and authority, whether you can be trusted, if you’re posting hard news alongside cat gifs. It’s the Buzzfeed questions played out without any content to publish, an editor’s dilemma without editorial control.

It’s also an identity question, because it always is with social media. We’re not one person universally across all our services; we don’t behave the same way on Twitter as we do on Facebook. What Zuckerberg wants isn’t just a news feed change, it’s also a shift in the way we express and construct our Facebook selves – a shift more towards the Twitter self, perhaps. A more serious, more worthy consumption experience and sharing motive, a more informational and less conversational self.

Maybe that’s a really difficult problem to solve, adjusting the way identity works within an online service. Or maybe tweaking people is easy to do, if you just find the right algorithm and design tweaks.

Viral identities

Rob Horning has a very interesting meditation on the viral self over at the New Inquiry, touching on emotion, accuracy, viral content and the reasons why we pass certain stories on:

The point of viral content, in part, is not to learn about “little girls in Afghanistan who are better at skateboarding than you’ll ever be” or other such stories (which often turn out to be untrue) but to be the person who responds correctly to them and who tells someone else about them. The function of viral content is to permit vicarious participation in the emotions of the story, and vicarious participation in the social. The perceived virality, popularity, of the content, illusory or not, elicits a richer emotional response in the consumer of the content. Virality may function as disinhibition for a reader, authorizing fantasy and emotional investment, a suspension of disbelief that is sustained by apparent social support. Everyone is talking about this! In that sense it is “real” regardless of whether the details are accurate. The circulation of the story makes it a social fact.

Much of it is quotable for insight about how viral content taps a desire to be viral ourselves, to have our own identities spread and carried through social media alongside the things we post. His points about how viral sites themselves have a limited half-life – a sort of meta-virality – are particularly interesting. Especially given that this is presumably an element of what Buzzfeed is attempting to avoid by growing its more serious reporting side.

Once everyone knows about Upworthy and can source viral material from it themselves, though, its thrill is gone. Virality settles into traditional mass-media reach. And Facebook’s engineers, whose algorithms underlie virality in practice, retool how their site’s newsfeed works, as Ezra Klein explains here, to thwart overpopular or overliked content. And so new viral-content providers must be uncovered, new ruses to evade filters and stoke consumers’ vanity devised. Viral content sites themselves have a viral life span.

He also talks intelligently about the problems of identities constructed solely or primarily through social media, the way that becomes a responsibility with a watching audience – something that I suspect bites particularly hard for online “anchor” journalists, who tend to meld professional and public identities into a single social entity, and who tend to set great store by the numbers attached.

What makes something go viral?

Virality is one of those words that means something new on the internet. It’s become a short word for ‘lots of social media traffic’, but virality isn’t the same thing as popularity – the latter implies a one-to-many channel, many people clicking on a single shared link, where the former is many-to-many, more about the network than the individual, and more about the volume of subsequent shares than the initial link drop. What makes it happen? Here’s a partial list.

Identity

What people share isn’t the same as what they consume. (Any survey of the book titles on show at a Shoreditch coffee shop should demonstrate that beautifully.) People consume things they’re interested in; people share things that they think make them look good to the people they share them with. Identity is external and socially constructed, and the internet makes that astonishingly clear; we are, online, idealised and caricatured versions of our selves, the best selves we can be to the people whose opinions we care about in those social spaces. So we share not what we read, but what we believe others will think better of us for both reading and passing on. (This is why frictionless sharing gets such a massive backlash.)

The right thing for the right platform

Virality is something that varies with context. The biggest viral hit I’ve ever had on this blog was a post written the day after the Olympic opening ceremony – that got a lot of Twitter traffic for a day, because that’s where the conversation was, and then it all disappeared. Grant, on the other hand, wrote a roleplaying tips article that picked up steam through Facebook and a wide range of forums, then through Stumbleupon; as well as three separate peaks of interest, it has a very, very long tail of traffic that still reaches it more than a month after publication.

Guardian articles go viral at different levels, in different communities, in different ways, every day. Different platforms have different effects, because of the relative stickiness and longevity of content posted there. The half-life of a Twitter spike is very short, often less than a day; Facebook’s are longer; Stumbleupon’s have lower peaks but are longer still. The half-life of an article, image or video is very much related to the platforms it works for.

Embrace a niche

A little-explored element of viral traffic is all those other websites that send tiny portions of intensely interested traffic. Forums devoted to niche topics might only send ten or twenty visits, but if those visitors like what they see they are likely, these days, to also have networks in other places that will share their hobbies. For example, most people on an RPG forum are friends on Facebook or Twitter with a few folks interested in RPGs; if they see something good, they’re likely to want to pass it on.

Honesty

One of the reasons Buzzfeed works is that its headlines are absolutely clear and honest about what you’re going to get. @expresident at Storyology yesterday talked about the fact that even the number in a list headline gives the reader clues – 53 Cats That Don’t Like You is telling you not just what you’ll find but also how long it’ll take you to get through it, and whether it’ll matter if you have to get off a train / go back to work in the mean time. I can share that headline without feeling like it’s incomplete, like it tricks anyone whose opinion I might care about. And I can click on it knowing what I’m getting myself into. The Mail Online is also excellent at this, though less good at making headlines of sanely tweetable length.

Flirtatiousness

There’s another school of thought here, which I’ll call the Upworthy Teaser approach to headlines, where the idea is to create a social post that demands a click to find out what on earth is going on. This Amazingly Heartwarming Video Will Restore Your Faith In Humanity – often it does, and often it’s shareable. But there’s also a backlash against this kind of head – @huffpospoilers is a case in point – and there’s a certain friction here for some people in passing it on unedited. It’s very, very clickable, but it requires a certain type of content to make it work – to make certain people don’t feel tricked when they click. If you’re telling me I’m going to feel something and I don’t, that’s a dangerous play. It’s one step up from One Weird Trick.

Easiness

You know those websites that don’t have social buttons, or that don’t let you paste a quote without pasting a whole bunch of copyright stuff and extra code around it? Don’t do that. Don’t annoy people who want to share your things. This should be obvious, but it’s too often overlooked. Remove as many barriers as possible.

Emotion

An emotional response is generally something we want to share with other people we think are going to feel the same way. If something makes you feel sad, or happy, or furious, or like you’re going to literally cry from how amazingly cute it is, that’s something you’re likely to want to share with other people. This ties in with identity, too – sharing that feeling is a way of bonding with people, of saying: here are feelings I have, do you have them too? It’s a way of making friends. Through cat gifs. Isn’t the internet brilliant?

 

Quality

Make it good. There are no cheap tricks here. The things that go truly massive are truly good: truly funny, truly interesting, truly deep. Good reporting is only one dimension of quality here – hilarious things, morbidly fascinating things, distressing but important things all go viral because of their nature. But you can’t fake funny with a cute headline, and if it isn’t the best thing it can be it probably won’t take off.

Controversy

The one exception to the above is, of course, things that make people angry, which can be absolutely horrendous and get a lot of traffic. Outrage is a powerful motivator. But it’s also not generally something that drives a lot of positive association, so if you’re after loyal audience it’s probably best – in the long run – to go for the “OMG this is terrible, don’t you agree” approach rather than just publishing awful things. Some things straddle the line, and go viral in part because people argue about them; those pieces tread a dangerous but interesting path, in which they need to be both defensible and defended by people whose opinions are reflected in the piece in order to be sustainable.

Necessary but not sufficient

All of these elements are worth considering, if you’re trying to make something take off. I’d put identity, honesty and quality as the top three, but other people make different things that work in different ways and play off others. But none is sufficient in and of itself to make something catch on widely. Timing is crucial but often unknowable; sometimes things work because they coincide with a broad trend, while other things fall flat because they coincide with too many other things being published around the same broad trend. Excellent things fall down, despite everything being done right; good things do well despite several things not working as well as they could. Networks are inherently unpredictable, and often fickle. For sustained traffic, it helps to have both a network approach and a broadcast approach, that feed off each other and support each other. And to remember that people are just people, even in aggregate on the other end of an anonymous internet, and what people like isn’t all that hard to predict, if you’re honest with yourself.

This post was partly written in response to folks on Help Me Write, where I’m kinda testing the water at the moment. If you want to help me keep to my vague promise of more regular bloggery, head there and vote for stuff you want to read, or suggest ideas.

Social places, not networks

In the light of recent events, this post from earlier this month seems timely:

Some years ago, the tech industry set out to redefine our perception of the web. Facebook (and other similar sites) grew at amazing rates and their reasonable focus on the “social network” and the “social graph”, made “social networks” the new kid on the block.

But even though the connections of each individual user are his social network, these sites are not social networks. They are social networking places.

This is an important distinction. They are places, not networks. Much like your office, school, university, the place where you usually spend your summer vacation, the pub where your buddies hang out or your hometown.

And, much like your office, school, university, etc, they all have their own behavioural expectations and norms. When those spaces get big and full of people jostling for room, if they aren’t broken up into their own smaller spaces – or if the partitions are porous – those differing expectations rub up against each other in all sorts of interesting and problematic ways.

The Twitter I have is not the Twitter you have, because we follow different folks and interact with them in our own ways. There are pretty regular examples of this disparity: when people write posts about how Twitter’s changed, it’s no fun any more, but the reality is that it’s just the folks they follow and talk to that have changed how they use it. My Twitter experience doesn’t reflect that – I’m in a different space with different people.

Part of the abuse problem all online spaces face is working out their own norms of behaviour and how to deal with incidents that contravene them. One of the particular problems faced by Twitter and a few others is how to deal with incidents that turn up because of many different, overlapping, interconnected spaces and the different expectations of each one.

And on practical ways to handle those problems, go read this excellent post by an experienced moderator. It’s too good to quote chunks here.

Social, search, serendipity and sharing

social_searchSearch vs social discovery is a debate that’s been going on since Twitter’s ascendancy as a link discovery machine. TheMediaBriefing has an interesting piece that suggests hybrid discovery is the eventual goal – a blended approach that ignores neither option. It’s a sensible conclusion, though I don’t share the belief that search traffic is necessarily disloyal – or that social media traffic is necessarily loyal. Both are used too broadly by too many readers to be so easily characterised.

Search is private, while social is public (at least to some degree, depending on your privacy settings). People will search very honestly for what they want to see, and will express ignorance, voyeurism or an interest in the salacious in the secure knowledge – or at least the reasonable belief – that no one but Google will ever see that information about them. Google autocomplete suggestions are full of quiet questions asked by millions in private.

But through social media, people will share what they think makes them look more like the idealised version of themselves. We use social media to construct our identities for other people to consume, and in so doing we share what other people will think we look good for sharing. For the most part we’ll ask stupid questions, or difficult ones, for the purposes of illuminating a facet of ourselves or to call for interaction with others – not necessarily to gain information. We’ll share what outrages us in order to comment on it, but read what interests us without sharing if we can’t fit it in to our constructed identity.

This is one reason why frictionless sharing is a problem: what we read and what we want to tell others we read are two vastly different things. It’s also one reason why social and search end up positioned as adversaries, when in fact they are complementary allies. Search discovery for publishers is not serendipitous; it relies on information-seeking queries, on individuals being interested enough in something specific to type words into a page and select from what appears there. It isn’t about teasing headlines or making someone wonder about what comes next; it’s about being as relevant as possible right there and then. Often, that includes personalisation, or simply being a reader’s preferred source for a story; loyal readers come through search as well.

Social discovery, by contrast, is about stumbling upon something potentially interesting because it’s been passed on by friends or by individuals you trust. It’s about not knowing you wanted to read something until it’s in front of your face. And a successful social piece works because you enjoy reading it, and you want to pass it on, and so do dozens of others. But social discovery happens as an interruption to the flow of doing something else; you move seamlessly from browsing Twitter/Facebook/Reddit/wherever to a different site for a link, then hit the back button and return to your browsing. It’s a diversion, not a journey in its own right.

Because of the commercial sensitivity around reach and discovery for publishers, an awful lot of inaccuracies get cheerfully spread online. For some time, there’s been a popular conception that search and social are fundamentally at odds, when in fact they’re often fundamentally intertwined. Plenty of news organisations reach the same people with both, at different times, with different articles. And plenty of pieces work perfectly for both, because they both illuminate a relevant issue for those directly interested, and make for interesting reading for those who didn’t yet know they cared. As Jackson says, what matters most is making content people want to consume. Making sure they can find it is the second step.

Journalists and dickishness

Are journalists dicks? Lyra McKee wrote a rather interesting post on the subject, suggesting that many new journalists and tech journalists in particular are more about the ego than the story, and that while it can be good for their profiles their work suffers as a result. I came across the post via John Thompson on Twitter, and it spawned a rather fascinating (if meta and navel-gazing) conversation on the subject, which I’ve Storified below.

My personal opinion has long been that being very good at anything creative and public (both of which journalism certainly is) tends to involve both a large ego and a well of insecurity. Going out in public and proclaiming that what you’re doing is worth someone’s time and attention – that your work is important – requires a certain brash self-confidence. But being ambitious and driven more often than not means being terrified that one day what you do won’t be worthy – and that means a constant anxiety and need to prove yourself, sometimes at the expense of niceties. The combination makes for fascinating, creative people who combine often seemingly incompatible traits – thick skin and vulnerability to criticism – with deep insight, blinding intelligence, common sense, a work ethic that would make an oxen blush and myriad other laudable traits. Sometimes that means a bit of dickishness, too.


Twitter for Newsrooms: first impressions

Tonight Twitter released a set of guides for newsrooms. There’s going to be a lot said about them in the next few days I’m sure, and it’ll be a while before we see what impact (if any) they have on the news ecosystem. But here are a few first impressions, in no particular order.

  • Newsrooms, not (just) journalists. This isn’t just about newsgathering, it’s about process and presentation too.
  • This is basic stuff – tools, examples, glossary, links, support. That’s as it should be, I reckon. The newsroom denizens who understand Twitter well enough to build their own techniques are still vastly in the minority. This is about bridging a gap.
  • The examples of engagement are very well-chosen indeed, and it’s genuinely heartening to see a range of reporters from the internationally renowned to the metro beat, with follower count ranges to match. I hope they keep this list up to date.
  • There’s that word “branding” again, providing more fuel for the ongoing branding debates. This is good basic advice about making yourself recognisable and accessible on Twitter, but I suspect a fair few journalists will bristle at the problematic word.
  • The focus when it comes to reporting is on the @acarvin style of curation and publication, not on live reporting or on breaking your own news. There’s a small section on mobile reporting, but the bulk of the reporting guide is around tapping into pre-existing communities, building on top of citizen journalism work, and finding sources. That looks a little like a missed opportunity to tout the real power of Twitter as a direct conduit for breaking news.
  • I’m glad Twitter is making more of its advanced search tools. They’re immensely useful for journalists, but unless you already know about them they’re next to impossible to use. Including them here, prominently, is smart. And it’s wise to explain there’s a difference between Top and All tweets, even if it’s still not clear what “most relevant” means in this context.
  • Twitter is protecting/building its brand. Some of these guidelines are about making sure the platform gets credit for quotes and information shared there. Others offer ways to embed Twitter functionality on news sites. It reminds me of Facebook’s Open Graph plugins, in a nascent and very specific way – proliferating its own platform while performing useful functions. Aiming to become needed, where it isn’t already.