A Brief History of 'What Time Is the Super Bowl?'

This year, Google got even more specific. Google killed the SEO journalism job. It killed WTDSS. Here's what people got if they searched "what time does the superbowl start":

Oremus’s post had primed me to expect a quiet year on the WTDSS front. 

How wrong I was: Gawker has tracked WTDSS through time, and Alex Balk, a writer at The Awl, has already penned a poem.

What time is the superbowl in history (Reuters / Robinson Meyer)

“From a newsroom’s perspective, it was kind of a no brainer to do [SEO] as long as a newsroom had resources,” Kanalley said. 

The SEO game, at least as far as Google Trends is concerned, has ended. But, in Kanalley’s view, too, the habits and ideas that informed—and were informed by—SEO wound up helping to define what social news looked like. In 2011, he said, HuffPo presented itself as the Internet’s newspaper. It wrote about what the Internet was talking about.

That’s still the goal of HuffPo’s Trends team, which has grown from two to 10 staff members since the WTDSSingularity. Dean Praetorius, whom Kanalley hired and who now oversees the team, told me that Trends still looked “for stories at the top of the Internet,” but that it does that by tracking social media more than it does search.

“The move towards social across our newsroom wasn’t driven by a decline in search or anything like that,” he wrote in an email. “It's simply that users have been picking up on social and that's where the conversation has been.”

And when the Trends team does create stories along the lines of WTDSS now, he said, its members do it trying to “give people what they are looking for and give them the best information possible.”

“The whole incident,” he said of WTDSS, taught HuffPo that when doing SEO, “you really, really have to take the extra care and do the diligence.”

What time is the superbowl in great art (Wikimedia / Robinson Meyer)

The ecosystem around the Internet’s conversation has changed, too. Google Trends no longer serves the number of keywords it once did, and the keywords it does serve lack specificity. It also serves more answers than it did in 2011.

Yet the kind of work that teams like Trends used to do with Google has now moved completely to social. News organizations still run arbitrage on topics that will imminently trend. Earlier this week, Twitter and the analytics firm Dataminr released a shared product, Dataminr for News, that lets news organizations discover social news before it appears. 

(The first time someone asked WTDSS on Twitter, by the way, was in 2007.)

At the end of 2013, Reuters finance blogger Felix Salmon predicted that controversies in journalism in 2014 would center on whether viral videos and images constituted news. The easiest way for news organizations to keep up in the Traffic Wars, as he called them, was to repost the same stuff everyone else was sharing and wait for the Facebook likes to roll in.

“Expect, over the course of the coming year, a large quantity of debate about questions like whether it even makes sense to fact-check a twerking video,” Salmon said.

But the question of whether to fact-check a, say, playful polar bear turns on  ideas that predate Upworthy. Imagine asking a newspaper editor circa 1980 if he or she could know exactly what everyone is talking about, quantified and across American society—wouldn’t that be something that would belong in a newspaper? Shouldn’t a newspaper answer the questions people have? And isn’t writing about the web’s conversations a version of that—even if the conversations concerns cats?

We wanted to know what people were talking about, live and quantified. It turned out that they were talking about what time is the Super Bowl.

Last year, the writer Tim Maly played around with that automatic, machinic phrase. The tweets from the resulting storm decorate this post. What Time Is the Superbowl—the variant that eventually even the HuffPost adopted—is the kind of phrase a Markov chain might string together, the kind of language-hiccup a tired, post-caffeinated brain extrudes when it can’t think anymore.

What Time is the Super Bowl hides a double-human intelligence, the kind of phrase people type into Google when they’re anticipating how to get the machine to give them a good answer. It’s half-human, half-algorithm.

No wonder Kanalley’s job wound up being computerized away. This is the way that jobs end: Not with a bang, but with a What Time Is the Super Bowl.

And the Super Bowl (or Superbowl, or Supper Ball, or Superb owl), in case you were wondering, begins at 6:30 p.m. on Sunday, February 2, 2014. Pitting the Denver Broncos, with Star Quarterback Peyton Manning, against the Seattle Seahawks, with Quarterback Russell Wilson and Cornerback Richard Sherman, the Super Bowl will be broadcast on FOX. It will take place at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey.

Presented by

Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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