Reclaiming audience interaction from social networks

“Even if our solutions were very simple, we could not have implemented them on social networks like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. It asserts an unfakeable truth of civic responsibility: If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.”

Despite the seemingly boundless powers of social media, you should never leave anybody else with the responsibility for your audience. In the long run, journalism’s job is at the helm, ensuring trust in public information.

In hindsight, there was obviously not as much to gain as we were promised in handing the keys to our audience to the social networks. The promise of democratic and meritocratic opportunity spaces where journalism could be vitalized by new readers has gradually faded. Today we see profit and value-eating behemoths. While their grip on our attention and democratic institutions might seem tighter than ever, we need to remember that it doesn’t have to be this way.

NRKbeta is the Norwegian public broadcaster’s sandbox for new media and technology. Since the beginning, we have been eager to try new social networks and their offerings. However, we’ve never lost sight of our initial goal for using them: ensuring dialogue with the public to improve our journalism and the technological solutions empowering it. Today, social networks are surely necessary assets in building public attention, but not the public trust needed for quality journalism.

We have been excited to see initiatives like The Coral Project championing better conversations with readers and ideas like Melody Kramer’s on expanding the concept of media memberships. This philosophy lies at the heart of many new media companies, such as Radio Wolfgang and De Correspondent. The latter’s publisher Ernst-Jan Pfauth smartly reframed their dialogue with readers: “We don’t call them comments, but contributions.”

With such a perspective on audience interaction, one builds both transparency and trust. 2018 will be a great time for you to adopt it too. As we have experienced, this approach saved both time and money. It enabled us to harvest the knowledge from the public to curate good ideas and new solutions.

NRKbeta have received over 60,000 contributions since the first one was posted 10 years ago. When planning a story, dialogue is essential: Our desired outcome for a story is often the discussion with our readers.

We have certainly been engaging with our readers on social networks, but at our site you could even remain anonymous. Such a space of our own has allowed us the freedom to develop the reader’s experience as we have seen fit: with our own code and rules. In 2017, we have added functionality like Know2Comment. It’s an open source quiz module for comments sections — and our Christmas gift to you.

When activated, readers must answer a short quiz to access the comments section of an article. Shortly after launch, news stories around the globe featured it. This is proof of a huge appetite for solving the problem of poor quality on many of today’s comments sections.

Unfortunately, no quick fix has been found. Moreover, we didn’t create the definite “troll killer” many wished for. But we developed a new wrench in the toolbox — a small hurdle that hopefully has made people think twice before ranting away on controversial topics. A direct opposite strategy to the ever more frictionless experience on social networking sites. Several even asked for the quiz to be made obligatory before being allowed to share articles too. Gizmodo Media Group CEO Raju Narisetti perhaps said it best: “Creating more friction in engaging increasingly time-poor and promiscuous digital audiences, who can go anywhere else, is very good.”

One thing we know is that people like fun games and quizzes. There is no shame to combine it with good journalism. While our quiz module turned out to be popular, it was not in the way we expected. People apparently have been using it to check how much they remember from the article they have read. It was gamification by accident on our part.

For a recent data visualization project, we asked our readers to place “March” and “December” on a circle symbolizing the year. Our blog post with an interactive circle to click on gathered almost 75,000 responses from Norwegians in under a week (comparable to almost 4.6 million answers in the US). 40,000 even found time to answer our questionnaire, explaining their thinking in more detail.

Even if our solutions were very simple, we could not have implemented them on social networks like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. It asserts an unfakeable truth of civic responsibility: If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.

Illustration by Marco Vaglieri/NRK.

Ståle Grut is a graduate student in new media and digital culture at the University of Amsterdam and on leave from NRKbeta.

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