Is running old content a social hack, a handy feature or a trick?

We all know that there’s a veritable avalanche of content washing over us at all times, an ocean of news and analysis unlike anything we’ve seen since the early days of newspapers — so much that it’s impossible to read it all. So the folks at Vox decided instead of just pumping out new articles on everything under the sun, they would take some of their old ones and update them, shine them up and post them again.

So what happened? According to executive editor and former Slate writer Matt Yglesias, this experiment worked quite well: the 88 posts that the site spiffed up and re-ran pulled in over 500,000 readers in just a week. Even better, no one seemed to notice that Vox was re-publishing old posts.

[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]”What was interesting was that no one even seemed to notice that we were flooding the site with previously published content. A lot of the articles were enthusiastically shared by people who had shared them the first time around, too. No one seemed gripped by a sense of deja vu, or, if they were, they didn’t mention it.”[/blockquote]

So what changed?

As NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen noted, this seems like a smart move in many ways: the site put a lot of effort into reporting and writing those older pieces, some of which may be relevant to today’s news, so why not bring them out of storage and give them a new coat of paint, for those who might not have seen them?

What’s interesting about this experiment, however, is that Vox didn’t just put up old posts with some highlighted text at the top saying they were previously published. Instead, the site asked the original authors of the posts to do their best to make them better: to update facts, improve descriptions, change headlines, add new information, whatever they thought would add value to the original for readers.

This is where things get tricky: In most cases, when news outlets update a post with new information or change a fact, they try to communicate that to the reader somehow — either by putting text at the top saying it was changed, or putting it at the bottom, or in some cases striking through the original text to make it obvious that something was altered. When publishers like the New York Times don’t do this, they are often criticized for it.

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One of the things that is both good and bad about the web is that you can change anything in the blink of an eye. That’s good because you can update things as many times as you want, adding new information or correcting facts — and some of that is built-in to the blogging ethos, as Valleywag editor Dan Lyons noted in a recent post about why he changes things all the time (which appeared to have upset some of his readers).

At the same time, however, it’s easier than it has ever been for things to disappear down the “memory hole” to the point where no one is even sure what the original error was, or who made it, or why. Some might argue that what matters is the mistake is fixed, and readers get correct information, rather than figuring out who to point fingers at or blame for the error. But as verification experts like Craig Silverman often point out, there is a clear benefit to tracking those kinds of changes.

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A work in progress

Silverman has written about some of these issues before as they pertain to Vox, which has been criticized for changing posts, or updating the information in its “card stacks,” without alerting readers to the changes — although I should note that the site often posts prominent corrections, and even changes the headline to include the word correction in some cases.

That said, as far as I know none of the posts Yglesias mentioned contained correction notices or any other comment about what had been changed. And since Vox doesn’t have reader comments, there is no way for anyone who noticed the changes or was concerned about their accuracy to bring that to the editors’ attention, except by posting it on Twitter or Facebook, if they felt like taking the time to do that.

When I asked Yglesias about this, he said that the site is continuing to think about how the practice could be improved so as to make it better both for other journalists and for readers. Some have even suggested that Vox could implement the same kind of version-tracking that Wikipedia does on its “talk” pages, which show each suggested change and each committed change. Or perhaps readers could post and annotate Vox articles themselves using the new “annotate everything” tool from Genius.