Journalists want their stories to be read. That’s why they write them. Even in the pursuit of objectivity, even when sticking to the facts and the figures and the numbers, there’s always this idea of “but yeah, what can I do to make this sexier?”
So there was this story. It involved, in a tangential way, a tale of two families. And there was curry involved. It unexpectedly became a sensation online for a brief period of time, because we as a whole have not yet been trained to expect these things. But that I think will eventually change.
Let’s start with the original article, which ran in both print and online versions. It was a pretty run-of-the-mill story, heavy on the facts and figures, full of official lines from spokespeople and press officers. Neighbours quarrel, big deal everybody knows that. Lost in the milieu of headlines, it didn’t draw very much attention.
Until noon, that is, which was around the time noted political blogger mrbrown shared the article – with a controversial nugget that had been buried in the article’s second half.
BOOM. The article got picked up, passed around, and commented on like wildfire. When I checked in on Twitter during my lunch break, almost every other tweet on my timeline from a Singaporean was about the curry issue. You can see that the sudden spike of tweets on the geographical search for the word “curry” that I got off Trendsmap here (an amazing tool for tracking Twitter trends, btw):
One sign that a news piece is getting some serious traction is when people start referencing it without linking back to the article, meaning that people expect knowledge of the issue to widespread enough that they can talk about it without having to explain the background – everybody already knows. That happened here, you can see it in the tweetfall pictured above.
The other sign that something is taking off on Twitter is when the hashtags start sprouting, which was exactly what happened here – curry got subducted into the popular hashtag #IAmSingaporean, and fresh ones from the punny #curryfavour to the unwieldy #wheninsingaporesmellwhatsingaporeanssmell were served up.
Like all things Twitter, the furore came and went very quickly. Within hours the torrent of curry-related tweets had slowed to a trickle, probably as most people finished their lunch breaks and went back to work. By the time the evening swung around, most of the curry-related tweets being made in Singapore were actually about actually eating it.
In the above graphic you can see a prominent peak for Singapore-based curry tweets (red arrow). In contrast, the global volume of tweets about curry showed no such variance.The peak is brief, and died out quickly after a few hours.
But you can already see from the same graphic that secondary media sources – i.e. the WordPress post – have started appearing. I expect that the impact of this Twitterflurry will remain, and over the next few days more secondary media in this issue – stuff like blogposts and Facebook groups, which take longer to conceive – will blossom. (This post is probably one amongst their number.) There has already been a penetration into the social consciousness, if you can call it that.
What impact has this all had on the story’s visibility, overall? Let’s look at some statistics, helpfully tracked on the online article itself. As of midnight on Tuesday, the article on TodayOnline post had garnered for itself 4K Facebook likes, 251 Twitter mentions, 3 +1s on Google+ (er) and was shared 185 times through other services. It was also the most-viewed article on the whole of TodayOnline for that day.
In contrast, the next in line on the top 10 viewed posts on the TodayOnline site (something about Arsenal) got – in the same timeframe – 10 Facebook likes, 7 Twitter mentions, 2 +1s on Google+ and was shared 6 times through other services. To say that the difference is significant would be quite the understatement.
Let me tell you, 4,000 Facebook likes is no trivial number, especially for an otherwise-unremarkable story that, in light of the run-up to NDP/Presidential election and the terrible market response to the US credit downgrading, wasn’t even classified as hot news.
So what lessons can we learn from this? The obvious one, of course, would be that the potent combination of big-time influencer (mrbrown) + hot-button issue (negative sentiment towards foreigners) = instant internet meme. But we all knew that already.
What is more interesting to me is the contrast in response between the actual reporting, and what actually became the main topic of conversation online. The issue that ended up dominating the online dialogue was not even the main focus of the article. To me, it’s an example of how, in the age of the rise of user-generated content, traditional mass media is slowly losing grip of what dictates public discourse.
Yes, of course the journalist had the power to select the specific case studies that would feature in the article, so that just through that act of curation they shaped the future of where the conversation would lead. But it would be disingenuous to say that this was all part of a Greater Plan to kick up a huge storm of controversy on the Internet. It’s pretty clear who had the upper hand in how this was played out, and that was the voice of the people, if you like topping your sentences off with lofty-sounding cliches.
I had originally wanted kick off this blog with a post on active versus reactive journalism, and how social media might be driving us towards more of the latter. That is still forthcoming, and and I’m going to explore how little nuggets such as these are contributors to the whole phenomenon. Feel free to disagree with anything I’ve said here.
(Top image: Mutton curry… by flickr user avlxyz)