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Are We Stuck with Hashtags and Like Buttons?

The coverage on Nieman Journalism Lab yesterday of the Engaging News Project pretty much ruined my coffee break as I clicked through the research: there are few things I love more than seemingly wonky research about journalism and democracy. Especially when it’s put in action. Talia Stroud’s research shows, in the most simple explanation, that when you change the language, it can also change how people engage with your website. That should perk most of our ears up. If you want, you can already start making your readers ‘Respect’ stories instead of ‘Like’ them with a WordPress plug-in.

What you can’t make people do, according to her research, is actively seek out information that goes against their views, or their niche. That sounds like old news to me. We’re all in our own little ‘bubbles’ to use Bill Maher’s lingo. That’s bad for democracy, but good for online publishers. It also has something to do with why magazines have fared better in a digital landscape. Chris Hughes of The New Republic spoke to a lot of like-minded, nodding heads this week about how readers (users? can we agree on a terminology?) still look for ‘curated editorial experiences’ whether online or off. That’s something not easy to do with a daily news site, but the goal of most magazines — whether it’s the New Republic or Slate or Field and Stream. 

Apart from saving democracy from ourselves online, the Respect button has my head spinning for another reason. In terms of design and user experience, it’s hard for pubs to break out of the Web 2.0 standards whether it’s about asking readers to like things, comment, or use hashtags. I’m sure there are many strategists and design experts who haven’t slept considering the same things.  I’m not sure if it’s a good thing that everything starts to look the same, all the time. I don’t know for how much longer I even want to ‘like’, let alone ‘respect’ content online, although that’s the formula publications work with to determine all the numbers that make up their bottom line.

Maybe it’s the stormy weather on the East Coast that has me thinking too much about it — but what do you think? If we’ve moved past Web 2.0 and onto the semantic web, how does that affect how we’ll have to start thinking about reader engagement and page design? Is it just that we’ll  be able to better search our hashtags and generate more niche content to read? 

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