Journalists need a better measure for when something has “taken over the web”

I’ve noticed that there are a growing number of online news stories about what is popular online. While many websites need to feed on this buzz, journalists need some better measures of how popular things are on the Internet. Take, for instance, this story posted on Yahoo:

This video from the California State University, Northridge campus has ignited controversy across the Internet this morning. In the video, reportedly taken during finals week, a female student loses her temper with her fellow students, accusing them of being disruptive.

Exactly how much “controversy across the Internet” has erupted? Phrases like this are not unusual; we’re commonly told that a particular story or video or meme has spread across the Internet so we need to know about it. But we have little idea about how popular anything really is.

I’ve noted before my dislike for journalists using the size of Facebook groups as a measure of popularity. So what can be used? We need numbers that can be at least put in a context and compared to other numbers. For example, the number of YouTube views can be compared to the views for other videos. Page views and hits (which have their own problems) at least provide some information. Journalists could do a quick search of Google news to get some idea of how many news sources have picked up on a story. We can know how many times something has been retweeted on Twitter.

None of these numbers are perfect. By themselves, they are meaningless. But broad and vague assertions that we need to read about something simply because lots of people on the Internet have seen it are silly. Give us some idea of how popular something really is, where it started, and who has responded to it so far. Show us some trend and put it in some context.

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