Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Talk of Change Again Incites Bloggers

PEJ New Media Index April 5-9, 2010

The word came down from the BBC early Tuesday morning.

Mattel, one of the companies that makes the popular board game Scrabble, announced it would be changing the game’s rules for the first time in its 72-year history. Proper nouns such as places, people, or companies would now be allowed.

Throughout the Web, bloggers uniformly condemned the decision as a signal of the dumbing-down of our culture. The outrage was palpable.

There was one problem, however. The initial BBC report, along with similar reports in British outlets such as the as The Telegraph and the Daily Mail, was misleading. Scrabble was not changing the rules to its classic board game. It was issuing a new game- Scrabble Trickster- with these new rules, and only in the U.K. The original game would remain.

Before that became clear-within hours of the erroneous reports-bloggers sprung forward to object. Nearly a quarter (23%) of the week’s links in the blogosphere April 5-9, related to Scrabble, according to the New Media Index from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

The reaction displays two traits in new media. First, the speed at which information circulates on the Web and how hard it is to dial back once out there.  

Within hours of the posting of the BBC report, hundreds of bloggers had already voiced their objections online.

By the end of the day, the correct story emerged but was not as widely disseminated as the initial article. Almost as many bloggers continued to disparage the supposed rule changes even after the corrections had emerged.

The strong response also displays another trait among bloggers-fast and strong reaction to cultural change. Whether about a Tropicana packaging, privacy rules on Facebook or efforts to charge for streaming music online, bloggers have demonstrated an intense skepticism to changes made by corporations that would affect their lives (even if in less than monumental ways). They have found a way to add their voice, and strongly, to decisions that until now were largely made from within.

The second-largest story on blogs last week (at 22%), receiving almost as much attention, also elicited outrage.

Virginia Governor Robert F. McDonnell (R) issued a proclamation that April will be Confederate History Month in his state. The decision, along with the document’s exclusion of any mention of slavery, was roundly criticized as insensitive. A few bloggers, even a number of conservatives, focused on the political consequences for McDonnell and Republicans in general.

The next two linked-to stories had multi-media components. Third at 10%, was a slide show of the Washington Post’s annual Peeps Show diorama contest where more than 1,100 participants entered their 3-dimensional works of art made of candy. This year’s winner was inspired by the movie “Up.” (A similar art exhibit in Wisconsin was also the subject of the week’s fifth most-viewed news video on YouTube.) And a BBC report about a video that first appeared on the site Wikileaks and supposedly shows Iraqi civilians killed by U.S. military in 2007 was fourth at 7%.

A federal court decision against “Net Neutrality,” which have would required broadband providers to give equal treatment to all Web traffic, was fifth at 6%.

Noticeably absent from this list, was the tragic accident that led the mainstream press last week-the West Virginia coal mine disaster that resulted in 29 deaths. While it accounted for 17% of the coverage in traditional media, according to PEJ’s News Coverage Index, the story didn’t even make the top ten in blogs, Twitter or YouTube.


Politics, to an unusually large degree, dominated YouTube last week, accounting for the top three most-viewed segments. And if it was a Republican governor under the gun among bloggers, the videos showed Democrats clearly not at their best.

Viewed more than 2 million times last week, the most popular news video was a statement made by a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

During a March 25 House Armed Services Committee hearing about the U.S. military installation on the island of Guam, Representative Hank Johnson (D-GA) told Admiral Robert F. Willard that, “My fear is that the whole island will become so overly populated that it will tip over and capsize.”

Johnson was widely disparaged online and on talk radio for the remark and later said he was using a metaphor to express concern about overly stressing the infrastructure and ecosystem of the island.

The second most-viewed video was an attempt by Rep. Phil Hare (D-IL) to defend health care reform. During the conversation with opponents of the bill, Hare said he didn’t worry about the Constitution in this instance, thus drawing disapproval from those he was debating.

A Web ad by the National Republican Senatorial Committee mocking promises made by President Obama and Congressional Democrats was third.

Most Viewed News & Politics Videos on YouTube

For the Week of April 3-9, 2010

1. Rep. Hank Johnson says he is concerned that the island of Guam might “tip over” due to overpopulation

2. Rep. Phil Hare (D-IL) says he doesn’t worry about the Constitution during a defense of the health care reform bill

3. A Web ad by the National Republican Senatorial Committee attacking President Obama and Congressional Democrats

4. Video of Sheriff Deputies and a bail bonds enforcement officer entering a woman’s home in Bakersfield, California, without a warrant

5. Footage from CBS News of a Peep Show art exhibit in Stevens Point, Wisconsin

Scrabble Changes

The headline of the initial BBC report (“Proper nouns come into play in Scrabble rule change”) was enough to infuriate devoted Scrabble players around the world. Many expressed their outrage using humor and a bit of exaggeration.

“I have come across the newest sign of the apocalypse,” warned Shannon Patterson at Mostly Harmless. “Mattel has changed the rules of Scrabble to allow proper nouns…Obviously we have reached the end of days.”

“Games are designed to challenge and engage, not cater to the dumbing down of America,” complained Michael at Pink BFLO. “Mattel now seems willing to cave into the pervasive ‘everyone’s a winner’ movement by making Scrabble easier, or more fun, or younger, or whatever they’re justifying this as…When ‘Quiznos’ becomes a 25 point word, there’s something dramatically wrong in our society.”

“Helpful hint: If you name your child QZJXK, that triple word score will be alllllll yours,” joked Chris “Chugs” Taylor at Seriously Guys.*

However, within a day, some bloggers and mainstream outlets such as the Washington Post did some investigation and determined that the BBC report was misleading. In reality, the Mattel company, which has international rights to the game but not the rights in the U.S., plans on releasing a new version called Scrabble Trickster which will allow proper nouns. The original game will remain untouched.

Some bloggers updated their blogs accordingly.

“Reliable sources have informed me that the British version of Scrabble that permits proper nouns is, in fact, a gimmicky one-off rather than some kind of new world order,” wrote Neal Schindler at Red Blue Green just hours after the initial news report surfaced. “The American version, owned by Hasbro, still bans proper nouns, as well it should. I feel better.”

A few others described the incident as an example of how misinformation can spread online.

“If you happened to be on the Internet sometime Tuesday morning or mid-afternoon, you might have noticed brief bouts of rage concerning the proposed rules to the new edition of Scrabble,” recounted Chris at Charge Shot. “Like most Internet flare-ups, the outcry was short and fierce…The fact that the rules to ‘classic’ Scrabble were not, in fact, changing, was out by the end of the day, but it inspired far less publicity.”

Confederate History Month Controversy

A cohort of bloggers also amassed to decry Virginia Governor McDonnell’s proclamation that April would be Confederate History Month.

“Virginia, your governor’s proclamation was stunning in its stupidity,” criticized Russell King. “First, your governor, Bob McDonnell (R), issued a proclamation that didn’t mention slavery. He dug his hole even deeper when he tried to explain why he didn’t mention slavery: He said he didn’t think it was significant for Virginia.”

“It is incredible that government officials still do such things,” argued Ciceronian Review. “The Confederacy was, from beginning to end, treasonous. The aim of the Confederacy was destruction of the United States of America, in order to preserve slavery…The Robert McConnell hates America.”

“McDonnell’s radical political agenda is having a detrimental impact on our reputation and standing within the business community,” wrote Virginia blogger Marc Broklawski. “McDonnell owes all Virginians an apology!”

A day later, McDonnell bowed to political pressure and amended the proclamation to include slavery, but many bloggers were still not satisfied.

“His apology for his ‘omission’ is better than nothing at this point,” posted Sisyphus “but it would have been better had he chosen not to honor this regrettable episode in history in the first place.”

McDonnell even faced criticism from members of his own party for the political implications of his decision.

“Looking at the document, it does seem rather bland…But while it may be ‘inoffensive’ on one level, it is still pretty bad and will hurt the GOP in the long run,” concluded Dennis Sanders at Republicans United. “I don’t think McDonnell did this to hurt the feelings of African American Virginians, but it does that just the same…The proclaimation allows blacks to believe that the GOP does not care about them.” 


On the social networking site Twitter, users remained fixated on Apple’s new iPad. A third of all news-links went to various stories about Apple’s new product. These included articles such as a CNET News report that estimated the iPad had outsold the original iPhone in opening weekend sales and a Wired story that three universities are planning on handing out free iPads to students and faculty in the hopes that it will revolutionize classroom education.

Not only is technology a frequent focus for Twitter users, but Apple’s iPad has been a common topic as of late. This week marks the fourth time in the last five weeks that the product has been among the top five subjects on Twitter.

Of the next five biggest stories on Twitter last week, four of those were also technology-focused.

The decision by Columbia University to begin offering a combined engineering and journalism degree was second at 9%. The goal is that the first of its kind Masters program will help bridge a perceived divide between the media and emerging technology.

A preview of the unveiling of Microsoft’s two new phones, called Pure and Turtle, was third at 6%.

That was followed by a story involving British politics at 6%. Anastasia Beaumont-Bott, the founder of the conservative Tory party’s biggest gay rights organization, announced she was going to vote for the Labour party instead in the upcoming general election.

And fifth, also at 6%, was a CNET piece describing how comedian Conan O’Brien was using Twitter and other forms of social media as a way to gain leverage for negotiations regarding future television opportunities.

The New Media Index is a weekly report that captures the leading commentary of blogs and social media sites focused on news and compares those subjects to that of the mainstream press.

PEJ has launched the New Media Index as a companion to its weekly News Coverage Index. Blogs and other new media are an important part of creating today’s news information narrative and in shaping the way Americans interact with the news. The expansion of online blogs and other social media sites has allowed news-consumers and others outside the mainstream press to have more of a role in agenda setting, dissemination and interpretation. PEJ aims to find out what subjects in the national news the online sites focus on, and how that compared with the narrative in the traditional press.

A prominent Web tracking site Icerocket, which monitors millions of blogs, uses the links to articles embedded on these sites as a proxy for determining what these subjects are. Using this tracking process as a base, PEJ staff compiles the lists of links weekday each day. They capture the top five linked-to stories on each list (25 stories each week), and reads, watches or listens to these posts and conducts a content analysis of their subject matter, just as it does for the mainstream press in its weekly News Coverage Index. It follows the same coding methodology as that of the NCI. This process allows us to compare the New Media commentary, based on the Icerocket list of links, with the commentary in the traditional press. Note: When the NMI was launched in January 2009, another web-tracking site Technorati was similarly monitoring blogs and social media. PEJ originally captured both Technorati’s and Icerocket’s daily aggregation. In recent months, though, this component of Technorati’s site has been down with no indication of when it might resume. 

The priorities of the bloggers are measured in terms of percentage of links. Each time a news blog or social media Web page adds a link to its site directing its readers to a news story, it suggests that the author of the blog places at least some importance on the content of that article. The user may or may not agree with the contents of the article, but they feel it is important enough to draw the reader’s attention to it. PEJ measures the topics that are of most interest to bloggers by compiling the quantitative information on links and analyzing the results.

For the examination of the links from Twitter, PEJ staff monitored the tracking site Tweetmeme. Similar to Icerocket and Technorati, Tweetmeme measures the number of times a link to a particular story or blog post is tweeted and retweeted. Then, as we do with Technorati and Icerocket, PEJ captured the five most popular linked-to pages each weekday under the heading of “news” as determined by Tweetmeme’s method of categorization. And as with the other data provided in the NMI, the top stories are determined in terms of percentage of links. (One minor difference is that Tweetmeme offers the top links over the prior 24 hours while the lists used on Technorati and Icerocket offer the top links over the previous 48 hours.)

The Project also tracks the most popular news video on YouTube each week.  

*For the sake of authenticity, PEJ has a policy of not correcting misspellings or grammatical errors that appear in direct quotes from blog postings.

Note: PEJ’s weekly News Coverage Index includes Sunday newspapers while the New Media Index is Monday through Friday.

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