Wick Communications

Give the people what they want?

In Editing on 13 Mar 2014 at 5:45 pm

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I admit that I kind of wanted to punch the wall when I first looked at this. I’ve since calmed down enough to say I appreciate the effort. It’s neat to see what the data suggests readers want even if the concept is a little flawed and a lot scary. (And before I go any further, shoutout to Carrie McDermott of the Wahpeton Daily News for pointing me toward it.)

So NewsWhip is a company that offers data on social sharing to clients like Huffington Post. As I understand it, the company mines data such as the number of Twitter links and Facebook sharing in an effort to understand what people want so that clients can give them just that.

Which makes perfect sense if you are selling toys or Toyotas. I’m not sure that is a preferable model in a complicated world that requires sophisticated people with general knowledge that goes beyond the kinds of things we know people are most likely to share online.

Let me try to outline the potential pitfalls of this approach in a way that doesn’t make me seem like a curmudgeon:

  • Some kinds of stories are just shared more. They include tech stories, stories that fall in the sweet spot for millennials, crazy crimes… anything about Beyonce. I don’t mean this to marginalize that kind of information, just to point out that stories about the future of Social Security are less likely to be shared on Twitter than someone’s cat battling a praying mantis in the yard. If we succumb to that temptation, we aren’t serving a greater good. …
  • The beauty of general interest newspapers or even niche magazines like National Geographic lies in the happy accidents. I love the Sunday New York Times not because it provides me with things I know I want to see, but because its knowledgeable gatekeepers will guide me to things I didn’t even know I wanted to see. Do you know what I mean?
  • If we were to use this kind of data information in a predictive fashion, we would necessarily quash creativity and innovation. By doing so we would lean solely on data pertaining to past experience and not innate human intuition. The two aren’t mutually exclusive; I just wouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. It’s not that I don’t want to give people what they want, it’s that I want to do that and more.

There is no question that the data fiends are carrying the day at the moment. They have commandeered our Internet searches and are even changing the way we are hired and fired. They surely aren’t finished. Data is changing our lives. I suspect it won’t tell our stories, though. Time will tell.



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