What is wrong with this study?

Attention span:

With a daily newspaper, there is a tacit understanding: That day’s paper is the latest news; yesterday’s paper becomes old news — recycling-bin fodder, fishwrap, bird-cage liner, art-project makings, whatever.
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The Internet is a 24/7 environment, where everything is happening all the time, right now. That’s because it’s a hive-mind of people spread across the planet, and something’s always happening somewhere. Sinatra wanted to wake up in a city that never sleeps; the Internet is the digital-world equivalent of New York City — only with a population in the billions.
How, then, does one tell when news goes from “new” to “old” when the Internet is in a state of eternal “now”? Well, one does a study, of course, to make that determination. The results are interesting, and, frankly, encouraging to us hidebound, green-visored, blue-pen-toting purveyors of paper and ink (in addition to our online offering at http://www.ldnews.com, come visit anytime.)
In the June issue of Physical Review E, the journal of the American Physical Society, Albert-László Barabási of the University of Notre Dame, reported that the half-life of the average news article on the Internet is 36 hours. That means, in an article’s first 36 hours of accessibility online, half of those who will seek it out have done so. Others come along later for research projects, by happenstance, for historical review or for any other reason one happens to look at a give Web page.

They are comparing apples and oranges. 36 hours may be Internet news half-life span. But 24-hours is MSM whole-life span.
Thus, a piece of news in today’s newspaper expires within 24 hours. That’s it. Kaputt.
But on the Internet, a piece of news has a 36-hour long “head” and who-knows-how-long tail. Just like you can have Long Tail concept applied to merchandise, space, or news sources, you can also apply it to time.
So, if a piece of news appears online (let’s presume on an MSM page), it takes about 36 hours for half of the audience of that page to read the news. But, if the news is important or exciting, once big-hitters (e.g., A-listers) in the blogosphere take it and run with it, they have their own 36 hours in addition to the original 36 (though there is likely to be some overlap).
Then, it percolates through the smaller and smaller blogs, each having its own 36-hour half-life span. Not to mention that frequently-updated blogs may have a shorter half-life span for any individual item than those who blog once a day or less.
If the news are really important, bloggers have shown that the news can be consciously kept alive for many days, even weeks at a time, through blogsawrms and the like, often until MSM is forced to take up the story again (or for the first time) and/or until there is a resolution (e.g,. a bill passes in the House or something ).
Thus, it is silly to talk about “half-life” on the Internet. Each piece of news gets as mcuh time as people think it deserves. Unlike in MSM, when every piece of news dies at midnight.

7 responses to “What is wrong with this study?

  1. I don’t think it’s accurate to say that traditional news dies daily. I’ll often see a big event cause a number of articles in the local paper: a big headline, maybe, then a more detailed article below the fold the next day, and more articles (farther and farther from the front page) as later details trickle in.

  2. Yes, there are variations and even MSM will cover a really big story over a series of several days – see Katrina. Even TV will sometimes do it. Those are exceptions to the rule, though, and the article I linked to has some other exceptions noted (which also apply equally to the internet).

  3. You make a good point, Bora. Even in science bloging, as in the days when spoken word and ink on paper were the only ways to communicate, the history is dragged along in the chains of citation and footnoting. It is STILL the case that a person steeped in their field of study knows under which professors his principle sources [and adversaries] had studied. the “NOW” in that particular world of experts is rich with and knows just where rests the past.
    The breathless “drop everything and listen to this” way in which MSM delivers stories might be used less if a competition for eyes and dollars weren’t so much a part of their effort. Do you think, for instance, that NPR news suffers quite so badly from the attention deficit of the MSM?

  4. NPR is far from perfect, but they are MUCH better, because they have people like Terry Gross, Diane Rehm, etc. who try to become mini-experts on the topic they cover onany particular day. Spending 20 minutes or an hour on a single topic must be better than 30 seconds!
    I like your reminder of scientific publishing – which reminds me that references are like hyperlinks. I can write something today and link tosomething from last week which in turn links to something from last months which links to something from last year. You get context. TV news have no context. They can really do the Orwellian switch (Oceania and Eurasia are friends today, enemies tomorrow), if they want to and they often do. References/links prevent that from happening because they connect the events through a period of history that cannot be erased.

  5. I might also add another facet to the discussion as a…gasp!…reader of the Wall Street Journal. I’m about as liberal a tree-hugger as you’ll find, but the WSJ has some really fabulous regular news and science & medicine writing that you will see picked up verbatim on CNN three or four days later. You just have to get past the op-ed section if you’re a lefty but, then again, it’s educational to read what the more erudite of the right is saying.
    My longwinded point is that there are some key science & medicine topics that have a T1/2 of three or four days due to the superb writing of WSJ folks like Amy Dockser Marcus, Ron Winslow, and Jennifer Corbett Dooren.
    Dr Z, you’ll have to forgive me for being a relative newbie if this has already been said, but I feel it is our role as bloggers to provide some “stickiness” to important stories that cycle out of the MSM too quickly.

  6. You are right about that. If you rip out the op-ed page, WSJ is an excellent paper. And good stories from good papers have somewhat longer legs than others.
    And yes – it’s our job to keep important issues live once MSM decided to conveniently forget them.

  7. There are some wierd variables that affect the real half life of an individual article. Your original source mentioned “research projects, by happenstance, for historical review” as factors. That is, the nature of the event itself affects the half-life of its coverage. In addition, the nature of the site containing the article affects its half-life. An article that disappears behind a payment firewall will be accessed less than an article that is free forever, regardless of their relatve merits.