Earlier this month, there was yet another lengthy public debate about Upworthy, the two-year-old publisher that has become one of the most popular sites on Facebook due to its knack for overselling its bite-size content with “curiosity gap” headlines like, “Why Is Bill Nye Acting Like A Lunatic? Because He Doesn’t Want To Get Blown Up, That’s Why.”
In the midst of the Twitter argument, Tony Haile, CEO of Chartbeat, which measures real-time traffic for sites like Upworthy, dropped a bomb: “We’ve found effectively no correlation between social shares and people actually reading,” he wrote.
If you work in media, or have a blog, or are the sort of person who pays any attention to things like how many tweets an article has, this statement probably comes as a surprise. There is an implied relationship between the number of people who choose to blast a link to a piece of content and the interestingness of that content. The media industry has fully digested the idea that likes and retweets are marks of merit and that the viral effect of social media is the ultimate affirmation of relevance, which is why every major news organization now has at least one social media editor. To suddenly say that a story is just as likely to have been read by a million people and tweeted by none of them, as it is to have been tweeted a million times and yet never read, seems impossible. And yet, that’s what Chartbeat has found.
Chartbeat’s lead data scientist Josh Schwartz later clarified to The Verge that Haile was talking specifically about tweets, although the expectation is that Facebook shares would reflect the same pattern. While greater social media shares clearly increase the amount of traffic to an article, that doesn’t necessarily mean that more people will actually read it.
“There is obviously a correlation between number of tweets and total volume of traffic that goes to an article,” he says. “But just not a relationship between stories that are most heavily consumed and stories that are most heavily tweeted.”