Grabbing eyeballs with a blog

Nick Denton is one of those interesting fellows in online media: my first impression was that he runs gossipy sites and therefore must be shallow, but then you discover that he’s actually got very finely tuned antennae to what people want to read…and if it’s gossip, then so be it. But at the same time there are some real insights into what draws and keeps the attention of those fickle creatures called human beings. This routine memo from Denton summarizing the popular stories of the month is wonderfully revealing, and a good lesson for anyone writing on the web.

Kevin Purdy’s highly informative story about the effects of caffeine on the brain in Lifehacker was the breakout story of July. And the reader interest in the piece highlights — do we really need a reminder? — the draw of the explanation. There’s too much news on the web; and way too little explanation. Fully a quarter of the top stories are straight how-tos or otherwise helpful or informative.

Do we really need any reminders of the other patterns either? The stories to which people respond are the stories to which they’ve always responded, since way before the internet. Readers enjoy strong opinion, such as Charlie Jane’s attack on Night Shyamalan. They like mysteries, especially photoshop mysteries, as Gizmodo demonstrated with its coverage of BP’s photoshopped PR pic.

Apply those ideas to some of the arguments going on in the skeptical/atheist communities right now. Good, controversial, interesting articles combine strong opinion (“Joe Blow is an idiot!”) with explanation (“And here’s why!”). One thing I would agree on with some of the recent bleeding hearts of skepticism is that strong opinion doesn’t work when it stands alone, but explanation and analysis can work persuasively enough by itself — if you can get people to read it. The combo, though…that’s the big win.

(via Carl Zimmer)