Posted: March 3rd, 2013 | Author: Patrick Thornton | Filed under: Main | Tags: Edgerank, Facebook, Nick Bilton, The New York Times | No Comments »
Nick Bilton on the curious case of sharing on Facebook:
Every Sunday morning, I started sharing my weekly column with this newfound entourage. Those garnered a good response. For example, a column about my 2012 New Year’s resolution to take a break from electronics gathered 535 “likes” and 53 “reshares.” Another, about Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and chief executive, owing me $50 after the company’s public offering, quickly drew 323 likes and 88 reshares.
Since then, my subscribers have grown to number 400,000. Yet now, when I share my column, something different happens. Guess how many people like and reshare the links I post?
If your answer was more than two digits long, you’re wrong.
As a social media manager and researcher and as someone who spends thousands a year on Facebook ads for work, I can confirm that Facebook’s sharing algorithm changes a lot, has been all over the place the past year or so and that paying for ads — even small amounts like $10 — makes a huge difference in engagement and reach. The amounts of engagement that Bilton is seeing normally sounds low, however, and perhaps that is due to his content and not just the algorithm.
You don’t need to study social media to see that pictures, images and memes are what rules Facebook these days. This was not always the case, but in the last few years, sharing links has not gotten the same penetration as sharing photos and other visual content.
I believe this is for two reasons: Facebook’s Edgerank algorithm prioritizes visual content over written, and users prefer visual content or at least are more likely to notice it, click on it, like it and share it. Bilton’s own Facebook page bears this out. He shared a photo of himself with his dog at In-N-Out Burger that received about 30 times the engagement as a recent New York Times story of his. While we can all agree that Bilton’s writing is usually better content than him and his dog eating a cheap burger, Facebook friends and users feel differently, and Facebook’s algorithm prefers his smartphone photos to researched journalism pieces.
We have responded to this changing situation on Facebook by making a push to share more visual content on our Science News Magazine’s Facebook page. We will often share a great photo, image or illustration from a story and then provide a link to it in the caption on Facebook. This does significantly better than just sharing the story alone.
Facebook is always changing its algorithm, and as it currently stands, unless you pay money to sponsor an update that links to a story, you may not be getting great engagement or traffic out of it. The other issue I see with Bilton’s feed is that he doesn’t post that often. Posting daily on Facebook leads to more engagement per post. There is an upper limit to how often you should post to your Facebook page — roughly once every three hours — but Bilton is nowhere near hitting that limit.
Now, as to the paid vs. organic engagement, well that is an issue. This gets to the heart of Facebook versus Twitter. On Twitter, you are normally shown every single tweet from the people you follow in your timeline. On Facebook, you are normally shown only the content that the Facebook algorithm deems the top content in your feed.
The algorithm works as a positive feedback loop. The more often you interact with someone’s content, the more often you see that person’s content and then the more often you will see it again in the future. This has resulted in people seeing updates from a small selection of the people they are friends with on Facebook, and is something that bugs me as I find it too limiting. Facebook users can switch their news feeds to show most recent content instead, similar to a Twitter feed, but this is not the default and few people change this.
I can’t confirm this, but I feel that Facebook switches back this preference for users, as mine always seem to end up back on top stories. In Facebook’s mind, top stories is a great way to show content from strong ties — family and close friends — while drowning out of the noise of some of your weaker ties. I don’t have an issue with prioritizing strong tie content over weak tie content, but I have not liked the mix on Facebook and believe it needs to sprinkle in more random content from my weak tie Facebook friends and pages.
Unfortunately, Facebook followers of journalists is the definition of a very weak tie (it’s not even a two-way tie like a normal Facebook friendship). As long as Facebook shows the top stories algorithm instead of just most recent content like Twitter, people like Bilton are going to continue to see lower engagement than expected.
So, why does paying help this situation? Paying to make sure your content is shown to your followers and friends means that your content will be shown in someone’s news feed even if they have selected top stories and the algorithm would deem you too weak of a tie to show right now. What this is saying to Bilton is that his page is not deemed a top story driver for most of his followers.
Maybe Bilton’s followers would disagree with this and maybe they would prefer a stronger mix of content in their news feeds. I have found my news feed being dominated by a few friends and family with recent changes to the top stories algorithm. The positive feedback loop seems to have run out of control.
I believe that if Bilton started sharing more content and more varied content, with an emphasis on visual content, he would see more engagement per item, even his links to stories. That said, the Facebook algorithm seems to have issues showing variety by focusing too heavily on strong tie content, and I think this hurts journalists and other content creators. I don’t necessarily think this is anything nefarious by Facebook in an attempt to grab cash by encouraging people to pay for ads, and I do agree with the Facebook engineer that he quoted that this is not a good thing for Facebook.
If people want to see Bilton’s content, and they aren’t, that’s not good for anyone.
Posted: April 29th, 2012 | Author: Patrick Thornton | Filed under: Main | Tags: BarCamp News Innovation, BCNI, ESPN, journalism, Sean Blanda, The New York Times, topic pages, Wikipedia | 2 Comments »
Below is a post inspired by Barcamp News Innovation Philadelphia, an annual unconference focused on journalism innovation and the future of news. There is a big emphasis on the intersection of journalism and technology. I may have more posts in the coming days about BCNI.
Sean Blanda wonders why news articles online still look like news articles from a newspaper from the 1800s (here is a link to his prezi).
The essentials are the same: Headline, sub-headline, author name, dateline and a narrative. Below are a series of images that Blanda presented from news stories from the past three centuries:
That’s pretty damning evidence if you ask me.
The argument could be made that news stories are being presented in much the same way after 150 years because the format works. And in many ways, the news narrative does work. I’m not dismissing that attitude, but I do believe Blanda is right that there are other ways to present news and in many instances, much better ways to present news and information.
Blanda wonders why so many stories are still in narrative form? Do you really want to read a narrative about the NFL draft or do you want a list of draft picks with links to more information about each pick and what draft experts think of the pick?
I want the latter. People think of a draft as an event that happens in chronological order, and most sports websites now have draft trackers that present the draft as a series of lists with links to more information. By thinking of much of this information as information that doesn’t need a narrative, it can be reused into different packages and stories.
ESPN has a list of all seven rounds of the draft with thoughts about each pick and video analysis. If the videos were fixed to a single story, and not a part of a video database, ESPN couldn’t link to the video analysis on the draft list page.
Instead, ESPN embeds and links to their own video content all over ESPN.ocm, and does much of the same with their expert analysis information. ESPN does a pretty good job of not tying down their information to just story narratives.
Too much journalism, however, is still presented as narratives, particularly inverted pyramid narratives, regardless of the information being given. Why do we still have so much of a one-size fits all approach to sharing news?
The inverted pyramid is a style of writing that puts the most important content first — the base of the story/pyramid — and slowly makes it way down to less important information. The inverted pyramid traces its roots back to the 1800s and the telegraph.
If a telegraph transmission was cut short, a story could still be usable if it were written in the inverted pyramid format. The most important information all went first and if a few sentences are paragraphs were cut off, so be it. Of course, we don’t use telegraphs anymore, and we don’t have transmission issues.
Blanda presented three half-baked ideas for reinventing stories. His session was more of way to get people talking and thinking and less of a prescription for how to change how we report. In keeping with his session, I’m going to share some thoughts on how stories could be redone in this Internet age. This post is a bit of a brainstorm, and is geared towards getting a conversation going.
How to make articles into living, breathing documents? How to evolve articles from the same format that they were 100 years ago?
Why is everything in narrative form? More articles should be in bullet point form or as structured data in a database.
Narrative articles only work for true narratives. If people want info, put it into a form that makes sense for sharing that info: A database, list, table, box score
What if restaurant menus were in narrative format? Imagine how hard it would be to find something to eat.
If you have a story about school closings due to budget cuts, there should be a list or searchable database with auxiliary information. Also plotting the closures on a map would help a lot.
Only true narratives should be in narrative form. Trying to tell the story of how the foreclosure crisis hits? An in depth narrative filled with a lot of reporting that mixes in anecdotes from homeowners, mortgage brokers, realtors, etc. would be great piece. makes a lot of sleep. But a timeline of important events, if there are them, would help people to learn what happened.
Sometimes, however, there aren’t distinct events to be presented in a timeline or a list. Sometimes it’s more overarching decisions that lead to outcomes. With other stories, such as the events leading to World War II, a timeline can help make it easier for us to understand important events. While a narrative would certainly help fill in more details, a timeline helps add to the understanding of what happened.
Topic pages are a way to give people the backstory and some news organizations such as The New York Times are experimenting with them. Every story has a backstory. Wikipedia is popular because it gives people the backstory; news orgs should learn from Wikipedia. But topic pages have to compete with Wikipedia, which is a tall order for news organizations.
It doesn’t do news organizations any good to create a topic page that ends up being inferior to Wikipedia, which is one of the five most popular sites in the world. Compare the Times’s topic page on Israel to Wikipedia’s.
If your goal was to learn about Israel, only one of those is a serious option. Wikipedia presents a true overview of Israel, complete with geography, climate, demographics, legal system and more, while the Times presents a quick overview of what has happened lately in Israel.
Where the Times beats Wikipedia is in current event coverage and in multimedia. I like the idea of the topic pages, but the Times may need to structure their pages to highlight what they do best and perhaps link to the rest. The Times topic pages doesn’t have a lot of historical content that could inform readers as to why certain issues are ongoing, but that shouldn’t stop the Times from linking to and excerpting from others.
A river of the latest stories about Israel and the Israel and Palestine isn’t superior to Wikipedia. The topic pages on these issues could be better curated. What are the last 5-10 most important bits of news out of the Middle East? Or the latest pieces from columnists. And the Times really does need to make better use of other content on the Web from academics, other news orgs, encyclopedias, etc.
But the Times shouldn’t be faulted for trying new ways of informing their readers. I applaud them for doing so, but I think they need to find a better way of standing out on the Internet.
So, how can news articles evolve in the 21st century? What kind of stories do you like to read? What kinds of articles, stories and formats educate you the best?
Posted: July 10th, 2011 | Author: Patrick Thornton | Filed under: Notes | Tags: Clay Shirky, news, newspapers, paywalls, The New York Times | No Comments »
Clay Shirky is out with another great blog post. Particularly interesting is his view that news needs to be free — for democracy, for society, for openness:
And news has to be free, because it has to spread. The few people who care about the news need to be able to share it with one another and, in times of crisis, to sound the alarm for the rest of us. Newspapers have always felt a tension between their commercial and civic functions, but when a publication drags access to the news itself over to the business side, as with the paywalls at The Times of London or the Tallahassee Democrat, they become Journalism as Luxury. In a future dominated by Journalism as Luxury, elites would still get what they need (a tautology in market economies), but most communities would suffer; imagine Bell, California times a thousand, with no Ruben Vives to go after the the politicians.
Imagine other vital information not being free — to consume or spread. We once had a world like that. For better and for worse, the Internet has broken up the old models of publishing, but in the end it has unleashed knowledge. We need new news model that will allow journalism and information to flow freely.
Paywalls will lead to ignorance and corruption. Is that really what news organizations want to foster?