What Star Trek Taught Me About Viral Media

nate silver

“The key to making a good forecast is not in limiting yourself to quantitative information.” — Nate Silver, America’s most successful statistician, looking dapper in 2014.

A lot of energy and a lot of resources are being put into third party tools that help us utilize big data for “better” media. (I’ll put “better “in quotes here because sites are often conflating “better” media with the stories that get the most traffic…and that’s not a very comprehensive definition of “better.”) Newsrooms and digital media sites are completely reorganizing their workflow around big listening tools like CrowdTangle to tell them what topics to post, publishing tools like Echobox to optimize what time to post each article according to topic, and data tools like Parse.ly to analyze the “best” performing articles and to stop publishing the “worst” performing ones.

I absolutely love all of those tools and count many of them as essentials in today’s digital landscape. When I run across media professionals who are still saying things like, “Looking at data or traffic numbers isn’t that important to my job,” it literally gives me an automatic I-want-to-punch-you-in-the-face reflex. I can’t help it. Stupidity is annoying, no matter where it shows up and in 2016, there’s no excuse for this kind of statement.

But I will give a head nod to these dinosaurs on one p0int: as with all things, moderation is a virtue. The danger with data tools is not knowing how far is too far down the data rabbit hole? It is nothing short of pure stupidity to ignore data, but there sure is a lot of wisdom in being suspicious of simply outsourcing our human judgement to the numbers.

In my experience, most sites are either at one or the other end of that data spectrum. And for sites that are extremely invested in only data-driven decision making, I recommend they do what any rational human should do: look to Star Trek for answers.

serious dataAre there any Trekkies in the house who loved Data? For those of you that don’t know, Data is the Android on Star Trek The Next Generation that would calmly compute and analyze any situation and present the logical solution – but often got the answer wrong when it came to dealing with human interactions in which he couldn’t compute the emotional context. So Data’s creator made an emotion chip for him. All of a sudden, this character that we were so used to seeing stay calm, turned unpredictable. And things got messy.

Suddenly, the Data we once knew is turned upside down. Data discovers HUMOR and we watched him laugh erratically  and inappropriately during a scientific analysis because he couldn’t control the emotion, yet. Later, the Borg Queen activates the chip and tries to use it to manipulate and control Data. At one point, Data takes out the chip because he deems it too dangerous. Data had to concentrate and spend time in order to learn how to control and use the emotion chip so that it complimented his highly analytical self.

annoying happy data

Data becomes so distressed by all the mess this causes, he asks Captain Picard to deactivate him until the emotion chip can be removed. (Side note: the acting here by Brent Spiner is nothing short of brilliant!)

Gosh, that thing called “emotion” sure is scary. When we realize how powerful it can be coupled with how untenable it is to control, it makes those third party data tools look enticing, doesn’t it? But what I’ve seen in my experience in viral media, is that trusting your gut is still one of the best predictors of virality. Since no one can predict virality and everyone is publishing basically the same topics at basically the same time, taking a risk on something different is the only way most media companies have a chance to get big, original hits.

[Says you]: Just tell me what to publish, CrowdTangle. Just tell me who to be, Echobox. Just tell me what to do, Parse.ly. I’ll do whatever you say. Just don’t make me face risk, uncertainty, unpredictability. It’s too messy! It makes me look bad! I might even feel discomfort!

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to STOP residing on one side of the data-no-data spectrum. If you find yourself in the no-data camp, slap your own face and come join us in 2016. If you find yourself in the data-driven-decisions-only camp, put on your big girl pants and install your own emotion chip.

That means put more time and energy into honing, adjusting, developing, and making as much space for emotion in the newsroom workflow as we make for data. We have to realize you can’t separate the two things. You’ve got to give emotion a seat at the table. You’ve got to put it as an agenda item in your meetings. Yes, use third party data tools in your workflow and planning. But don’t lean so heavily into the data, that you stop taking risks, innovating, and pushing forward initiatives that deserve to go viral!

Embracing the emotional data set means embracing the awkward discomfort of not ever being able to fully understand why. It means maintaining humility when people ask me, “How do you make stuff go viral?” Even though I want very badly to say something that makes me look smart and superior, I usually just say “We don’t really totally know…but combining analytics with emotions seems to be a good start.”

I can’t tell you how to use the combination of emotional data+analytical data that will work specifically in your organization’s culture. But I can tell you that the opportunity is enormous. There are 7 billion people in the world, which to me means there are 7 billion emotional data sets. That’s BIG DATA.

You can’t explain that kind of data with numbers. You might end up having to admit your success isn’t because you were super smart, but simply because you were smart enough to recognize you don’t have all the answers. It might be messy and difficult to control results at times. But I promise — embracing emotional data is SO. WORTH. IT.

‘Til next time,








One response to “What Star Trek Taught Me About Viral Media”

  1. dcritchfields@gmail.com Avatar

    Sara, you’re wasting your highly talented time on these short memos. Your writing talent is off the charts. Get the book written!!
    Thanks for sending I enjoyed your perspective.


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