In January, eager to see what young and eager undergraduates could do to spread the word about our stories, we launched the first Big Roundtable Social Media Contest. We gave the participants a story, a month, and the inducement of a $350 bookstore gift card for the story that ended up with the most unique page views.
We recently sat down with our winner, Steven Lau, a Columbia junior and managing editor of the Columbia Daily Spectator to hear what he had learned. (A shout out for our runner up, Kayla Neville, who was close, and who, yes, got a prize too.)
Steven’s story—“The Man Who Hid in an Airplane Bathroom”—drew more than 6,000 unique views, Kayla’s piece, “Pedestrian Struck” drew more than 5,000. (To put that in some perspective, our most widely read story, measured by traffic to the BRT, remains Erika Hayasaki’s “The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die,” which has, at last count, over 30,000 unique views; the overall champ is the story we co-published with BuzzFeed, Jaime Joyce’s “Kill Me Now,” which is approaching a half million page views, most of them on BuzzFeed.)
The contest was inspired by this simple, painful realization about the patterns in our traffic: there are none.
Stories that we were sure were going to draw a large audience didn’t. Stories that we loved (we love them all, we really do) but worried might have a limited readership,soared. (A case in point, Katherine Olson’s account of a woman’s psychiatric ward, “Something More Wrong,” has drawn more than 18,000 unique views.)
We also had also seen traffic coming in mysterious ways: Kevin Heldman’s harrowing memoir of coming of age in such “therapeutic communities” as Phoenix House—“My Rehab: Coming of Age in Purgatory”—was enjoying a modest run when it was linked in, of all stories, a memoir, “Art School Ruined My Life” that appeared in Medium. The result: an immediate spike of nearly 13,000 readers.
Which left us scratching our heads—just as everyone else in the longform world is doing—and wondering, to quote Tom Wolfe, “what inna namea christ is this…?”
Perhaps a contest might tell us something.
Steven told us that he set off with a bold assumption: that contrary to the belief that the surest way to reach a wide audience was to rely on the power of Twitter and Facebook, he did not believe that this was the way people discovered big stories. Instead, he reasoned, he needed to find the “key influencers,” the people who, while largely unknown to most were well known and well regarded within their network. Think of the relative who, by force of personality, guilt, and persistent phone calling, holds the disparate ends of an extended family together.
Steven had research on his side. In his seminal book, Six Degrees, sociologist Duncan Watts makes sense of the complex ways social networks form. Watts argues that the challenge is transforming weak social connections into strong ones, thereby increasing the chances of, in the case of Steven’s hypothesis, a story breaking out a small group and going viral.
Steven believed that if he could find a “key influencer”—and therefore use those strong connections—he might be able to create a network.
But who? As it happened, Steven had a friend whose area of study was social justice. Perhaps, he reasoned, she might be interested in a story about a poor Indian man who, having sold his family’s plot of land to pay for his passage to the Gulf, finds himself living in the most demeaning circumstances. Finally, while cleaning an airplane toilet, he stows away on a flight to Mumbai.
Steven sent his friend the story. Her initial reaction was not what he, or we, had hoped for. But it was revealing: the story is long, she said. Is there an executive summary? Steven advised her there was not. And then he gave her a few days to discover the wonderful yarn he had placed in front of her.
His friend liked the story—“she was surprised by it,” Steven said. And she began to share the story. And because she was well placed in the middle of a group of people inclined to be interested in a story that spoke to them, she was able to create a network of sharers, who in turn, propelled another level of sharing, and then another.
“You can push as much as you want,” Steven told us. “But it’s far more useful to have a few people really interested who will push on their networks. You need people who are so passionate about it they want to share it.”
Six thousand readers is a modest number, but it is one worth considering. Something happened here. A story found its audience; Steven regretted that he had no connection to a “key influencer” in India who might have been able to spread word of the story there. But he had found his person. And his person did what all “key influencers” can: she said to people under her influence—read this. They did.
It doesn’t happen every time. We have tried this approach with other stories, with varying success. Duncan Watts, in fact, had made clear that there was no way of predicting when a network would form. You could replicate what appear to be the exact same set of circumstances and yet, nothing happens. (Think of the rhythmic clapping at a ballgame: suddenly it seems, 50,000 people are clapping in unison. The clapping presumably started with a single person. So you try to get 50,000 people clapping, waiting for a moment that has all the same elements as that earlier, magical moment. You clap. So do your friends. And maybe the people sitting close by. Then it stops. Why? Nobody knows.)
As it happened, last spring a group of students at Columbia’s Journalism School embarked on a project called “Project Wordsworth” (full disclosure: my students). The project’s public face was a website with 17 different stories. Ten days later 140,000 people had come to the site. Very cool. But, 120,000 of them came for one story. Not the piece about porn. Or the Holocaust. Or the life and death of a famous football player.
They came for the story about….math, the account of whether a hermit-like Japanese mathematician had solved the elusive ABC conjecture.
You are thinking, Huh?
So did we. There is a terrific postmortem on the project by my colleague, James Robinson, Director, News Analytics at The New York Times. Part of James’ report focused on the traffic to that one story.
His conclusion, in two words: Math Babe.
The key influencer, he believed, was a mathematician whose blog carried that name.
But what had Math Babe done to make this story so widely read?