Journalists now face constant temptation by numbers. Each piece offers a tantalising glimpse of their popularity: how many comments, Facebook likes and tweets does it garner? The illness is neediness, the prescription is data and the (flawed) assumption is that numbers correlate with what matters.
In December 2012, the Guardian revealed two facts about its online community. In isolation, neither sounds particularly surprising. However, taken together, they explain how misleading it is crudely to measure online interaction. First, the newspaper website’s audited audience for the previous month was 70.5 million unique users. Second, the paper revealed that its site “publishes around 600,000 comments a month, with 2,600 people posting more than 40 comments a month”.
Martin Belam, digital editor at the Trinity Mirror group, crunched the numbers and made a startling calculation. If 2,600 people post at least 40 comments each, then their total must be more than 104,000, which means that a maximum of 496,000 comments are written by everyone else. In other words, at least 20 per cent of the comments on the website each month come from just 0.0037 per cent of the Guardian’s declared monthly audience.
A tiny minority has a disproportionately loud voice. There is nothing wrong with that per se. But it is important to remember the weak correlation between the things we know some readers think and what readers, in totality, really think. If we fail to distinguish between the two, a peculiar kind of distortion seeps into the news.
While covering a controversial news story, journalists will often use social media to monitor how their readers (in reality, a tiny minority of their readers) think they are handling the events. This is what happened during the sacking of Kevin Pietersen from the England cricket team. It was no surprise that a significant number of social media users violently opposed Pietersen’s removal. That is understandable: he is the most thrilling and talented player of his generation. There is a danger, however, especially as journalists cultivate the number and satisfaction of their social media devotees, that the followers will begin to lead.
Yet Pietersen’s vociferous Twitter advocates, who cling to the idea that his sacking was the result of a bizarre Machiavellian plot, are not representative of the entire community of England fans. Far from it. For every tweeter who stabs the word “Disgrace!” into his smartphone, a thousand other cricket fans could quietly be saying, “It’s perfectly understandable,” over the breakfast table without anyone noticing. We never hear the whole national conversation, merely the shouting outside the bar at closing time.
When I used to write a weekly newspaper column, the sports editor told me that fans of one particular football club were highly disciplined in hounding critical journalists. I criticised anyway and awoke to find a series of organised threads under my column, submitted minutes after the piece had been posted, exactly as my editor had predicted.
It is often assumed that the quantifiable nature of digital media encourages sensationalism. It is true that a misleading headline or simplistic argument can generate a temporary (and easily measured) fuss. But a parallel trend runs alongside web-orientated populism: the timidity of not wanting to offend a tiny minority of readers who are keen to express their outrage. Populism and fearfulness, in their different ways, are both manifestations of the same herd mentality.
Let me make the counter-argument. The vast majority of readers do not comment on articles or write to journalists using Twitter. Instead, these people read, consider the arguments and reach their own conclusions, without leaving much of a digital footprint. That it is extremely difficult – impossible, even – to decipher what they believe does not mean they do not exist. Indeed, they are often exactly the people who may consider changing their minds. The silent majority, sceptical and open to new arguments, is the very audience journalists should try to reach.
I have many reasons to be grateful to social media. Readers frequently direct me to articles and resources that help me to develop my ideas. Social media has enhanced my life and, I hope, my work. But gratefulness does not blind me to another truth: however many people comment on articles or attend literary festivals and book signings, I will never meet or hear from the vast majority of my readers. They will continue to judge, weigh and assess – without me ever hearing their conclusions. All of this is a modern version of the problem identified by Einstein: “Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts.”
In a different context, as a professional cricketer, I witnessed how that fallacy crept into management thinking. During a tedious, overcomplicated fitness test, a pioneering cricket coach took me aside. “I practically invented all this and now look!” he lamented. “When I encouraged fitness testing, it was because fitness was a clear means of improving performance. Now coaches do so much of it because it’s easy.” His point was that improving technique requires great judgement and skill, yet it can’t be measured or counted. Improving bodies, on the other hand, can be captured on a spreadsheet. Dodging the harder challenges, managers found more things to measure, congratulating themselves on “proven and scientific progress” as they did so.
Writers are now adjusting to hearing much more from their readers. That is to be celebrated and encouraged, not to be feared or pandered to – still less counted.
Ed Smith’s latest book is “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune” (Bloomsbury, £8.99)