< The Formula for a Most-Emailed Story


Friday, February 25, 2011

BOB GARFIELD: If you want a solid example of curation, you need look no farther than your online newspaper. Somewhere, probably along the right rail, is what’s called the “most emailed list.” You read an article that you’re moved to share and you send it along to your sister or your colleague or your ex-husband and, voila, you have curated. Professors at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania have been meticulously studying what kinds of articles make the “most emailed list,” specifically at The New York Times. They've combed through more than 7,000 stories using computers to check The Times home page and most emailed list every 15 minutes for months. What they've found is surprising. The list does not look like Google News. It’s not heavy with Justin Bieber or top 10 Victoria’s Secret models or “Your air conditioner is killing you.” Instead, according to Professor Katherine Milkman, what gets most shared is what most inspires awe.

KATHERINE MILKMAN: We had a number of research assistants read stories and we described to them what the concept of awe is; it’s something that opens the mind and is inspiring. And we made sure that they had a good understanding of this concept. We had them read some articles with us and come to a conclusion about what an awe-inspiring piece would be. And then they rated about 3,000 stories each on how much awe they inspired.

BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] I'm sorry. I'm laughing that – about the quantification of awe.


BOB GARFIELD: Can you just give me some examples of stories that were deemed by your researchers to be awe inspiring?

KATHERINE MILKMAN: One is “Rare Treatment is Reported to Cure AIDS Patient.” Another story was called “The Promise and Power of RNA.” A final example would be “Found: An Ancient Monument to the Soul,” a story about the archeological discovery of an inscription on a Turkish monument from the eighth century, indicating a belief that the body and the soul were separate. What we find interesting is the connectivity issue. People tend to proselytize about awe-inspiring experiences. This is one of the main ways that religion has been thought to spread. When I have an amazing experience, I tell others about it. And so if I am thinking about whether or not to share something awe inspiring, part of what may motivate me is the idea that this was something we can both talk about, that will expand our minds, that will inspire us both and perhaps bring us closer.

BOB GARFIELD: All right, now there is awe, as in like, imagine the possibilities, and then there’s [LOWERED TONE], imagine the possibilities, the anxiety-provoking story, not as heavily emailed, but it’s up there on your list.

KATHERINE MILKMAN: We see that articles that are particularly anger-inducing or anxiety-inducing are more likely to make the most emailed list, while articles that are particularly sadness-inducing are less likely to make the most emailed list. For instance, here’s a, a story that seems like perhaps it could make the most emailed list, a story called “Maimed on 9/11: Trying to be Whole Again.” At some level this was an inspiring story. It was about a survivor of the terrible attacks on 9/11. And yet, it was very depressing and it did not make the most emailed list, even though it seemed like something one might pass along. We think perhaps because it was so sad, it isn't something people wanted to be associated with.

BOB GARFIELD: Women authors get more emailed than males?

KATHERINE MILKMAN: We, indeed, found that female authors are significantly more likely to be shared. That’s after controlling for the topic area of the story. So whether it’s an arts story versus a business story, it’s not driven by women writing about a totally different type of topic. And even after controlling for things like how much awe a story induces, after we've taken all of that out of the equation, we still see that female authors are more shared.

BOB GARFIELD: What’s your best guess as to, you know, why this is so?

KATHERINE MILKMAN: I certainly don't have a single hypothesis that I think is absolutely right, but there are a number of possibilities. One is simply that women have very different writing styles than men and that those writing styles are perhaps slightly more engaging. Another is that they do pick slightly different types of topics, even within say the arts section, because of their interests. And then finally - this is the most nefarious possibility, but I have to raise it; I’ve done some research on discrimination – there’s certainly a possibility that in order to get a job at The New York Times, a woman has to be more qualified and better at what she does, and so that could also drive this effect. It could be that women are simply better at their jobs in an equivalent position and, therefore, their stories are more popular.

BOB GARFIELD: Now, this is a wild guess, right?

KATHERINE MILKMAN: [LAUGHS] It’s - I'm making a wild guess, but there’s certainly evidence that we're not past the era of discrimination, so I think it’s reasonable to keep that in the set of possible explanations.

BOB GARFIELD: I have to ask you about using the results of your scholarship not for good but for evil. It seems to me that to the extent that newspapers understand what gets most emailed, they’re going to start kind of ginning up their story planning and the play of their stories to favor the subject matters and the authors who are more readily emailed than others. Would that be dangerous? Would that be good? What would that be?

KATHERINE MILKMAN: I'm not sure that it’s dangerous. It certainly is dangerous if it means we stop covering news responsibly and don't cover the important topics of the day. But if a newspaper is making its articles sexier, more exciting, more awe-inducing in order to generate more readership, then I think all they're doing is something they've been doing for 100 years, or longer. This is not new if they're tailoring their content in order to entice readers.

BOB GARFIELD: Give me your ultimate headline for the most emailable New York Times story.

KATHERINE MILKMAN: Well, I'll admit this is biased by having a husband who’s an astrophysicist and is searching for Earthlike planets, but I think the best headline I could imagine would be, “Earthlike Planet Discovered Harboring Intelligent Buddhist Life Forms.”


BOB GARFIELD: Katie, thank you so, so much for joining us.

KATHERINE MILKMAN: It was my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

BOB GARFIELD: Katherine Milkman is an assistant professor of operations and information management at The Wharton School. She conducted this study with her colleague Professor Jonah Berger.

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BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Mike Vuolo, Nazanin Rafsanjani, Alex Goldman, P.J. Vogt and Sarah Abdurrahman, with more help from Andrew Parsons and Carlin Galietti, and edited this week by our senior producer Katya Rogers. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Dylan Keefe. Ellen Horne is WNYC’s senior director for National Programs. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. Brooke will be back next week. I'm Bob Garfield.