Which of the following interactive features drove record traffic to its respective news sites in recent months: a) How Much Time Have You Wasted on Facebook? for Time; b) The interactive dialect quiz for The New York Times; c) The Adele Dazeem Generator: Travoltify Your Name, which appeared on Slate; or d) all of the above?
Congratulations if you answered d), all of the above.
A recent explosion of silly online personality quizzes, most of them created by the young social-media mavens at Buzzfeed.com, already had everybody talking about which state they really ought to be living in and which Harry Potter character they really are. BuzzFeed says the quizzes are smashing traffic records and generating more Facebook comment threads than any viral posts in the site’s history.
News organizations are changing their formats in the digital age to connect with more readers, with quizzes and games having become popular offerings that audiences find hard to resist.
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The Facebook quiz helped lead Time to its highest Internet traffic day ever, 3.8 million unique visitors in January.
The dialect quiz, which appeared in December, was the most viewed and most emailed article last year for The New York Times.
And the Adele Dazeem name generator, which Slate put up Monday after John Travolta mangled the introduction of the singer Idina Menzel at the Oscars’ ceremony, calling her Adele Dazeem, was the most viewed article ever in Slate’s 18-year history.
The feature, which allows readers to enter their name and find out how John Travolta might mispronounce it (this reporter came out as Laurence Keezy), had been viewed by 9.5 million unique users by Wednesday afternoon and was adding roughly 100,000 people an hour.
At first Slate’s editor, David Plotz, was not sure this development was an entirely good thing: “Definition of ambivalent: The John Travolta name generator is the most popular story in Slate history,” he posted on Twitter. Later in a phone interview, he said “bemused” was a better description of his feelings.
“Readers will go high or low with us,” he said. “It was off the news and it was fun and shareable. All publications are aspiring to that direct connection to their audience.”
The Seattle Times’ “Which Seahawk Are You?” quiz was hugely popular in the run-up to the Super Bowl.
And whether they like it or not, in these tough times news organizations are prepared to take advantage of a strategy that allows them to charge more for advertising — rates are based on monthly visitors to the site — and to potentially attract new readers who might become loyal followers.
“It is the gamification of content,” said Joshua Benton, director of the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard. “Take the same dynamics that lead games and social sharing to be addictive and use them in way to connect to content.”
Games have been part of the newspaper business for a long time. The New York Times has featured its crossword puzzle since 1942, while other newspapers have carried comics, word puzzles and acrostics.
But the digital age has allowed for interactivity, which makes for an especially alluring form of game playing. If users can put their own name and information into a template and come out with an amusing answer, it often prompts them to share it with others through social media, contributing to the holy grail of virality.
While such amusements are not new — Slate, for instance, previously offered the Carlos Danger name generator, a reference to the supposed pseudonym used by the disgraced former New York congressman Anthony Weiner — the trend toward interactivity is only accelerating. Time magazine hired its first digital interactive graphics editor last August. BuzzFeed, the rising digital news site, installed a quiz template in its system in 2012.
The Wire, part of Atlantic Media, has introduced a custom-made bracket competition to coincide with March Madness, the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, where users vote to narrow the field in such categories as the best college, the best city, the best seat in a movie theater.
The problem for media organizations is where, if anywhere, to draw the line between amusing content and the mission of reporting the news.
Many digital publications have relied on addictively shared content of dubious news value — like quizzes to determine which character of the Downton Abbey television series the user most resembles.
Still, there are plenty of sophisticated ways to use interactive games, says Ian Bogost, the co-author of “Newsgames: Journalism At Play.”
“The really interesting thing about games is they can depict how things work and systemic issues that underlay stories, that we can look at in another way,” he said.
Plotz of Slate says that as long as his magazine runs serious journalism alongside the name generators and other interactive tools, he sees no reason to worry. He pointed out that before Travoltify Your Name was posted, an 18,000-word article about the woman Ronald Reagan made famous by calling her the welfare queen had been getting the most attention.
“We will do anything that is interesting, journalistically worthy,” Plotz said. “Travolta is explosive, but we published 50 other articles that day, including one on the Crimean Tatars. If we had a great idea we’d do another interactive today and tomorrow.”
The Wall Street Journal apparently felt the same way. On Wednesday, when it was announced that SAT tests would revert to a 1,600-point scale, the Journal quickly published a quiz allowing readers to compare their SAT scores to those of their peers.
Personality quizzes have been around for decades, gracing the covers of women’s and teen magazines with questions designed to lure us in. Nor are they new to the Internet, where online quizzes can be found aplenty on sites like Zimbio.com, among others.
But the recent wave of quiz popularity can be traced directly to Buzzfeed’s New York City headquarters, where a team of about 100 content creators has been producing one to five quizzes every single day for the past two months. The most popular quiz — “Which State Do You Actually Belong In?” — has generated about 41 million page views.
“For our most viral quizzes, the results have to be meaningful in some way,” says Summer Burton, BuzzFeed’s managing editorial director. “It’s not that they are scientific. It’s just that what they say means something to people as far as their own identity.”
A scroll through the “QUIZZES” page on Buzzfeed.com reveals a bewildering assortment, many infused with pop-culture references. Which celebrity cat are you? Which pop diva? Which “Girls” character? What career should you actually have? Which generation do you actually belong in? What kind of dog would you be?
The intense push to pump out as many quizzes as possible started a couple of months ago after BuzzFeed editors realized that a quiz called “Which ‘Grease’ Pink Lady are you?” ranked among the most-trafficked posts of 2013. Then, in mid-January, a quiz called “Which city should you actually live in?” went viral, and the whole venture just took off like wildfire, Burton says.
Includes material from The Associated Press.