A Better Filter

By Jay Lauf

In the digital world where space is virtually limitless and the number of users is effectively fixed, most of us original content producers are trying to figure out our position on the Web. Adding to the challenge is that certain filters are becoming more popular. All of which are leading many of us to ask, “What is our place on the Web, and how will users come to us?”

Yes. There is a place for magazine brands on the Web. I believe that original content sites need to clarify what filters they provide on the process of finding and using valuable content.

The Filter Bubble, a new book by online pioneer Eli Pariser, provides fascinating insights on the ever-changing digital landscape. Pariser makes the point that we need not to think of the Internet as “an enormous library.” Users face the tyranny of choice – too many options, too much inbound and too many filters! In answer, several sites, such as Facebook and The New York Times, are narrowing the space by increasingly filtering content based on users’ perceived preferences from their past history.

A study conducted by the Pew Research Center has some revealing statistics regarding how filters are developing, which leaves me optimistic. It shows 13 percent of online news consumers use social networking sites, such as Facebook (4 percent use Twitter, but I suspect that will grow rapidly). The majority still gathers news from two to five Web sites, and 35 percent of users already have a favorite go-to site.

There is no question that these numbers will shift — I am sure they have already changed since this study was released. The Atlantic’s own percentages have also changed in the past year. About 17 percent of our TheAtlantic.com traffic was spurred by social media in 2011 versus 10 percent in 2010. Searches have flattened as a source of traffic and although the percentages are slightly down, the majority of our traffic comes from users intentionally bookmarking our sites. The percentage of direct traffic is high enough to suggest that along with search and social, brands stand strong as a filter for finding what we want to consume.

But various studies conducted by social scientists, including Swarthmore Professor Barry Schwartz, show that abundant choice can leave consumers less happy. These findings suggest that going straight to a favored and trusted Web site simply could be more fulfilling for users.

This reality about human nature favors what our editors and writers do. Many people default to the narrowcast search result or the links from people who think like they do because it limits their options (and angst). But, as also referenced in the Neiman Labs piece http://bit.ly/irn0Sp on the Pariser book, there is an opening to help people explore a broader view of their world than “echo-chamber” filters provide while narrowing their choice. And this doesn’t apply only to news, but also to brands that provide trusted takes on fashion or epicurean interests or ideas. We see this in our own brand ascent online and it leaves me optimistic about the future of premium brands’ place in a search and social filtered world.

Jay Lauf is the publisher of The Atlantic