As NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen likes to say, you can tell a lot about people and their views on media based on what they say about BuzzFeed. And one of the things that critics often focus on is how much of the site is devoted to listicles or quizzes or other ephemeral content (as though newspapers don’t devote a lot of their space to similar pursuits, such as crossword puzzles or the comic section).
As a new report published by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University points out, however, there is a serious purpose to much of this game-playing by BuzzFeed that more media companies could learn from. It’s about more than just driving traffic, as some of the site’s critics seem to suggest — it’s about encouraging an atmosphere of experimentation, and then learning from what works.
Gamification of news
The report was written by Columbia PhD student Maxwell Foxman, and looks at what some like to call the “gamification” of the news, or the use of playful approaches to conveying information. As the author notes in his paper (the full PDF version of which is here), the engagement value of this kind of approach can be huge: the most-viewed piece of content the New York Times published in 2013 wasn’t an investigative news story, but a quiz based on the distribution of different American dialects. Says Foxman:
“Despite stigmas and fads surrounding play and the news, we can draw vital lessons from their complex relationship. Many of the tools that online newsmakers use are similar to those applied in games. Even the fervor with which we share information on social media can be considered playful. British broadcaster Charlie Brooker put Twitter at the top of his list of the twenty-five most significant video games.”
As Foxman points out, the criticism of shallow features aimed at entertaining an audience didn’t start with BuzzFeed and its listicles or quizzes — when newspapers first started including crossword puzzles in the early 1900s, they became a public sensation, with Broadway songs written about them. But the New York Times (which now has one of the most popular puzzles in the world) called it a “sinful waste” and said those who filled them out got “nothing out of it except a primitive form of mental exercise.”
The Columbia student also describes how crossword puzzles evolved over time thanks to input from users, a test-and-response method that he encourages newspapers and other media companies to adopt for more things than just puzzles. This approach is also the subject of a book by game designer and academic Ian Bogost, called “Newsgames: Journalism at Play,” which was published in 2010. In one example of an early news-game, readers were encouraged to pretend that they were living in the Darfur refugee camp.
Run, test and repeat
Unfortunately, as Foxman notes, the trend of “gamification” on news sites that started several years ago quickly veered into a fascination with giving readers meaningless things like badges and other alleged “rewards” for participation on the site, as the Huffington Post did with a major initiative it rolled out in 2011. Since there was no real incentive for accumulating these rewards or engaging in the behavior they were meant to encourage, however, they had little effect.
During his research, Foxman talked to a number of people at BuzzFeed, including Jack Shepherd, who was employee number eight and now runs the Buzz entertainment vertical, as well as members of the site’s gaming team. Shepherd points out that the site’s entire editorial approach is a kind of game-playing, saying the idea was not to “sit around [and] assign stories based on what we thought were the important stories of the day” but to see what people were actually sharing and build on that:
“We do the equivalent of play testing with our posts. We’ll try a bunch of different things and then the stuff that is doing well and getting shared is the stuff that we start showing people more, and the stuff that isn’t really working, we won’t show people as much.”
In the end, one of the most important aspects of BuzzFeed’s approach — as I tried to point out in a post about what it and other new-media companies like Quartz and Gawker are doing right — is that it is based on experimentation, and iteration. In that sense, it looks at the news or at content generally as a product or a service. Is it working? Why not? What do people respond to better? That’s not the way most traditional media companies look at what they do, but it probably should be.