Monday, December 20, 2010

Scam: Cracking the NYTimes Popularity Code

Just how many people does it take to propel a story onto the Times' influential most-emailed list? And can it be gamed? Thomas E. Weber at The Daily Beast finds the answers.

The author instructed a group of people to e-mail the highlighted article within a relatively short timeframe.
The most-emailed articles list on the New York Times website is one of the Internet's key barometers of news and trends, an essential way for the world to stumble onto stories and ideas that might otherwise get lost in the ether of the perpetual news cycle. Thus, careful watchers might have been puzzled by a seemingly out-of-place story last week. Among the latest news, feature and opinion pieces was a three-week-old science section story about a soon-to-close exhibition on cuneiform clay tablets. What could have propelled a stale, bone-dry story to the top of the Internet's importance arbiter?

I can tell you: It was me.

More precisely, it was a group of people under my direction who all, at my request, emailed that particular story within a relatively short timeframe to learn exactly what it take to make the most-emailed list.

How we did it—and how many people it took— reinforces a lesson of our viral media age: Even at the biggest newspaper website in the world, the content that is spotlighted as most engaging reflects the judgment of a group far smaller than the overall audience, and can even be gamed by those motivated enough to do so.

So how many emails does it take to make the list? We started several weeks ago by recruiting a cadre of friends and colleagues who agreed to stand by and, when instructed, visit the Times website, view the designated article and use the site's email function to have the article sent to a friend. Next we selected an article that was unlikely to have many, if anyone, emailing it on their own.
Read more here.

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