Welcome to the Sharing Economy

Reflections on the new social culture



A year ago, the main sources of referral traffic to our flagship site, TheAtlantic.com, lined up in this order:

  • Typed/Bookmarked (readers who type our url into their browsers or follow their pre-set bookmark);
  • Links from aggregators and other content sites;
  • Search engines;
  • Social media (a roll-up of Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Digg, StumbleUpon, and LinkedIn)

Then something interesting happened. The social line began rising, first passing Search and then flying by Other Sites and finally, in late 2011, moving beyond Typed/Bookmarked. Now, TheAtlantic.com receives more than one-third of its referrals from social media, topping all other sources.

This wasn't supposed to happen. Not long ago, optimizing your site for search, and for the algorithms that determine which stories get featured on Google News, was thought to be the key to generating audience. As a result, Web editors were learning to parse metadata and resigning themselves to writing headlines for machines. Companies like Demand Media were on top of the digital world, suggesting a future in which search requests would replace journalists as arbiters of what stories to publish.

SEO still matters, of course, and a Google-friendly headline can still make a post go viral. (We've seen it: Try typing Earthquake in Japan into your search bar.) But for so many sites, social sharing has eclipsed the machines. And therein lies a happy story.

The triumph of the sharing economy is good news for publishers. Which is why on so many sites, the social media buttons crowd the pages like logos on a NASCAR jumpsuit. If a site can get you to "Like" a story, it wins. Your network, the theory goes, will follow your recommendations. Peer-to-peer sharing beats any top-down model.

So in a social media ecosystem, what exactly works? Here's the real good news: quality works. If your editors and writers are smart and creative and original, they can produce stories and photos and lists and charts and interviews that are so compelling that readers are eager to share the content with others. Then you get to harvest the rewards: More Facebook Likes, more tweets, more juice with the Reddit community. More readers.

For publishers, that means there need not be a tradeoff between doing great journalism and driving traffic to your site. In a sharing economy, it's great journalism -- in any of its many forms -- that builds audience.

This post also appears at Folio, where Cohn writes a bimonthly column.
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Bob Cohn is the president and chief operating officer of The Atlantic. He was previously the editor of Atlantic Digital, the executive editor of Wired and The Industry Standard, and a writer at Newsweek. More

As The Atlantic's president and chief operating officer, Cohn oversees business and revenue operations for the company’s print, digital, and live-events divisions. He came to the job in March 2014 after five years as the editor of Atlantic Digital, where he built and managed teams at TheAtlantic.comThe Wire, and The Atlantic Cities.

Before coming to The Atlantic, Cohn worked for eight years as the executive editor of Wired, where he helped the magazine find a mainstream following and earn a national reputation. During the dot-com boom, he was the executive editor of The Industry Standard, a newsweekly covering the Internet economy. In the late 1990s, he served as editor and publisher of Stanford magazine. He began his journalism career at Newsweek, where for 10 years he was a correspondent in the Washington bureau, at various times covering the Supreme Court, the Justice Department, the FBI, and the Clinton White House.

In 2013, TheAtlantic.com won the National Magazine Award for best website. During Cohn’s tenure at Wired, the magazine was nominated for 11 National Magazine Awards and won six, including honors for general excellence in 2005, 2007, and 2009. As a writer, Cohn won a Silver Gavel Award from the American Bar Association for coverage of the Clarence Thomas confirmation process.

A graduate of Stanford, Cohn has a masters in legal studies from Yale Law School. He lives outside Washington, D.C., with his wife and two daughters.

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