The New York Times has just published an interesting piece on why readers email articles. The research (Social Transmission and Viral Culture) was conducted by Jonah Berger and Katherine A. Milkman of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. In the Times article, Will You Be E-Mailing This Column? It’s Awesome, author John Tierney summarizes some of the study’s surprising conclusions.
According to Tierney, the study examined reasons behind which articles are emailed most by readers. It addressed questions like “Do people prefer to spread good news or bad news? Would we rather scandalize or enlighten? Which stories do social creatures want to share, and why?” And by Tierney’s account, the study discovered that “Perhaps most of all, readers wanted to share articles that inspired awe, an emotion that the researchers investigated after noticing how many science articles made the list.”
He goes on to write: “Building on prior research, the Penn researchers defined the quality as an ‘emotion of self-transcendence, a feeling of admiration and elevation in the face of something greater than the self.’” Why awe? Because “Emotion in general leads to transmission, and awe is quite a strong emotion.” (Berger) And awe is evoked by the Times in stories with inspiring and substantial tales to tell: “They used two criteria for an awe-inspiring story: Its scale is large, and it requires “mental accommodation” by forcing the reader to view the world in a different way.”
I haven’t read the original report, but what I find interesting in this piece is that the researchers sought answers primarily in the content of the articles selected. Granted, this kind of research can be conducted at scale more easily. Articles were analyzed for their headlines, topicality, their affectivity, and more that can be mapped into algorithmic text analysis. But from what I know of recommender systems and of social media, other reasons explain why people make recommendations also. These are personal and social reasons, related to the selection’s reflection on the user and in social cases, to the attention, status, and other aspects of sociality a user may find engaging over time.
Which begs a couple questions: What reasons might readers have for recommending articles that were not covered by the researcher’s methodology, and What might the Times do otherwise to increase and diversify reader engagement?
Recommendations in social systems are an interesting practice. And I suspect that the deeper the sociality of the system, the more diverse the motives users may have for participating. Yelp is one such example. As a recommendation and review site, it allows and even encourages users to disclose themselves in their reviews and recommendations. Users are encouraged to build a following, to engage communicatively, and to use reviews as a proxy, if you will, for the self-disclosure that animates online dating and profiling sites.
In review and recommendation systems, users do more than just review a particular business. They talk about and reveal themselves in how they like, what they like, why they like, and how often they frequent the business. The business reviewed is really a springboard from which users can disclose personal tastes, preferences, interests, expertise, habits, and other attributes of personality, style, and character. The review format allows users to talk about themselves without directly talking about themselves (a reason that online dating sites provide numerous versions of the “about me” profile entry).
Recommendations are not yet reviews, of course. Times article recommendations are made by an individual user to his or her followers, or to friends and colleagues. In the latter case, the recommendation will likely be particular to its recipient, as the recommendation is a direct message. But in the newer case of Times followers, the recommendation incorporates the strange/familiar audience makeup we are now so used to in public social media systems. And for this reason, recommendations surely involve self-interest, attention-getting, status, reputation, credibility, and other aspects of social status and status updating common in the age of twitter.
Here, the Times could take advantage of the social incentive structures that motivate deeper and sustained reader engagement. Improving on the user-audience engagement currently satisfied by Times followers, it might build out reader communities. My own recommended articles, for example, are for the most part arbitrary reflections on what I found interesting and worth reading. I shy away from the front page for the obvious reason that front page news needs no surfacing. There are times when I select content that might reflect on my interests, but also times when I select content for its news value, its substance, and sometimes its relevance to the audience I assume (I haven’t looked deeply) is following me.
It’s in the latter that the Times could expand reader involvement. If I (and I think some of my colleagues, based on what I see them recommending) and others believe we have social media/technology types in our following, then I will sometimes recommend content of that kind. I’m looking for pickup by my audience. That tells me that I care about audience reception — which is a matter of social status. And I don’t think I’m alone in this. If I and others care not only about the article’s intrinsic interest, but about the interest others take in the article, then sociality is latent, present, and indeed actionable and extensible (by the Times).
A Times community might extend this interest to develop topical expertise and surface topical experts. It might leverage the social incentives that help experts achieve visibility and credibility, reputation (please, not by points), and status. The Times is surely interested in audience participation as a means not only of validating its content but of further distributing it. This is just an example of the mass media incorporating and assimilating social media strategies. The move demonstrates the shift of reader interest and engagement from content per se to Self and its attendant interests in attention and status. To wit, the Times might do well to ask not just What reader engagement makes the Times look good? but What content makes the reader look good?
A Times community of readers might then take advantage of the intrinsic conversationality of active reader engagement. Experts might go up against other experts. Critics might question other critics. I’ve looked at a number of the personality types I think can be found in social media. For simplicity’s sake, I divide them roughly into Self-oriented, Other-oriented, and Relational-oriented types. Their social competencies vary in how they talk about themselves, converse with others, and participate in social games and activities.
The Times could satisfy this diversity of modes of engagement by means of some pretty straightforward social organization. At which point I am certain it would find that user interests in content reach far beyond the article, to the much richer social modes of interacting and communicating with social scenes. Scenes that support Self image, that provide for conversation and discussion, and which enrich and diversify socially topical fields of interest.
The depth of user engagement becomes much more interesting when the modes and means of relationality and relating become interpersonal and social, when a brand’s sociability is more than an extension of brand image but is a complex field of scenes and publics that vary in degrees of engagement, attention, speed, and rhythm. When content is validated not just for its substance but for its modes of referentiality — which is to say, the ways in which its substance, its claims, its direct and indirect references (denotation, connotation) take on the social significations that come with social re-use, appropriation, and re-contextualization. Yelp did it. I would guess that the news media can, too.