All Your Friends Like Dogs Acting Like People: Q&A with MSN’s Andrew Hunter on social media and the news

Andrew Hunter, editor-in-chief of Microsoft's MSN.

Andrew Hunter, editor-in-chief of Microsoft’s MSN.

How does Microsoft MSN editor-in-chief Andrew Hunter describes his social media usage? Black belt? Ace?

“Not the best”, he says. “My most common Facebook comment is ‘Wow’ ”.

This is the guy who just published a book about social media.

But this is also a guy who has taken a very close look at social media data. Hunter has written All Your Friends Like This — along with Hal Crawford, editor-in-chief of ninemsn and Domagoj Filipovic, chief technology officer of cloud-based video provider Viocorp — after analyzing ninemsn readers’ sharing behavior.

The Walkley Foundation is having them down to Future Friday Sept. 18 to talk about how social media ate the news and what that means for all of us.

In advance of that event, we emailed some questions to Andrew Hunter. Here’s what he said.

First the nutshell version: Tell us non-tech-savvy types how the Likeable engine helped you figure out how we’re consuming news today.

AH: It allowed us to see which stories were being shared on Facebook and Twitter in real time across the world. Likeable started tracking 60-odd sites in 2011 and now monitors 150 sites globally including the New York Times, Huffington Post, the Guardian, Daily Mail, Sydney Morning Herald, ABC and Nine News.

Can you share a surprising insight about what you’ve discovered people like to share?

AH: Dogs rule. Stories about dogs are shared far more than stories about cats. Not only are dogs more shareable, they are more newsworthy. When we crunched the data from our first major data set in 2012, dogs featured in double the number of headlines as cats. Why dogs? They are interwoven so much tighter into the human story. In part because they are so much better at acting like humans. It turns out that animals acting like people equals sharing gold.

You come from print journalism. In your transition, what did you keep from that background — and what did you shed?

AH: I’ve shed some of the journalistic folk wisdom about what makes a good story and I think I’ve come to understand the audience better. The big shift in moving to digital was access to audience data. Seeing – rather than guessing – what people read changes the game. A desire to get more data, this time about sharing, led to Share Wars and the Likeable Engine. The more (good, useful) data, the better. On the flipside, the art and craft of journalism remain as important as ever – good headlines, surprising stories and new information never go out of fashion.

How has your research changed your own use of social media? Or has it?

AH: I’m not the best at social media. My most common Facebook comment is “Wow!” What it has changed is my ability to predict which stories will be shared and why.

Social media: fun is half of it. More than half. Do you ever feel like you know too much from your analyses to enjoy it?

AH: For us, the analysis is the fun. Getting inside the stories that are being shared and examining why is how we get our thrills. Some people like to play golf. We look at Facebook API outputs.

Any advice for journalists who feel pressured to write clickbait for the sake of being shareable?

AH: Do it. People share the stories they value. If you create stories that are more shareable, you’re creating stories that are more meaningful to the audience. Clickbait doesn’t go viral because people won’t share content that doesn’t deliver on its promise.

You put your finger on the uncomfortable realization (at least for journalists) that marketers are better than journos at identifying what makes content shareable. What can journalists learn from the dark arts of marketing? Any lines we shouldn’t cross?

AH: It’s more that marketers have made a head start in understanding all this. As an industry, marketing has been quicker to embrace data and analyse why ideas “stick” or go viral. There’s a new wave of marketers who preach authenticity, truth telling and walking the talk. And just as journalists do, these straight-edge marketers understand the lines you do not cross: tell the truth, don’t lie; respect the audience; always take personal responsibility for the stories you produce and publish; don’t publish anything you’re ashamed of. But there are plenty of people in journalism who are at the cutting edge of sharing and storytelling. Obviously, Jonah Peretti and the Buzzfeed team are among the trailblazers.

Follow Andrew Hunter @Huntzie; check out Share Wars. Free registration for Future Friday and more details here.