The Rise of Curiosity Journalism

“How Y’all, Youse, and You Guys Talk” is a double-curiosity, both a weird sharable that scratches the Internet’s favorite itch, and a weird outlier for a traditional publication like the New York Times. This scenario also puts the #1 spot in perspective. For a traditional publication that publishes relatively few curiosities, traffic spikes are themselves unusual, and being #1 at the Times means something different than being #1 at Buzzfeed or Gawker (or even The Atlantic). Indeed, that’s the reason Rob was able to write a post about the top ten list (it was quite well-trafficked!), and why I’m able to write this response in turn. The form of online media is increasingly its subject. 

In fact, the piece is rapidly becoming the curiosity that keeps on giving. In the wake of the revelation that Josh Katz, a North Carolina State University statistics  student, had been instrumental in creating the quiz in question, Northwestern University’s Knight Lab wrote about “How an intern created The New York Times’ most popular piece of content in 2013.” Katz’s Twitter bio currently reads “statistician. data journalist. that guy who made those dialect maps.”

Katz and his kindred might just as well call themselves “curiosity journalists.” Curiosities draw the most attention when the story about the story exceeds the story itself. In this case, the question of why American dialects even matter as a topic of public knowledge and citizen debate has been abandoned, for better or worse, in favor of the idea of its existence. That is to say, popularity online now depends on a thing’s thingness, on its ability to distinguish itself as a unique and precious snowflake, rather than by its meaning or its function.

The very fact that a news quiz leads annual traffic in a newspaper of record cuts both ways. On the one hand, it suggests that newsmakers might want (or even need) to invest in more news apps and other uniquely digital features. But on the other hand, it underscores the fact that such features tend not to operate on the same journalistic register as traditional stories. A dialect quiz is fun and interesting, but do we really want it to be the most widely seen news “story” of the year? Even the New York Times isn’t sure. The Northwestern Knight Lab piece on the feature reveals that the newspaper almost didn’t publish it at all, and concludes that the feature is entertainment above all else. To quote Katz: ”at the end of the day it’s fun.”

Eventually, if news apps become more common thus more ordinary, they will no longer pique the public’s interest  via their form and context. Fundamentally, curiosities might be opposed to journalism, even as journalists must now rely on them. And in the final analysis, every curiosity is temporary anyway. It’s not too hard to imagine a future in which the next generation of writers codes up an interactive editorial commenting on the surprising realization that the next type of curiosity out-performed all the other apps and listicles and tumblrs and animated GIFs and other fresh forms that will soon become tamed and uninteresting. Meanwhile, people will still hurt and cure one another, tugs-of-war over power and wealth will proceed indignantly, natural disasters will threaten, ruin, and relieve us, with or without our words, or apps, or robots.

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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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