The Rise of the Zombie Articles (or why staying up late doesn’t make you smarter)

No, this is not about news over an invasion of braindead flesh eaters. It’s about stories that were supposedly dead in the archives but somehow managed to get back to life via social networking and bookmarking.

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I already wrote about this subject here, but I want to share a situation that happened in Portugal last week. There was an article from Público going around Facebook that seemed awkwardly familiar, about the superior intellectual skills of those who stayed up late. Since I became an early bird and found out I’m more productive this way, the comments of those who felt their undisciplined sleeping habits were an advantage kind of pissed me off. That’s why it got stuck in my memory.

The article was first published over a year ago, but it had a huge come back, with hundreds of shares on Facebook, and there was a flurry of blog posts about it. And then there were funny things happening: the title on Facebook wasn’t the same as the original article (it seems someone decided to add “and drunk” to the original “Smarter people go later to bed”) and everyone had an opinion about the study results the article was based on, although they only had access to a short lead, because the full article is behind a paywall.

This is all that was available to read.It's in Portuguese, FYI.

 

Three questions come to my mind:

- How does an article return to life in the social networks?

-Do people even read what they share?

-How can news media make the best of this resurrection?

 

 

Well,the first answer is: it needs to be timeless  and address strong feelings in the crowd. It’s hard to know what makes content viral, especially with such a lapse in time, but I’d bet on content that empowers user’s beliefs (or defies them) and generates discussion.

The second answer raises a scary possibility which is that people don’t really read the articles they share, but have strong opinions about the issues they cover, so they act uninformed.

Question number three is all about archive management and social network strategies: how can this accidental engagement of the community be used? Should the article be pulled behind of the paywall and be given eyeball opportunity again? Should the journalist do a follow up on the subject, ask the readers for their opinion, do a poll? Stay up late to assess the veracity of the story by asking intelligent questions or do IQ tests relating them to users sleeping habits?

Articles online are perennial, or they can come back more easily than their paper version. So their zombiefication can be promoted or, at least, be better defended. There are risks in having zombie articles out there, especially if the crowd doesn’t read them or notice the publish date: rumors based on misleading out of time titles can wreak havoc and, in some way, eat our brains.

And a funny fact for you: the vast majority of those who shared the article supported the theory that staying up late was a sign of being smarter. Wishful thinking, I guess.

What do you think about this? Have you shared any zombie articles lately?

 

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