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A conversation with David Rose, little magazine veteran and publisher of Lapham’s Quarterly
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March 27, 2012, 4:02 p.m.

Thirty-seven percent of the links you’re sharing are “awesome” — but how many are “rad”?

News.me asks: Can the way people characterize the news they share tell us about why they share in the first place?

Three weeks after news-sharing network News.me launched its iPhone app, the network is beginning to get an idea of the kinds of stories that its users are sharing — or at the very least, how they’re reacting to what others share.

News.me bills itself as a service that delivers “must-read news” from your Facebook and Twitter accounts. In other words, it takes all of that baby-photo clutter (sorry, babies) out of your newsfeed and comes up with just the links your friends are sharing. But News.me also enables “reactions” to shares that are only visible within the app.

You can either make up your own reaction or you can pick from this list of one-word presets: Wow, Awesome, Sad, Ha!, and Really? Here’s how News.me General Manager Jake Levine explained the presets:

Our thinking was that one of the barriers to participation in a conversation on the phone is the keyboard, so we wanted to reduce that barrier by making participation as simple as a tap of the thumb.

The challenge is that everyone has their own unique voice, and so limiting expression to a set of five words could also raise the barrier to participation. So our solution was to provide a set of words that were as ambiguous and open to interpretation as possible.

Sorting emotional responses into a defined set: It’s something NBC Local’s sites tried back in 2009, asking their readers to be furious, intrigued, laughing, sad, bored, or thrilled by stories. (The feature’s since disappeared.) And it’s something Facebook does every day when it asks you to “Like” something on the Internet.

In a Tuesday blog post, Levine revealed new data showing that News.me users opted for preset reactions — rather than creating their own custom reactions — most of the time.

Of the 62 percent of reactions that came from the preset list, Levine says people tapped “awesome” 37 percent of the time. “Wow” was next most popular, with 23 percent of preset taps. “Sad” was tapped least often, 10 percent of the time. But what does this tell us? Are people more likely to share “awesome” stories? Or are people more likely to describe what they share as “awesome”?

“Part of what we’re trying to do is keep these words as open to interpretation as possible, but when it comes down to it, there are some people who would just never use the word ‘awesome,'” Levine told me.

That raises the question of how people customize reactions when they opt to forego the preset reactions, which is 38 percent of the time, according to Levine’s data. He hasn’t yet pulled the raw data on custom reactions, but Levine says he has some anecdotal ideas about what he’ll find when he does.

“People are mimicking the one-word reactions, picking a word that better fits,” Levine told me. “Like, ‘interesting’ is a very common reaction, but it’s not included in our five [preset options].”

In other cases, people will customize an “actual sentence, which is probably less common,” he said. And then there’s a trend that News.me is incorporating into the next version of its platform.

“It’s really interesting that people are quoting from the article when they react to it,” Levine said. “In the next release you’ll be able to highlight a portion of the text, and you’ll be able to react with that quote.”

Reactions on the cutting room floor

Choices like “Wow” and “Really?” are vague enough to be applicable to all sorts of stories, which may offer clues as to why the narrower (though still subjective) “sad” was used less frequently. “One of the things we were debating was, do we want to have a negative adjective?” Levine said. “Do people want to see that in their streams?”

Deciding on which words to use in the first place involved a spreadsheet and a email brainstorming session with “five of our smartest friends,” Levine says. Here are some of the proposed reactions that got left on the cutting room floor:

— Shocking
— Brilliant
— Pointless
— Life-changing
— Funny ha ha
— Indubitable
— Tragicomic
— Must read
— As if
— Jaw dropper
— Damn
— Uhhhh
— Offensive
— Sick
— Grand
— Rad
— Finally
— TL;DR

Armed with new ideas about how people are using News.me, Levine and his team are preparing an update that’ll be ready to go in about two weeks, he said. The changes you can expect include a speedier experience, clear distinctions between what’s being shared on Facebook versus on Twitter, and a “really cool gesture” that will enable users to save a link to read later. Levine says a phone conversation with one of News.me’s most “active reactors” on Wednesday will help inform News.me’s continued evolution.

“What he started to see — which was encouraging to us — was that [reactions were] the beginning of a conversation with other people,” Levine said. “Now how do we make it easy for us to bring people into that conversation? That’s how we’re thinking about the data.”

POSTED     March 27, 2012, 4:02 p.m.
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