In a university journalism class, Davin Harner asked his students where they had first heard the news about Bin Laden's death. Although these students studied journalism, not a single one named a newspaper. Most, in fact, named Facebook. The one student that cited CNN corrected himself saying, "I heard about it on Facebook, and then I turned on CNN to find out more."
Although Harner's anecdote demonstrates the importance of Facebook, Twitter, and other digital communication for sharing news, it should come as no surprise to a user of a social media platform. Facebook and Twitter instantly become abuzz with updates when news breaks or an anticipated sports game ends. Sharing on social media has become almost an instinct to its users. It creates a conversation beyond than the bounds of journalism itself.
As these platforms evolve, so has our understanding of how sharing media works. MySpace, the original social media giant, was more of an online profile than anything else. Although Myspace friends could share links with each other, the relationship was one to one. A link would have to be posted on one person's profile, and only those looking at that profile would be able to see it.
Facebook revolutionized this concept in 2006 with the News Feed. Instead of seeing their personal profiles after logging in, users were presented with a new home page aggregating friends' status updates and link sharing. Sharing became a one-to-many relationship. Facebook's model then became the prototype for other types of social media. When Twitter came out, many likened its shortened information sharing structure to Facebook updates. Google+, the newest competitor on the social media scene, also has News Feed-like "streams" where users can see what their contacts are sharing.
This is not to say that digital sharing is limited to a one-to-many relationship. According to Paid Content, the New York Times conducted a study on social media sharing that bore surprising results. Although Facebook and Twitter dominate the media's attention, e-mail is still the most popular sharing tool. Researchers found that email is valued because it is private and individual. Shared links are often lost in a media "stream", but e-mails elicit a specific response.
The New York Times' has not underestimated e-mail's potential for sharing. Instead of a "Most Viewed" feature, it has a "Most E-mailed" (as well as a "Recommended for You"). Other newspapers could capitalize on email interest by adding a similar element to their homepages. Currently, many major newspapers only list the latest news and most popular stories.
Any shared content article would be incomplete without devoting some specific attention to Twitter. Considered to be more than a just a social interaction tool, Twitter is a self-proclaimed "information network". The site is not nearly as widely used as Facebook (and perhaps Google+ in the near future), but it is a huge driver of traffic. Even more importantly, Awe.sm Blog believes sites are miscalculating its referral power. According to the blog, which tracks and measures sharing for web publishers, Twitter may be driving 4X as many referrals as trackers currently calculate.
Awe.sm has refined link tracking to parse out individual share behavior. Some link sharing that would otherwise be attributed to other sites actually originated on Twitter. For example, Mark Shuster pointed out in his TechCrunch guest post that Tweets are now being sent to LinkedIn Today. Tracking tools like GoogleAnalytics would show that the traffic referrals came from LinkedIn, even though their original source was a Tweet. Shuster points out that this puts TechCrunch's announcement that LinkedIn sends more traffic than Twitter in a new light.
Online sharing is crucial for papers to drive up site traffic. When links are shared, news sources maintain visibility and attract new readers. Newspapers can see where their readers are from, an essential part of attracting advertisers. However, as social sharing evolves, so must newspapers' approach to them. Incorporating email and updating traffic trackers to determine the real source of a referral are key to understanding the audience behind the clicks.