The Candy and Vegetables of Metrics

With metrics like recirculation, visitor frequency, and engaged time, Chartbeat demonstrates its allegiance to journalistic values and gains journalists’ trust. However, none of these is the metric that many users find most compelling, nor for which the company is most famous. That would be “concurrent visitors,” and more specifically, the speedometer-like dial that shows how many people are on a site on a second-by-second basis. The dial and accompanying number’s constant movement give it a mesmerizing quality, leading users to call it “sanity-ruining,”14data.”15An interaction I had with one employee illustrates this ambivalence:

CP: From my conversations with editors about this tool, they always say it’s addictive. Do you think it [is because the Chartbeat dashboard] sort of speaks to an editorial mindset? Do you think that the engaged-time thing is the reason why editors have taken to it?

I wish I could say yes, but no …I think the reason they find it addictive is—one is just performance. It’s such a fucking tough industry that you lose sleep, man. Like being a journalist is the hardest job in the world. It’s so stressful that you are constantly worrying about whether you’re getting enough traffic or not. So your eyes are glued to Chartbeat because your life depends on it. So I don’t have any real illusions about what got us in the door. That’s why they’re addicted. Now, we’re trying to be much, much more than that, obviously. And we all need to be a bit more honest about our actual value in some of these organizations right now, because there’s nothing more than that to some people.

Indeed, Chartbeat employees themselves were not immune to the dial’s seductive properties. As one staffer who sometimes writes for the company’s blog explained:

The whole real-time thing, like to me that’s the whole thing that makes it work as a product. You know, I write blog posts and I watch it. Those are the moments when you realize why it’s a successful product, because I watch it, and nobody reads my stuff, right? …If you look at it, you’re like, “there are three people reading this.” …And then somebody else comes in and you’re like, “oh, shit, there’s a fourth! Who’s that guy?!” And that’s the magic.

As the next section will demonstrate, my findings at Gawker confirmed that many writers and editors largely ignore those Chartbeat metrics designed to reward high-quality content in favor of the concurrents dial, which is the closest thing Chartbeat has to more typical metrics like page views and uniques. There is a disjuncture, then, between the metrics on which Chartbeat builds its reputation as an analytics company that supports serious journalism and the metrics that are actually most popular and alluring to many users. Ironically, Chartbeat finds itself in a situation similar to many of its publisher-clients, who are torn between producing “vegetable” content (nourishing but relatively unpopular) and “candy” content (empty but fun and, yes, addictive). In this vein, Chartbeat has vegetable metrics, such as engaged time and visitor frequency, which contribute to its prestige and to clients’ sense that Chartbeat “gets it.” But the dashboard also has candy metrics, like the concurrents dial, which give the dashboard its addictive properties.

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