Last weekend my blog had the most hits ever in one day by a factor of seven, as my blog post on Eight steps to thriving on information overload was featured first on Lifehacker, and in turn appeared on a variety of prominent sites, including del.icio.us popular, popurls, and then the front page of del.icio.us. It also received a good number of diggs, though it didn’t hit the front page of Digg.com.
It’s instructive to unpack how this happened. The first element was clearly content that hit a hot button for people, and was useful. A large part of my job is throwing at executives wild, provocative, and instructive insights from across everything that’s happening in technology and business, and helping them to make sense of it and take useful action. One of the most common responses, especially recently, has been to ask how I manage to keep on top of so much in a world run amok. Everyone is experiencing increasing pressure to keep up, and feeling they are not succeeding. Interestingly, my blog post was a repost of a magazine article I wrote ten years ago on this topic, showing the issue is a perennial. It’s only going to become more acute as years go by.
After I posted the article on August 27, there were a few blog posts about it, most notably by Jack Vinson, who excerpted the article on his blog two days later, and then mentioned it again a week after that. Jack has good, influential readership, especially in the knowledge management community.
The next step was the post getting taken up by Stumbleupon, a service that allows the serendipitous discovery of interesting websites, based on users’ votes. Just four people voted for my blog post, but this was enough for a hundred or so people to stumble across it through the service. I suspect this was how Lifehacker, the number six most popular blog in the world as ranked by Technorati, came across the post. Well over 1,000 visitors came to my site from Lifehacker, many of whom bookmarked the post on Del.icio.us.
The Del.icio.us Popular page shows the sites that have received the most bookmarks in a recent period, probably around four hours. Popurls is an interesting site that aggregates over a dozen of the top community news sites, meaning that once you hit the front page of digg, tailrank, Del.icio.us Popular, or similar sites, you in turn appear on popurls, generating yet more traffic. My article appeared on Del.icio.us Popular for less than a day, then a day later hit the front page of del.icio.us, which is weighted more to absolute numbers of bookmarks, and less to recency. This means it takes longer to reach this level of prominence, and some “popular” bookmarks never make it to the front page. Various other services, including Clipmarks (which excerpts interesting articles), also featured my article. A number of other blogs have also referenced my post, but probably haven’t resulted in a lot of traffic, except for the prominent Beth’s blog, which picked up the story from Jack Vinson.
This detailed sequence of the post going “viral” brings out the distinction between influencers and amplifiers. This difference has been promoted by Buzzlogic, a service for companies to monitor conversations about their products. Buzzlogic co-founder Mitch Ratcliffe spoke on “Tapping the Power of Influence Networks” panel at our Future of Media Summit earlier this year.
In the context of my blog post, influencers include Jack Vinson and Lifehacker, who chose to write about the article, as well as the first people to vote for the story in Stumbleupon. Del.icio.us was primarily an amplifier in helping an existing signal become visible to others and then accentuated. Popurls played this role in an even purer form, simply by making more broadly visible what was already prominent.
One of the key characteristics of the web today is that there are so many amplification mechanisms. The first stage of content being seen widely requires prominent influencers to recognize interesting content and point to it. Once it is sufficiently visible, many sites pick up that signal and amplify it. It is not just the most prominent sites such as Digg, but also a proliferation of aspiring websites that try to build their own success by discovering and featuring what is popular elsewhere.
Some decry this phenomenon, saying that this populism taken to the ultimate degree leads to a dumbing of culture. This debate has been reinvigorated recently, as a study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism compared what was popular on Digg, Reddit and Del.icio.us with the news selected by editors for newspaper headlines. Nick Gonzalez, Mathew Ingram, Nick Carr, Dan Gillmor, and Brad Linder, among others, have weighed in on this. As some have noted, it is not a valid comparison. What is important is an understanding of the distinct role of influencers and amplifiers in the conversation (with journalists often playing both roles). This is fundamental to how messages flow in the online world, and where the Internet is going. In the medium-term, much of this will be driven by a proliferation of new websites seeking traffic by positioning themselves as amplifiers.