The trajectory of the internet is thusly understood in the popular consciousness: the Internet started as a RAND-like project and slowly grew to incorporate research. With the introduction of the World Wide Web, businesses and blogs grew—aided by search engines—as users gradually adopted. And then, in the 2000s was the rise of the social networking site (the quintessential Web 2.0 service), and it has to this day shaped our everyday interaction and use, driving the nature of our sites/communications. Sites like Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Stumbleupon, and even Wikipedia now are understood to drive our consumption of media.
It turns out this is wrong. Or, at least, as writer Alexis Madrigal for the The Atlantic found: it doesn’t match the current data. He tells a counter-story to the above, prevailing narrative:
[That story has] never felt quite right to me. For one, I spent most of the 90s as a teenager in rural Washington and my web was highly, highly social. We had instant messenger and chat rooms and ICQ and USENET forums and email. My whole Internet life involved sharing links with local and Internet friends. How was I supposed to believe that somehow Friendster and Facebook created a social web out of what was previously a lonely journey in cyberspace when I knew that this has not been my experience? True, my web social life used tools that ran parallel to, not on, the web, but it existed nonetheless.
Then one day, we had a meeting with the real-time web analytics firm, Chartbeat. Like many media nerds, I love Chartbeat. It lets you know exactly what’s happening with your stories, most especially where your readers are coming from. Recently, they made an accounting change that they showed to us. They took visitors who showed up without referrer data and split them into two categories. The first was people who were going to a homepage (theatlantic.com) or a subject landing page (theatlantic.com/politics). The second were people going to any other page, that is to say, all of our articles. These people, they figured, were following some sort of link because no one actually types “http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/10/atlast-the-gargantuan-telescope-designed-to-find-life-on-other-planets/263409/.” They started counting these people as what they call direct social. They’d found a way to quantify dark social, even if they’d given it a lamer name!
On the first day I saw it, this is how big of an impact dark social was having on The Atlantic.
The data here tells an important story about how referrals actually happen online: for a truly successful article, one needs to find a way into the chat messages and emails. Pushing a page onto Facebook and Twitter—even if done right—won’t account for the views necessary for a healthy site. Whereas one might believe they can game or manipulate the social networking sites, there is no way to make this happen in the dark social without publishing great content. And, generally, the graph from The Atlantic and Chartbeat shows how truly important the social aspects of the web are and have always been. Even before Facebook figured out how to monetize one’s published links, people were emailing what they found to be noteworthy.
There’s no way of knowing whether Facebook will eventually take over, but for right now it’s clear that the Dark Social is dominant.
Alexis Madrigal, The Atlantic, “Dark Social: We Have the Whole History of the Web Wrong“