Oh good, you clicked! Don't thank me. Thank the Obama campaign and its genius tinker-tailor-subject-line operation.
The Obama campaign raised $690 million online. The majority of it came from the fundraising emails that peppered inboxes for the last two years. They employed a team of 20 writers and a sophisticated analytics system to measure and improve their effectiveness. Now, they're starting to spill the secrets they learned during the campaign. And as revealed in a new report from Joshua Green*, there was a high-powered viral media outfit lurking in Chicago. The lessons from the campaign aren't just a recipe for making money, but for winning eyeballs in the brutal deathmatch to grab your attention on the Internet. What we can learn is how the Obama campaign fine-tuned its content for maximum Internet impact, i.e., how it channeled its inner BuzzFeed.
As a digital media person, I recognize a lot of these tricks, but their content doesn't really change ("Money, plz, kthx."). Hold that variable steady and it becomes a lot easier to test what online media works and what doesn't.
First, let's propose that your inbox is a publication. It's a weird publication to be sure, assembled from your mom's emails, your friend's quips, some chat boxes floating in the right hand corner, daily deals sites that you must have signed up for at some point, various digests, some news alerts, and that thing you've been meaning to deal with for months but haven't. So, this reverse chronological publication is always available for you, and you know there are some things you'd like to read within it, and many more that you'll flip by and/or delete.
The first step for the Obama campaign was to grab your attention long enough to get you to open the email. So, they got casual. "The subject lines that worked best were things you might see in your in-box from other people," Toby Fallsgraff, the campaign's email director, told Green. "'Hey' was probably the best one we had over the duration."
Tone, on the Internet, is everything. Unlike a magazine where you know what tone to expect (magaziney!), writing on the web is all jumbled up. I think people get really, really good at detecting if pieces of writing on the Internet -- be they emails, blog posts, tweets, or Facebook updates, Google ads, YouTube comment threads -- are meant for them or not. And the key signal is how you put the words together. The tone tells you who the implied author of the work is. And that's how you answer the eternal question, in a inbox of infinite sentences, would I like to read this person's?
Of course, like everything else in the Obama campaign, this process was a cyborg. Humans input the initial emails, but machines sorted the best from the worst. Here's how Green described the process:
The campaign would test multiple drafts and subject lines - - often as many as 18 variations -- before picking a winner to blast out to tens of millions of subscribers.
What I learned in my own reporting was that the worst-performing letters in that testing process only generated 15 or 20 percent as much money as the best performers. The analytics allowed them to only send emails they knew worked.
But perhaps the most interesting and crucial part of the Obama camp's email strategy was that it was not static. They didn't find that the "Hey" subject line worked and then stop there. Their analytics told them that every subject-line technique, every tonal quirk, had a limited shelf life. The well ran dry almost as soon as you'd divined its location in the psyche of the Democratic base.
Once more quoting Green:
But these triumphs were fleeting. There was no such thing as the perfect e-mail; every breakthrough had a shelf life. "Eventually the novelty wore off, and we had to go back and retest," Showalter said.
In my experience in the content game, nothing has proven more true. Any detailed social media primer I give you would be out of date by the time I could finish writing it. Any operational headline writing strategy would stop working if everyone used it. Everyone clamoring for your attention on the web is trying to strike that perfect mix of familiarity and novelty. And that means the content techniques that work are necessarily recursive. You change what people like by doing whatever you do. Which then requires that you do something else, which then changes their tastes again.
This is true for your core donors (or readers) as well as the farther flung people who might only get forwarded your fundraising email (or story) every once in a while. Sometimes, I start to think of the Internet as a gatheration of starlings, each reader/writer moving in response to her immediate content environment, and somehow the whole thing seems to move together, following a million different versions of the same core set of rules.
* I accidentally misattributed this piece to the equally excellent Joshua Davis. Corrected!
In 2018, party strategists fret, they’ll face a tough electoral landscape—and a bumper crop of fringe candidates.
Washington Republicans have put the fiasco of Alabama’s special election behind them, but their electoral nightmare may just be beginning.
Roy Moore’s stunning defeat Tuesday night was met with quiet sighs of relief throughout the GOP establishment, where the culture-warring ex-judge and accused child abuser was widely regarded as radioactive. Yet even as Moore’s political obituaries were being written, party strategists were bracing for the army of Moore-like insurgents they expect to flood next year’s Republican primaries.
Indeed, Breitbart News chief Steve Bannon has already pledged to field challengers for every incumbent Republican senator up for reelection next year (with the exception of Ted Cruz). And even if Bannon fails to deliver on his threat, many in the GOP worry that experienced, fully-vetted candidates are going to struggle to beat back a wave of rough-edged Trump imitators who lean into the white identity politics that the president ran on in 2016.
We can measure black holes, but we still can't cure the common cold.
Albert Einstein said that the “most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.” He was right to be astonished. Human brains evolved to be adaptable, but our underlying neural architecture has barely changed since our ancestors roamed the savannah and coped with the challenges that life on it presented. It’s surely remarkable that these brains have allowed us to make sense of the quantum and the cosmos, notions far removed from the “commonsense,” everyday world in which we evolved.
But I think science will hit the buffers at some point. There are two reasons why this might happen. The optimistic one is that we clean up and codify certain areas (such as atomic physics) to the point that there’s no more to say. A second, more worrying possibility is that we’ll reach the limits of what our brains can grasp. There might be concepts, crucial to a full understanding of physical reality, that we aren’t aware of, any more than a monkey comprehends Darwinism or meteorology. Some insights might have to await a post-human intelligence.
Why? Because there's very little known about the thousands of victims who survive deadly shootings.
The massacre in Las Vegas this October earned a macabre superlative: the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, with 58 innocents killed and more than 500 injured. The outpouring of attention and support was swift and far-reaching. CNN published portraits of all 58 victims. A man from Chicago made 58 crosses to honor the fallen. Zappos offered to help pay for the 58 funerals. An anonymous man even paid for 58 strangers’ dinners in memory of those who died.
But what about the hundreds who were shot but didn’t die? A 28-year-old woman who was shot in the head at the concert is undergoing aggressive rehab after spending nearly two months in the hospital. A 41-year-old man is learning how to drive with his hands after he was paralyzed from the waist down. And many victims have relied on money raised through GoFundMe to support their medical care.
Russia's strongman president has many Americans convinced of his manipulative genius. He's really just a gambler who won big.
I. The Hack
The large, sunny room at Volgograd State University smelled like its contents: 45 college students, all but one of them male, hunched over keyboards, whispering and quietly clacking away among empty cans of Juicy energy drink. “It looks like they’re just picking at their screens, but the battle is intense,” Victor Minin said as we sat watching them.
Clustered in seven teams from universities across Russia, they were almost halfway into an eight-hour hacking competition, trying to solve forensic problems that ranged from identifying a computer virus’s origins to finding secret messages embedded in images. Minin was there to oversee the competition, called Capture the Flag, which had been put on by his organization, the Association of Chief Information Security Officers, or ARSIB in Russian. ARSIB runs Capture the Flag competitions at schools all over Russia, as well as massive, multiday hackathons in which one team defends its server as another team attacks it. In April, hundreds of young hackers participated in one of them.
Young kids might be smarter and more empathetic than adults think.
In The Emotional Life of the Toddler, the child-psychology and psychotherapy expert Alicia F. Lieberman details the dramatic triumphs and tribulations of kids ages 1 to 3. Some of her anecdotes make the most commonplace of experiences feel like they should be backed by a cinematic instrumental track. Take Lieberman’s example of what a toddler feels while walking across the living room:
When Johnny can walk from one end of the living room to the other without falling even once, he feels invincible. When his older brother intercepts him and pushes him to the floor, he feels he has collapsed in shame and wants to bite his attacker (if only he could catch up with him!) When Johnny’s father rescues him, scolds the brother, and helps Johnny on his way, hope and triumph rise up again in Johnny’s heart; everything he wants seems within reach. When the exhaustion overwhelms him a few minutes later, he worries that he will never again be able to go that far and bursts into tears.
There’s a fiction at the heart of the debate over entitlements: The carefully cultivated impression that beneficiaries are simply receiving back their “own” money.
One day in 1984, Kurt Vonnegut called.
I was ditching my law school classes to work on the presidential campaign of Walter Mondale, the Democratic candidate against Ronald Reagan, when one of those formerly-ubiquitous pink telephone messages was delivered to me saying that Vonnegut had called, asking to speak to one of Mondale’s speechwriters.
All sorts of people called to talk to the speechwriters with all sorts of whacky suggestions; this certainly had to be the most interesting. I stared at the 212 phone number on the pink slip, picked up a phone, and dialed.
A voice, so gravelly and deep that it seemed to lie at the outer edge of the human auditory range, rasped, “Hello.” I introduced myself. There was a short pause, as if Vonnegut were fixing his gaze on me from the other end of the line, then he spoke.
It’s a Christmas tale for our time: Cyber nerds using high-tech software to buy a slew of baby-monkey robots and holding them ransom for thousands of dollars.
Good tech gone bad! Nefarious nerds! Dubious online platforms! Predatory late capitalism! Imagine if every tech and business motif from the past 12 months gathered to celebrate an end-of-year reunion in a single story.
This is that story. It is the story of the Fingerlings and the Grinch bots.
We begin, as Christmas stories sometimes do, in a toy store. Every holiday season has its must-have gizmo, like Cabbage Patch Kids or Tickle Me Elmo. This year’s sensation is the Fingerling, a plastic five-inch-tall baby monkey. Engineered to cling to an outstretched finger with its plastic hands and feet, the toy giggles, burps, and farts in response to petting and shaking. Imagine a manic pygmy marmoset robot with minor gastrointestinal issues, and you get the picture.
So many people watch porn online that the industry’s carbon footprint might be worse now that it was in the days of DVDs and magazines.
Online streaming is a win for the environment. Streaming music eliminates all that physical material—CDs, jewel cases, cellophane, shipping boxes, fuel—and can reduce carbon-dioxide emissions by 40 percent or more. Video streaming is still being studied, but the carbon footprint should similarly be much lower than that of DVDs.
Scientists who analyze the environmental impact of the internet tout the benefits of this “dematerialization,” observing that energy use and carbon-dioxide emissions will drop as media increasingly can be delivered over the internet. But this theory might have a major exception: porn.
Since the turn of the century, the pornography industry has experienced two intense hikes in popularity. In the early 2000s, broadband enabled higher download speeds. Then, in 2008, the advent of so-called tube sites allowed users to watch clips for free, like people watch videos on YouTube. Adam Grayson, the chief financial officer of the adult company Evil Angel, calls the latter hike “the great mushroom-cloud porn explosion of 2008.”
Russian billionaire Yuri Milner says if the space rock 'Oumuamua is giving off radio signals, his team will be able to detect them—and they may get the results within days.
The email about “a most peculiar object” in the solar system arrived in Yuri Milner’s inbox last week.
Milner, the Russian billionaire behind Breakthrough Listen, a $100 million search for intelligent extraterrestrial life, had already heard about the peculiar object. ‘Oumuamua barreled into view in October, the first interstellar object seen in our solar system.
Astronomers around the world chased after the mysterious space rock with their telescopes, collecting as much data as they could as it sped away. Their observations revealed a truly unusual object with puzzling properties. Scientists have long predicted an interstellar visitor would someday coast into our corner of the universe, but not something like this.
More comfortable online than out partying, post-Millennials are safer, physically, than adolescents have ever been. But they’re on the brink of a mental-health crisis.
One day last summer, around noon, I called Athena, a 13-year-old who lives in Houston, Texas. She answered her phone—she’s had an iPhone since she was 11—sounding as if she’d just woken up. We chatted about her favorite songs and TV shows, and I asked her what she likes to do with her friends. “We go to the mall,” she said. “Do your parents drop you off?,” I asked, recalling my own middle-school days, in the 1980s, when I’d enjoy a few parent-free hours shopping with my friends. “No—I go with my family,” she replied. “We’ll go with my mom and brothers and walk a little behind them. I just have to tell my mom where we’re going. I have to check in every hour or every 30 minutes.”
Those mall trips are infrequent—about once a month. More often, Athena and her friends spend time together on their phones, unchaperoned. Unlike the teens of my generation, who might have spent an evening tying up the family landline with gossip, they talk on Snapchat, the smartphone app that allows users to send pictures and videos that quickly disappear. They make sure to keep up their Snapstreaks, which show how many days in a row they have Snapchatted with each other. Sometimes they save screenshots of particularly ridiculous pictures of friends. “It’s good blackmail,” Athena said. (Because she’s a minor, I’m not using her real name.) She told me she’d spent most of the summer hanging out alone in her room with her phone. That’s just the way her generation is, she said. “We didn’t have a choice to know any life without iPads or iPhones. I think we like our phones more than we like actual people.”