Monday, 28 November 2011

Headline Virus Spreads Through Facebook!

As stories propagate through the world's leading social network irrespective of readers interest, is it time for Facebook tae think again about their news strategy?

This morning I saw a headline on Facebook: Harry Potter's secret is out after PR slip gives... and it tantalisingly stopped there.  What with the last film being out and the last film long since published, I was quite curious about what secrets might be left to let slip, so I read the article, which was about some web-based project.  I continued reading down to the comments section, where the first comment was:
Um... beta details for this have been available for a long time, and I have played this in September - unless the alleged leak applies to the second book or later of Pottermore; then it really doesn't matter.
And then came a second comment:
Check the article date. 23 June 2011.

Aha!  I haven't even thought to do this myself.  So this isn't really news.  And worse -- it turns out that this story is currently the number 1 shared item on the website.

How did this happen?

Simple - if you read the story, it gets added to your profile.  But when I say "read", I simply mean "click on the link".  There is no attempt made to verify that it's an article that you find interesting or relevant, and the story spreads to others who will find the headline compelling but similarly find the content lacking.

The top 5 most shared stories on the Independent website are:
  1. Harry Potter's secret is out after PR slip gives the game away - 23rd June 2011
  2. Inbetweeners boys bullied on set - 4th August 2011
  3. A-Level Results: Britain's top pupil rejects Oxbridge - 20th August 1999
  4. Father, 11, hides as pregnant girl faces the media - 19th August 1997
  5. Why single-sex schools are bad for your health (if you're a boy) - 1st December 2009
Now while numbers 1 and 2 are subject to fashion and will die off as people lose interest in Harry Potter and The Inbetweeners, numbers 3 and 4 are items that will always draw attention, as evidenced by the fact that they occured last century and are still stimulating interest today.

As such, any sufficiently interesting headline gets converted into an instant trojan that spreads virally through the network.  But unlike most viruses, this doesn't damage our computers, it damages our minds - the news we read starts to make us more ill-informed, and keeps us away from the current stories, and for pity's sake, there's more than enough current news to keep up with already.

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