So I like the idea of giving journalists a structure and permission to share little things — things that don’t need to be expanded into traditional articles, things that can connect a reporter’s knowledge to an audience’s interest without the templatized exoskeleton of modern web publishing.
It’s something I’d like to do more of here – sharing interesting links with a paragraph or two’s analysis. Not everything needs to be short enough to be a tweet or long enough to be a full article. Aside from the issues about it taking all the useful “byproducts” of reporting, as Benton argues, Twitter is a terrible medium for archiving, and not a great one for conversation; if either of those things are important in how you share little things, there are far better options for doing so. Tumblr, for instance.
Conceptualising CMS shortcomings as a “lack of permission” is particularly interesting – reminds me of poetics conversations around line length and form being limited by the size of the notebook or the eventual printed page. Form and content are still married. You can see that too in how hard it is for many news organisations to put up a story that consists only of a single fact. How do you break a single-sentence story in a traditional CMS where headline, intro and article must all say something?
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.
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.
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.
First, let me be absolutely clear. I support the stated aims of those people participating in the Twitter boycott today, and I do not think my own speech contradicts them in any way. More than one person participating has said, in as many words, that this is about people reacting in a way that works for them. The only implication that those speaking today are somehow crossing a picket line has so far come from broader critics of the boycott, and not from those taking part. It’s a straw man, as is anything that points to this post as saying that the boycott is pointless or purposeless or useless. Again, to be clear: I do not believe that.
The Twitter silence has the potential to be an excellent embodiment of the freedom-of-speech dichotomy that turns up in a lot of arguments about hate speech. When you fail to enforce punishments for those who abuse, threaten and harass others, you aren’t protecting free speech – you’re permitting their victims to be silenced. Those people going quiet on Twitter for a single day are drawing attention to that fact – and that’s worth doing. I hope that, as Helen Lewis says, this moment of silence leads to a larger conversation.
But silence isn’t my choice. I’ve not been silent for any cause; I’ve always believed my voice has far more power than the lack of it, even for a day. I’m viscerally aware, too, of the power dynamics in this form of protest: you can only effectively participate in a silent boycott if you have a platform large enough that people will notice your absence.
It may be true that widely-followed, well-known people get the most abuse; it is in my experience also true that this problem has a very, very long tail, of people with a few dozen followers getting a little abuse, one troll, perhaps a violent-sounding stalker or two. It’s also true that trans people, people of colour, and disabled people – among other groups – tend to get an astonishing level of abuse as well; I have not been silent in support of those people either, in part because the people I’ve seen react against this type of hate speech have not been in a position where silence was a sensible protest.
Those people who don’t have a megaphone to put down can’t effectively use silence as a weapon, and it’s unlikely that this will be an effective path for them to get the recourse available to Hadley Freeman or Caroline Criado-Perez. Twitter and – in the case of actionable posts – the police are far too slow to respond to those people famous enough or articulate enough to demand it. But to those people who are not, they fail to respond at all. I don’t see how my silence today would change that – though I can understand why those participating hope that their critical mass will help to change policies and approaches both at Twitter and within law enforcement. What I can do is use this opportunity to highlight it in my own way, and to call for better approaches from Twitter and for the police to enforce laws that already exist.
Silence from me on a Sunday doesn’t mean much in any case – normally, these days, it means I’m off in Marrickville with a bunch of my friends playing tabletop games, forgetting that the internet exists and escaping for a while. It is pointless to protest by refusing to participate in something you don’t normally participate in anyway. And I have had an uneasy relationship with silence since I started writing under my own name online – a consistent awareness of the potential consequences of speaking, which ends up becoming a sort of self-censorship, a partial silence. Something I wrote two years ago, in reaction to Helen Lewis’s reporting on abuse, remains true (though I would use the word ‘people’ now, because it’s not just women dealing with this shit):
I’ve seen people argue that women should be stronger, should just suck it up and deal with it, as though silence about abuse is not a form of partial silence. I’ve seen people say women aren’t being silenced, because of all these women who are not silent, as though all women speak about the same things and measure risk and reward the same way, and as though there’s no gradient between silent and outspoken. I’ve seen suggestions that women should only write on moderated sites – presumably sites they don’t moderate themselves – as though restricting the venues of our speech doesn’t amount to silencing. And I’ve seen people say pseudonymous environments are bad for women because of harassment, when some of us find them the only places we can speak without worry.
All of those arguments are bollocks.
Now, as then, the best thing I feel I personally can do is to speak out – to put myself, directly or otherwise, in the firing line. To do so knowing that not being silent is still one of the most daring, distressing, dangerous things some people can do online, and that people with far fewer resources and more to lose than I are speaking up, every day, and refusing to let credible threats and floods of violent abuse prevent them.
I remain one of the lucky ones, because I only have to deal with pictures of dismembered fetuses and outright threats of rape every few months or so, rather than every day. Gender-based slurs and harassment should not be an occupational hazard for female journalists, any more than they should be a condition of open internet use for anyone who dares to differ from the English-speaking world’s white straight cis currently-not-disabled male default. Some people can use silence as a weapon against this state of affairs. I can use speech.
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.
Twitter’s now said it will step up work on a ‘report abuse’ button for individual tweets. That’s a good step, but a button without something connected to it is just a placebo, and in this situation it won’t work unless it links to an action. Xbox Live’s community is enough to prove that abuse reports without enforcement are pointless, and that placebo buttons aren’t enough to deter campaigns of abuse or unpleasant individuals. And Facebook’s trigger-happy abuse policies are enough to prove that automated responses based on volumes of reports aren’t nuanced enough to be appropriate here either.
The problem is a human one, and it may be impossible to automate. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be tried, nor that the work is unimportant. Watching an abuse queue might not be the best way to solve the problem, nor a sustainable or scalable one. But I would love to see Twitter innovate around this issue. Moderation tools that understand the patterns of abuse on Twitter don’t yet exist, as far as I’m aware – and if they do exist, they clearly don’t work. I wonder what would happen if the same effort went in to understanding and predicting organised campaigns of abuse as spam campaigns.
I do not believe a solution is impossible. I do doubt whether Twitter thinks it’s important enough to devote significant resources to, for now, and I suspect it will continue to use freedom of speech as a convenient baffle.
If freedom of speech on Twitter means freedom to abuse, freedom to harass and to threaten, then speech on Twitter is not free. Freedom of speech for abusers means curtailed speech for victims. What critics of moderation tend not to understand is that both options force people to be silent. What supporters tend to believe is that it is better for the community as a whole to silence abusers than to allow victims to be silenced.
Sorry. But yeah, it does. You know the ones I mean: where you actually tweet “RT @someone Stuff they said & maybe a funny link http://t.co/yadda” instead of using the native retweet button.
They didn’t always make you look like a dick. Back before Twitter got madly busy and everyone understood the protocols a bit better, it was actually fairly sensible to use old style. Folks, especially folks who fancied themselves as anchor journalists, preferred to have their own names & pictures next to the words they endorsed or passed on, whatever the source; they wanted to build trust with followers, and identity was part of that. People felt it was worthwhile to tweet separately because a new-style RT might get missed, if some followers had seen it before. (Which, well, what? No. Attention is finite and precious and why would you deliberately try to make me read something I’ve already read? That is wasting my time.)
There are still some situations where it’s legitimate to use old style. You have more control over the tweet – it won’t disappear if the original tweeter deletes it. (But people have started using old style RTs to put hilariously incongruous words in other people’s mouths, so actually you might just have a problem anyway if that happens.)
Arguably, you can make it clear you’re curating a source’s story (but native retweets make you look less like you’re trying to editorialise rather than report, and less like you’re trying to get credit for someone else’s original reporting). You can add a comment or frame your response. But if that comment is “This.” or “haha” or “BREAKING” or something else that serves no purpose other than to justify your old-style retweet then you still look like a bit of a dick, sorry. (Yeah, I’ve done this. I am not perfect. Sometimes I’m a bit of a dick.)
These days, the vast majority of people on Twitter understand retweets. They don’t generally need to see your avatar right next to the tweet to understand you’re passing it on. They don’t need a LOL next to every amusing comment – people can generally work out from the context that you’re passing it on because it’s funny. It looks like you’re trying to get more credit as a discoverer than the originators are getting. It looks like you’re trying to build your own following at the expense of other people’s. And while that’s no crime, and not the end of anyone’s world, and it probably works well if that’s all you care about, it does mean you look like a bit of a dick.
You do, however, look like less of a dick than the folks who wholesale copy a tweet’s content without credit. So you’ve got that going for you. Well done.
Next day it hit 45,000 views, and broke our web hosting. Over 72 hours it got more than 100,000 views, garnered 120 comments, was syndicated on Gizmodo and brought Grant about 400 more followers on Twitter. Here’s what I learned.
1. Site speed matters
The biggest limit we faced during the real spike was CPU usage. We’re on Evohosting, which uses shared servers and allots a certain amount of usage per account. With about 180-210 concurrent visitors and 60-70 page views a minute, according to Google Analytics real-time stats, the site had slowed to a crawl and was taking about 20 seconds to respond.
WordPress is a great CMS, but it’s resource-heavy. Aside from single-serving static HTML sites, I was running Look Robot, this blog, Zombie LARP, and, when I checked, five other WordPress installations that were either test sites or dormant projects from the past and/or future. Some of them had caching on, some didn’t; Grant’s blog was one of the ones that didn’t.
So I fixed that. Excruciatingly slowly, of course, because everything took at least 20 seconds to load. Deleting five WordPress sites, deactivating about 15 or 20 non-essential plugins, and installing WP Super Cache sped things up to a load time between 7 and 10 seconds – still not ideal, but much better. The number of concurrent visitors on site jumped up to 350-400, at 120-140 page views a minute – no new incoming links, just more people bothering to wait until the site finished loading.
2. Do your site maintenance before the massive traffic spike happens, not during
Should be obvious, really.
3. Things go viral in lots of places at once
Grant’s post started out on Twitter, but spread pretty quickly to Facebook off the back of people’s tweets. From there it went to Hacker News (where it didn’t do well), then Metafilter (where it did), then Reddit, then Fark, at the same time as sprouting lots of smaller referrers, mostly tech aggregators and forums. The big spike of traffic hit when it was doing well from Metafilter, Fark and Reddit simultaneously. Interestingly, the Fark spike seemed to have the longest half-life, with Metafilter traffic dropping off more quickly and Reddit more quickly still.
4. It’s easy to focus on activity you can see, and miss activity you can’t
Initially we were watching Twitter pretty closely, because we could see Grant’s tweet going viral. Being able to leave a tab open with a live search for a link meant we could watch the spread from person to person. Tweeters with large follower counts tended to be more likely to repost the link rather than retweeting, and often did so without attribution, making it hard to work out how and where they’d come across it. But it was possible to track back individual tweets based on the referrer string, thanks to the t.co URL wrapper. From some quick and dirty maths, it looks to me like the more followers you have, the smaller the click-through rate on your tweets – but the greater the likelihood of retweets, for obvious reasons.
Around midday, Facebook overtook Twitter as a direct referrer. We’d not been looking at Facebook at all. Compared to Twitter and Reddit, Facebook is a bit of a black box when it comes to analytics. Tonnes of traffic is coming, but who from? I still haven’t been able to find out.
5. The more popular an article is, the higher the bounce rate
This doesn’t *always* hold true. However, I can’t personally think of a time when I’ve witnessed it being falsified. Reddit in particular is also a very high bounce referrer, due to its nature, and news as a category tends to see very high bounce especially from article pages, but it does seem to hold true that the more popular something is the more likely people are to leave without reading further. Look, Robot’s bounce rate went from about 58% across the site to 94% overall in 24 hours.
My feeling is that this is down to the ways people come across links. Directed searching for information is one way: that’s fairly high-bounce, because a reader hits your site and either finds what they’re looking for or doesn’t. Second clicks are tricky to get. Then there’s social traffic, where a click tends to come in the form of a diversion from an existing path: people are reading Twitter, or Facebook, or Metafilter, they click to see what people are talking about, then they go straight back to what they were doing. Getting people to break that path and browse your site instead – distracting them, in effect – is a very, very difficult thing to do.
6. Fark leaves a shadow
Fark’s an odd one – not a site that features frequently in roundups of traffic drivers, but it can still be a big referrer to unusual, funny or plain daft content. It works like a sort of edited Reddit – registered users submit links, and editors decide what goes on the front page. Paying subscribers to the site can see everything that’s submitted, not just the edited front. I realised before it happened that Grant was about to get a link from their Geek front, when the referrer total.fark.com/greenlit started to show up in incoming traffic – that URL, behind a paywall, is the place where links that have been OKed are queued to go on the fronts.
7. The front page of Digg is a sparsely populated place these days
I know that Grant’s post sat on the front page of Digg for at least eight hours. In total, it got just over 1,000 referrals. By contrast, the post didn’t make it to the front page of Reddit, but racked up more than 20,000 hits mostly from r/technology.
8. Forums are everywhere
I am always astonished at the vast plethora of niche-interest forums on the internet, and the amount of traffic they get. Much like email, they’re not particularly sexy – no one is going to write excitable screeds about how forums are the next Twitter or how exciting phpBB technology is – but millions of people use them every day. They’re not often classified as ‘social’ referrers by analytics tools, despite their nature, because identifying what’s a forum and what’s not is a pretty tricky task. But they’re everywhere, and while most only have a few users, in aggregate they work to drive a surprising amount of traffic.
Grant’s post got picked up on forums on Bad Science, RPG.net, Something Awful, the Motley Fool, a Habbo forum, Quarter to Three, XKCD and a double handful of more obscure and fascinating places. As with most long tail phenomena, each one individually isn’t a huge referrer, but the collection gets to be surprisingly big.
9. Timing is everything…
It’s hard to say what would have happened if that piece had gone up this week instead, but I don’t think it would have had the traffic it has. Grant’s post hit a chord – the ludicrous nature of tech events – and tapped into post-CES ennui and the utter daftness that was the Qualcomm keynote this year.
10. …but anything can go viral
Last year I was on a games journalism panel at the Guardian, and I suggested that it was a good idea for aspiring journalists to write on their own sites as though they were already writing for the people they wanted to be their audience. I said something along the lines of: you never know who’s going to pick it up. You never know how far something you put online is going to travel. You never know: one thing you write might take off and put you under the noses of the people you want to give you a job. It’s terrifying, because anything you write could explode – and it’s hugely exciting, too.
This is brilliant. Identity online is multifaceted, and the explosion in popularity of Instagram and Pinterest is in part about performing single facets of identity, mythologising ourselves through imagery.
Instead of thinking of social media as a clear window into the selves and lives of its users, perhaps we should view the Web as being more like a painting.
This is why Facebook’s desire to own our identities online is fundamentally flawed; our Facebook identities are not who we are, and they are too large and cumbersome and singular to represent us all the time. Google+ has the same problem, of course. Frictionless sharing introduces an uncomfortable authenticity – Facebook identities thus far have been carefully and deliberately constructed, and allowing automatically shared content to accrete into an identity is a different process, a more honest and haphazard one, that for many may spoil their work.
As we do offline, our self-presentations online are always creative, playful, and thoroughly mediated by the logic of social-media documentation.
Pinterest and Instagram are built around these playful, creative impulses to invent ourselves. Twitter remains abstract enough to encourage it too, though in textual rather than visual form. Facebook and Google identities are such large constructions that they become restrictive – you can’t experiment in the way you can with other platforms because of the weight of associations and of history – and they’re not constructed in a vacuum. They rely on interactions with friends for legitimacy – but you can’t jointly create one the way you can a Tumblr or a Pinterest board. Group identities don’t quite work. Individual identities are too heavy to play with properly. But Pinterest and Instagram and Tumblr are online scrapbooks – visual, associative, picturesque – and are just the right formats for liminal experimentation with self-construction. Creative and lightweight.
News has always been a loss leader; it’s the thing publishers provide to make the real products they used to sell timely, interesting and competitive. It’s literally the sugar coating.
The Internet commandeered the services that newspapers once championed and delivered each of these services on an a la carte basis. In an earlier era, it made sense to bundle these services in a single package – the newspaper – and deliver it fully assembled. Today, the Web itself is the package, and each of the services now competes against other similar services in separate, often healthy, markets. And this is as it should be – this is not somehow wrong.
But it leaves local news providers with only the container, abandoning them with the task of making a living from the news alone. What’s worse, it thrusts them into a market with tens of thousands of journalistic ventures of all sizes, all of which have charged themselves with the same objective: building a business model around solely the news. What gives all these services a bit of a reprieve, albeit temporary, are Google News and the other aggregators in its category. Aggregators serve not only as front pages for a multitude of news services, but by bundling them together and giving them the illusion of plurality, aggregators substitute for the missing thunder of the press. The end product is not exactly editorial, but if you squint, there are moments when it reminds you of something that might have been editorial once.
Journalism online has a distribution problem. Unlike a road network, Google isn’t a neutral network through which news can be pushed; unlike hauliers and newsagents, social networks don’t exist primarily to distribute our news but have their own purposes and uses that sometimes conflict with ours. As the Mail Online prepares to turn its first profit, there is a wider argument playing out about whether journalism can or should be valued by how well and widely it is distributed – for display ad driven models this is particularly acute. And Google, as a display ad provider, potentially profits twice by being the primary distributor as well.
For news, Google is a distributor trying to make the product fit its network. (In other areas too – Schema.org microdata, authorship markup and other elements of Google+ spring to mind.) Though it’s certainly useful – I would argue vital to most news sites – it’s not the only way to distribute news, and for some sites it’s not the dominant method. Google is competing with email, social networks or even direct traffic to be the primary access method. Of course, then, it wants access to news and other content in a form that’s easy for it to parse and display. No wonder it fell out with Twitter and Facebook.
To my mind, this is the quote that gets to the heart of it:
Like it or not, aggregation is an interim solution. It’s a kludge that satisfies an immediate need in the short-term; it’s a substitute newspaper.
Google News is the best of what we’ve got now. It’s not necessarily what’s best for news. It’s certainly not where we’re going to end up.