In a recent post for The Atlantic, Derek Thompson investigates what drives people to read content online. As a writer for a popular news site, it’s of interest to Thompson to find out what people are clicking on and why when navigating through the endless amount of web content available. Though it sounds like a boring study of analytics at first, his findings and references are actually super interesting.
Readers want to be told what to read/listen to/download first. There’s too much information out there to take it all in at once, and The Atlantic – along with most other sites – tries to provide its audience with the freshest content in the (supposedly) most accessible places. That said, Thompson and his analytics team found that the majority of readers aren’t clicking on that content; they’re clicking on the content that’s hidden all the way at the bottom of the page, but under a very specific headline: Most Popular.
An interesting study conducted by two sociologists showed that people chose to download and listen to songs that were classified as “Most Popular,” even if they weren’t actually the most popular downloads of the time. Thompson triggered a realization for me: people want to consume content that others are consuming. This might not be the best content, but they trust that it will be worthwhile because it’s popular. We trust the opinions of our peers over the opinion of the site hosting the content.
I don’t always trust sites to give me what they believe is their top content; of course they think it’s great — they wrote it. Of course an artist thinks his music downloads are the best — he created them. Most Popular lists are the most community-based way to organize the content on the Internet, and that’s why people flock towards them. Most Popular lists do have a flaw, though. According to Thompson, these lists can be fixed effortlessly. The consequence of this is that readers are tricked into consuming and “liking” things that they might not have liked or found useful if not for a number 1 or 2 next to the title.
The solution: Human curation. We need to provide readers with lists and collections of content that are popular within a certain field because they are genuinely popular to those who know about or are interested in that field. Most Popular lists on websites are generated by algorithms, making them extremely easy to game (by clicking the same content repeatedly, for instance) which in turn leads readers to believe they’ve found good content when they oftentimes haven’t. It’s the job of the curator, as a human, to let other humans know what they (the curator) are finding to be the best pieces of content on a topic — as someone who knows about a specific subject or interest.
If news sites and other content providers paired up with expert curators to create lists of content that would be popular among those with the authority to judge, then the most valuable content would naturally become the most popular content. Combining the power of fellow readers’ and curators’ opinions with the positive impact which rankings of popularity have on content consumption is the key to create an environment where the most popular content is also the best content. In that place, everyone wins!