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.

Quick Review: Da Bears!

Partly to commemorate the Chicago Bears’ lone Super Bowl title and also to help mourn the recent loss to the Green Bay Packers, I read Da Bears!: How the 1985 Monsters of the Midway Became the Greatest Team in NFL History. A few thoughts about this book, one of many products commemorating this 25th anniversary:

1. A main theme of the book is the ongoing battle between Head Coach Mike Ditka and defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan. How exactly the team kept moving forward with this kind of tension is interesting.

2. There are claims that the Bears were the team that really helped push the NFL to the top. With their winning plus the actions and charm of their players, the Bears were a kind of media circus in an era where this didn’t happen often.

2a. The problem with a claim like this is that little evidence is presented that might conflict with this narrative. At one point, the book mentions that several teams had recorded songs as teams before the “Super Bowl Shuffle” but it was this 1985 song that really took off. Another (implicit?) claim is that the Bears really pushed athlete endorsements forward. Were other star athletes not doing commercials? In the end, how exactly do we know the Bears were something different in the eyes of the media compared to any other team of the time? I would have liked to have read more perspectives from outside of Chicago – were people across the country as intrigued with the Bears as Chicagoans were?

3. Some things never seem to change with the Bears: defense over offense, inconsistent quarterback play, complaints about the McCaskeys, an inability to follow up on success (with the 1985 Super Bowl team never getting back to another title game), fickle fans who suddenly were worried at the end of the 1985 season with less than perfect play, and more. How long can a team have the same basic identity?

4. As a cultural phenomenon, it would be interesting to track other teams that have captured the heart of a city in the same way as the Bears. While the list of endorsements and radio shows during the 1985 season was impressive, many of those guys are still around in the Chicago media. Will there be a point where the 1985 team is eclipsed by another team or was their combination of dominance and style too much to overcome?

5. It was unclear to me how much of this book was original research versus drawing from existing sources.

Overall, I’m not sure how much new material this book presents: many of the themes are widely known. There are a wide range of perspectives in this book but I think you also find this information elsewhere. I was looking for a new take on a famous team and yet you will hear the same things on local sports talk stations and other media.

What the Beatles on iTunes might mean for their popularity

Apple and iTunes have apparently reached an agreement with the Beatles to sell their songs in digital form. This puts an end to a long-running stand-off between the Beatles and Apple.

But what does this mean for the Beatles popularity? A few thoughts:

1. Does this mean the Beatles become more known for their singles or single songs rather than albums? Since buyers on iTunes can pick and choose, might they not just pick the Beatles songs they know versus some of the hidden gems (or the worse songs)?

2. This may mean that a whole new generation of young music fans will now have the opportunity to browse the Beatles catalog and find that they enjoy it. But in the long run, will these digital sales help boost the popularity of the Beatles or will their popularity just slowly die out as their generation of music fans slowly disappears?

3. How many fans will be angry that the Beatles have “sold out” to video games and digital music? Are more commercials next?

(UPDATE 10:04 PM 11/16/10: has a list of other big acts that have not released their music to iTunes. This list  includes AC/DC, Garth Brooks, the Smiths, and Kid Rock.)