Media Rorschach: It’s in the footnotes

By Adam L. Penenberg , written on May 8, 2013

From The News Desk

I’m what you might call a footnotes geek. As soon as I finish reading a book I head to the back to sift through source citations. I’m curious what materials authors have used to support their research. What’s more there's inspiration to be found in the footnotes. You can stumble across a nugget about some obscure person who did something spectacular (or spectacularly stupid) and suddenly you have your next book, article, or screenplay.

But compiling footnotes – or in my case, endnotes (I detest little numbers graffiti-ing my text) – is a mind-numbing, time-consuming affair. Last weekend I dedicated 30+ hours to putting mine together for my next book. In the process I saw clear evidence of just how much media has changed over the past four years. The world’s information has become more democratized and traditional fonts of journalism are steadily losing influence. Journalists are becoming disintermediated. I suppose that’s not surprising, given all the digital ink that has been spilled writing about the demise of mainstream media. But it’s useful to see data in one place – like looking down on a maze from above instead of finding yourself out of one on the ground.

Naturally, every author has his own system for compiling endnotes. Mine is to wait until I’ve completed the final draft of a manuscript then go back to the beginning and, in order, extract each relevant fact then look for the source of that information. I don’t organize this during the writing process because I use endnote generation as an opportunity to fact-check. By re-finding the material buried deep on my hard drive, located somewhere online or in a lit database I ensure with fresh eyes that the information is accurate.

In my previous books, with the last published four years ago, most source citations fell into these broad categories: articles, interviews, books, legal documents, and academic papers, with news stories making up, by far, the greatest number of citations. This held steady whether the topic I covered was current or a look back in time.

For example, one of the more popular chapters in Viral Loop was on Tupperware as an ingenious social media marketing scheme, with the Tupperware party acting as the viral mechanism. Divined in the early 1950s by a woman named Brownie Wise from Detroit, MI, a newly hired Tupperware agent would ask someone to host a tea party and invite a dozen of her friends. If the friend said yes, the women (it was almost always women) would play games and have a grand old time, the rep would demonstrate Tupperware’s various plastic food storage tubs, and in this trusted environment sell a lot more than if she had gone door-to-door.

The model turned viral when the agent asked a couple of the attendees if they would also host parties. These two women would tap their social network of friends and family and the agent repeated the process. One party turned into two, two became four, and so on. Each time the number of customers exposed to Tupperware doubled (more or less).

A look at my endnotes shows my interview with the Tupperware CEO, two books on the history of Tupperware, a documentary that had aired on PBS, and six articles from Time magazine, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, the Guardian, Orlando Sentinel, Arkansas Democrat Gazette. All of this combined made it possible for me to weave a colorful narrative.

Contrast this with my upcoming book on ways that game mechanics can unleash breakthrough thinking, which will come out in October. It’s also heavy on the storytelling and includes interviews with subjects who appear in its pages, academic papers, books, videos, some but not many articles, and tons of blogs and personal websites. Now, instead of being dependent on someone else’s reporting as expressed through news features, I drew directly from sources’ blogs and personal websites. Data might come from a trade association press release announcing the findings of a study or the actual study, published by the practitioners. An opinion could originate from a source’s blog and not because she was quoted in The New York Times. A colorful anecdote could come courtesy of a video interview.

It’s quite striking. I relied far less on traditional articles and more on a much wider palette of media. It also presents challenges. I have to be careful what information I use. I can’t simply trust the source as I might have in the past. In prior books, if an article appeared in The New York Times I would simply cite the information, comforted by the notion that someone along the chain had vetted it for accuracy. (Perhaps that was foolhardy, but I digress.) Now, when I cite a personal blog, a company’s website, extract a perspective from a video interview, I double and triple-check for accuracy. In other words, this atomization of media sources is making me a better, more thorough reporter.

On a more macro level, you can see what is driving this media transformation. In 2009, when I published Viral Loop, there were 126 million blogs on the Internet, as measured by BlogPulse. Today, just two platforms, Tumblr and Wordpress, count 157 million blogs, and Tumblr alone has more than 100 million of them containing 44.6 billion posts. Meanwhile, the number of websites has also jumped. In 2011 alone they more than doubled from 255 million to almost 600 million.

With this frenetic growth has come a shift in information flows. More of it ends up coming straight from the sources’ mouths instead of filtered through reporters. So-called “mainstream media” becomes a less attractive resource.

And it’s all in the footnotes.