The Rise of Curiosity Journalism

On the web, curiosity rules—but all curiosities eventually become routine
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New York Times

Last week on these very pages, Robinson Meyer noted the surprising fact that the overall highest-trafficked story at the New York Times in 2013 was not a story at all, but a news interactive about American dialect, “How Y’all, Youse, and You Guys Talk.” Rob further noted the startling fact that the app  achieved this feat in the final two weeks of the calendar year.

I’ll repeat: It took a news app only 11 days to “beat” every other story the Times published in 2013. It’s staggering.

It’s certainly startling. But is it really surprising? Perhaps not, once we consider the dominant patterns of online attention, and how those patterns intersect with the Gray Lady’s overall editorial direction.

For one part, the present-day web has evolved to direct the largest swaths of traffic from a few social media sites. As Alexis Madrigal noted in his own post on the top stories of 2013 here on The Atlantic Tech, “these days, making the top 10 list nearly requires hitting on Facebook or Reddit.” Indeed, our own top-trafficked stories are also curiosities: This Guy's Car Got Stuck at 125mph—for an Hour and the GIF of popular baby names since 1960.

So, it’s not really a surprise in itself that a curiosity like the NYT’s dialect quiz might hit big online. What is surprising, however, is the very fact that this curiosity is a curiosity. 

If you look at the entire list of top-ten New York Times stories, you’ll see what I mean. Three of the top ten stories, including spots two and three, were coverage of the Boston marathon bombing. The fourth and fifth were guest editorials by famous people (Angelina Jolie and Vladimir Putin). The tenth covered the selection of Pope Francis, and the remainder offer traditional coverage of issues in health and politics.

It turns out that “How Y’all, Youse, and You Guys Talk” wasn’t just a curiosity for the Internet, it was also a curiosity for the New York Times itself. The feature is actually rather plain-vanilla, a quiz with dialectual heat maps that locates the reader’s speech within a particular region. It boasts a staid and unassuming design, and it presents its results without the fanfare and flourish common to online media desperate to go viral. But in the context of the New York Times, even a modest app like this is an outlier. In other words, the very fact that the curiosity that is “How Y’all, Youse, and You Guys Talk” is a curiosity for the NYT makes it an even greater curiosity, and thus one even more susceptible to sharing and linking. It also makes the feature’s relative popularity subject to a different traffic scale. Because the Times publishes so few curiosities, it’s much easier for a piece on its virtual pages to become a curiosity.

What about the fact that the dialect quiz and maps still managed to make it to #1 within the last week of the year? The unexpected, precious nature of a NYT news app might partly explain its sudden popularity, but the quiz’s timing must have played another part in its success. On the one hand, the week of Christmas and New Year’s seems like a terrible time to publish anything; readers are often traveling or visiting with family. But on the other hand, this downtime also offers a great opportunity to play with distractions like a dialect quiz. Such a quiz is likewise compatible with family gatherings: multiple people in the same place with different backgrounds and from different places—all with their smartphones and tablets at the ready. The NYT venue also might make it more amenable to spikes in usage and sharing than other, less familiar sites. Put more simply, an interactive app on the New York Times offers the best of both worlds: the weird pique of web virals along with the safety and reputation of the Gray Lady. 

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Ian Bogost is a writer, game designer, and contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is the Ivan Allen College Distinguished Chair in media studies and a professor of interactive computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

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