Our analysis of the shareability of articles on the world’s leading news sites has revealed distinct profiles that reflect different editorial strategies.
The most striking example is Buzzfeed. Buzzfeed’s content is created to share. And this core purpose is evident in the shape of the graph below.
The graph shows the share counts of all stories published on Buzzfeed’s homepage in the first half of 2014. We collected this data using the Likeable Engine, our software that tracks the sharing of articles from 140 news sites around the world. Each column – or bin, as statisticians call it – represents the number of Facebook shares for each story published to the Buzzfeed homepage. The most common share count for stories was about 1000 shares (the circled bin).
What’s staggering about this is not the fact that 1000-odd shares is the average for a Buzzfeed article, although that’s very high and bettered in our sample only by Rolling Stone.
It is the shape of the curve itself that is amazing. The Buzzfeed graph is a bell curve or a normal distribution. This is a statistical pattern seen so often in nature. Human intelligence and height distributions follow a bell curve. But we do not observe anything else so closely matching this perfect statistical form across the other publications we’re tracking with the Likeable Engine. There is a natural – or is it a mechanical? – beauty in Buzzfeed’s curve. Incidentally, the high column on the left edge is junk (unshared non-stories such as writers’ bios).
Sydney University’s Joel Nothman put together a batch of these graphs – called histograms – from various publishers’ homepages using Likeable data. They break down into several distinct patterns, which we’ve labelled “Curated”, “Newspaper” and “Twin peaks”.
There are some interesting differences in the sharing distributions of various homepages as you can see below.
These graphs say something about the role of media organisations’ homepages and way they are programmed. What that something is, we’re not so sure.
We know Buzzfeed “starves the losers”, stopping promotion of content that is not sharing early in its lifecycle. The left half of its histogram is likely shaped by that approach.
Mashable’s distribution is even more extreme in that almost nothing features on its homepage that doesn’t receive 400-plus shares. On Joel’s interactive histogram, the redness of Mashable’s bins indicates a high percentage of tweets to Facebook shares. Perhaps a greater proportion of Mashable’s readers are tech industry types who more readily tweet its content. Maybe there’s a bunch of robots tweeting out every Mashable story.
Looking at the Newspaper curves, it appears many articles on these homepages are not shareable. We know novelty is a sharing driver but much of what is published by news organisations is not shared. Unspectacular updates, reports about reports, speculation, stories about abstract issues in far away lands – this is the stuff of sharing oblivion.
But newspapers also publish some of the biggest hits on Facebook. Share Wars readers would be unsurprised to find that USA Today’s ‘Anti-vaccine movement is giving diseases a 2nd life’ shared like quicksilver. It features the powerful sharing driver we call Norming, in which people share to take a stand on an issue. We estimate Norming drives about 60% of news sharing. This story’s 185,000 Facebook shares would put it at the right edge of Buzzfeed’s histogram – rarefied sharing territory – alongside such winners as ‘Guys Are Decking Their Beards Out With Flowers And It’ll Probably Give You A Pinterestgasm’.
Our final shape, Twin peaks, might be generated by the presence of a sharing module – such as most-shared or most-commented – on the homepage. It might not too. We’re just guessing.
Check out Joel Nothman’s interactive histograms from some of the big sites in Australia and the US. He produced these as part of the Sharing News Online project which Share Wars is collaborating with Sydney University’s Media Department on. Read more on the project here at lead investigator Tim Dwyer’s page.