Friday, 18 September 2015

Book review: All Your Friends Like This: How Social Networks Took Over News, Hal Crawford, Domagoj Filipovic, Andrew Hunter (2015)

In July 2006 Hal Crawford was looking for work after having lost his job teaching journalism at La Trobe University in Melbourne when he applied for a job with ninemsn, the news website. On the interview panel was a man named Andrew Hunter and Crawford got the job, so moved with his partner to Sydney.

The book traces its beginnings to this place because once they started working together Crawford and Hunter became interested in how the new attention economy worked. They leveraged this curiosity into what would become Share Wars, and the two men found a software developer named Filipovic to put together a piece of software that would be called the Likeable Engine. The software scraped the pages of the world's leading English-language news sites for stories and then matched that data against information about how those stories had been used and acknowledged in Facebook and Twitter, using the APIs of those two platforms.

The three men wanted to find out what it was about the stories that were shared and "liked" that made them so appealing. They thought that having this information would give their own website an edge in the race for popularity in Australia's media ecosystem. In the process, they drew up a taxonomy of social use that contained some surprises. When you analyse the characteristics of millions of news stories and how they are used in social media you are bound to unearth some surprises.

The Share Wars project came up with its own model of categories which the authors call NIT, which stands for the following. These are the reasons people share stories on social media, according to the book's authors:
  • Newsbreaking
  • Inspiring
  • Teaming
"Newsbreaking is essentially the broadcasting of news," writes Hunter in this chapter, titled 'When Sharing is Not Sharing'. "This is the sharer as town crier ..." The second category of share, "inspiring" is different, and it is one which Hunter calls "a more traditional notion of sharing: an altruistic, 'here's something special for you' type of distribution." The third category is probably the most interesting in terms of what discoveries the three men made. Stories in this category, writes Hunter, "are being shared by people invested in issues".
The audience is sharing to pass judgement, to take a stand and be seen to be taking a stand. Are you in favour of gay marriage or opposed? How do you feel about Anzac Day? Do you love or hate cyclists? This is sharing that shows what is socially acceptable; that separates wrong from right. This is sharing to define group identity and values. This is sharing that asks, 'Are you with me or against me?'
Later, in their epilogue, the authors take a step back from their achievement and ask what it all means. The conclusion they come to goes some way to contradict mainstream understanding of how the internet has impacted on the traditional media. Rather than simply take the "the media is dying" view, they are more optimistic about the future. "Our first pass showed us that positive, awe-inspiring stories were being highly shared."
With editors being incentivised by the analytical feedback loop to prefer these kinds of stories, we could see we were heading out of the traffic-chasing days typified by Britney Spears and her spectacular meltdown.
The authors suggest that the way news stories are used in the media ecosystem pushes editors to write better stories. For news providers the future remains tricky regardless, although this book might help managers to describe a base from which to take further action down the track. In this sense it's a valuable addition to our knowledge of the internet and of media, because the confluence of those two things constitutes one of the most profound changes in our recent history. I have written before about the relationship between the emergence of movable type in Europe and the Renaissance. I think the internet is the same kind of thing, only now things have been speeded up significantly.

The book is far more than just an analysis of a piece of software. It's not merely a set of findings, either. The book also contains many lyrical and beguiling passages, as the authors look into what is happening to the news in these latter days. The final chapter by Crawford, 'Arminland', is a fascinating quest for truth that took its author on a long journey of discovery. As a piece of writing it reminds you of what good journalism can be, and how it can pretty much beat any other kind of writing around, and so it's an entirely fitting way to end this worthwhile book.

1 comment:

Marshall Kirkpatrick said...

Sounds awesome. Thanks for reviewing it and for pinging me about it. The world we live in is weird. I wonder how Upton Sinclair's The Jungle would have done as a Buzzfeed series.