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Aug. 13, 2012, 11:30 a.m.
Audience & Social

In the Philippines, Rappler is trying to figure out the role of emotion in the news

News startup Rappler is trying to bring social media smarts to the Filipino market, and one focus is capturing readers’ emotional state.

As news organizations fracture and specialize, it’s often suggested that audiences seek out the kind of coverage that reflects their own preconceived perspectives. It’s the idea that right-wingers are watching Hannity while left-wingers are watching Maddow.

But when it comes to how we decide what information to share, there’s more than political ideology at play. Maria Ressa, a longtime TV journalist and CEO of the Manila-based news startup Rappler, has been thinking about the overlap between emotion and social interaction for a while now. Her forthcoming book, From Bin Laden to Facebook, examines social media’s role in the spread of terrorism.

“When you look at how terrorism spreads, you look at how emotions spread through large groups of people,” Ressa told me. “You take the idea that emotions are important in decision making. And on social media, what spreads fastest, it’s actually emotions more than ideas.”

“If you actually go through the exercise of identifying how you feel, you’re more prone to be rational.”

So Ressa had an idea. Why not find a way to track the emotions that news stories elicit from members of an audience? Enter the Rappler Mood Meter, which gives readers the opportunity to click on the emotion that any given Rappler story made them feel. The options: Happy, sad, angry, don’t care, inspired, afraid, amused, or annoyed. (Ressa says Rappler developed the mood categories with the help of a group of psychologists.)

Mood Meters feed into a larger Mood Navigator, which determines the mood of the day and features a visual, story-by-story representation of the mood breakdown. On one recent day, for example, most people were happy — despite one big story that made most people sad, and a couple that made most people angry. Check it out:

Readers can mouse over any of the circles — each one represents an individual story — to see the mood breakdown. For example, a story about Bam Aquino’s 2013 Senate candidacy made most people happy, but even more people were either annoyed or angry:

“The idea behind the Mood Meter is actually getting people to crowdsource the mood for the day,” Ressa said. “If you actually go through the exercise of identifying how you feel, you’re more prone to be rational. If you can identify how you feel, will you be more receptive to the debate that’s in front of you? I hope. That’s really the rationale, aside from the fact that it’s cool.”

The Mood Navigator is also revealing. Rappler’s two most popular stories ever made most people either inspired or sad. The former was a story about a Filipina physicist who helped prove Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity on a cosmic scale. The latter was about how a Filipino-Mexican would have won American Idol had voting not been limited to U.S. residents. Ressa says both stories had “geeky” components to them.

“It’s about trying to understand our world today,” Ressa said. “I think everyone is trying to understand our world today and we’re doing it together. Too few media companies are actually in the space where most Filipinos are going.”

The idea of tying readers’ moods to specific stories isn’t new. NBC’s local O&O station sites debuted them back in 2009, although they disappeared in a later redesign. News.me wants to know if a story elicits a “Wow” or an “Awesome,” while Buzzfeed wants an “LOL,” “OMG,” or “WTF.”

But the Mood Meter, and Rappler more generally, is proving to be a significant new force in the Philippines, where Internet use is not yet mainstream but where the connected are very connected. Only 30 percent of Filipinos reported using the Internet within a four-week span, according to an October 2011 Nielsen study. But those who did reported being online for more than 21 hours per week, among the highest in Southeast Asia. Mobile phones and social media are both hugely popular in the country, which is seeing a rapid shift as more consumers buy multiple devices, including tablets and smartphones with Internet access.

Ressa says the lion’s share of advertising revenue in the Philippines still flows into television, which may help explain why Rappler is a relatively rare online news startup in the region. “In 2010, we were doing very well on television but you could already see the market fragmenting,” Ressa said. “This was really an experiment to see: Could we survive purely online without any ads on print or television? It’s actually much more potent than any of us had expected.”

The country’s largest TV networks and newspapers have web sites, but most have the cluttered design that tends to reflect a supplemental approach to an outlet’s online presence. Ressa credits the site’s web-native DNA for its rapid growth. “In Rappler’s first month, we hit the traffic it took the largest Philippine news group a decade to reach. That’s the power of social media.”

“We’ve moved from the age of authority to the age of authenticity.”

In its first six months, Rappler grew quickly. Its best month of traffic saw nearly 3 million pageviews, with most months clocking between 2 million and 3 million hits. Ressa says most traffic comes through social media channels.

On one hand, the Mood Navigator draws people in by “gamifying things a little,” but it also helps demonstrate “the way emotions flow through society.” Inside the newsroom, it helps journalists better understand how to tell stories that resonate with people. “We’ve been journalists a long time,” she said. “And you get tired of telling the same stories without any resolution.”

In future iterations of the Mood Navigator, the plan is to enable people to be able to click on an emotion for a list of mood-customized content. That way, you can create reading lists that include only the stories that made most people happy, or angry, or amused, or whatever other emotion you choose. (The New York Times’ Show Tuner is a niche experiment in the same wheelhouse; it lets users select their moods along a sliding scale from light to dark in order to find targeted theater reviews. Get ready for more filter bubble articles.)

Ressa, who spent more than two decades of her journalism career in television, is excited about opportunities to interact with audiences online. (Perhaps it’s not an accident that both NBC Local and Rappler approach emotion from a broadcast perspective — a medium that’s long been more comfortable with audience emotion than newspapers.) Another crowdsourcing project that Rappler recently launched, #HealthAlert, involves developing a local map of cases of Dengue fever, the potentially deadly mosquito-borne illness that tends to occur in tropical regions during their rainy seasons.

“We know this is a yearly problem, and yet we could never get a map of where it happens,” Ressa said. “Tap the wisdom of crowds to help strengthen government initiatives — actually ask the people who are reading Rappler, ask our community, if there’s an incident of Dengue, map it. The map is simple: It’s a Google map with an Ushahidi overlay. Then we’ll be plugging into the department of health so that they can see, in real time, hopefully, a nationwide map of incidents of Dengue. It then means the authorities, maybe they can more proactive.”

Being proactive is largely what Rappler is about. Ressa says she sees the site as the first “truly multimedia” news organization in the Philippines. What that means is merging journalists with broadcast, print, and tech expertise. Rappler produces news broadcasts that are optimized for mobile devices. (Ressa anchors.)

“We’ve moved from the age of authority to the age of authenticity,” Ressa said. “Professional journalists now have to move from that old ground of authority — because we’re losing ground, and frankly it’s hard to be an authority now. In the areas where breaking news happens, they’ll know more than the professionals. So what can we add to this changing landscape?”

POSTED     Aug. 13, 2012, 11:30 a.m.
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