So You Want To Be a Data Journalist: Sharing Is Caring?

Are people even reading anything you share on Twitter or Facebook? If they are, how often will the link be shared before people lose interest?

The folks at bitly wanted to know the answers to these questions too. They looked at a link about a baby otter who was befriended by orphaned kittens. (Let me just add that I am not one of those cool kids that passes around links like that. I will rant later.)

They calculated the link’s popularity by determining its “half life”, which is “the amount of time at which this link will receive half of the clicks it will ever receive after it’s reached its peak.” The half life for the baby otter was 70 minutes. That is,until another annoying hipster finds it and makes it “cool” again. (End rant.)

This is a fantastic measure for journalists to see what is popular online and what may not have a high half life. We all want our stories to viral but usually it’s not the case.

So why do some links go viral?

Gilad Lotan of Social Flow analyzed the online explosion of the KONY video to determine who was sharing the link. I watched about five minutes of the video until I decided to stop playing it because I found it trite and condescending. But others watched it. In fact, it went mega-viral by racking up 100 million views on YouTube in six days.

Gilad and Social Flow created this link sharing visualization:

Surprised? I was. I didn’t know that Invisible Children, who created the KONY video, had a large group of online followers. I also didn’t know that actress Kirsten Bell was involved.

Here are the locations where the link became popular:

Based on other data available, Gilad found that a lot of people who shared the link were religious and they actively participated in a social media campaign to find support from celebrities with a large online network.

In other words, Gilad found that links don’t necessarily go viral without a reason. We learned that KONY had a strategic campaign.

The data tracking by bitly and Social Flow amazes me. It’s incredibly useful for future analysis of major viral links and events. Finding a data source like this is a pot of gold for the number stories journalists can write about just by tracking social media behavior. Why do some stories go viral on Reddit and not others? Perhaps it’s because of the kind of users who are willing to share the links on larger social media platforms like Facebook.

As a user, it also makes me wonder whether I will be more conscious of what I share if I know that someone is tracking my social media behavior. I am already conscious about what I share since I am a journalist, but if I want to give a certain impression (such as maintaining a particular online identity), I would only share links that help me achieve that goal.

It’s also useful to journalists who want to know who is interested in their work and how they can cultivate a larger social media presence.

I wonder whether the Caine’s Arcade video, which also went viral recently, had a similar online campaign? I hope not.

For more information on data journalism, watch a Columbia Journalism video featuring several notable data journalists:

Watch live streaming video from columbiajournalism at

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