Surprise As ProPublica Image Posted On Facebook Goes Viral

The next time you log onto Facebook to post your latest article, think twice about what you share. Instead of copying in the link, why not share an image from the story instead?

That method worked well for ProPublica. Its graphic of changing congressional support for SOPA and PIPA from Jan 18. to Jan. 19 went viral after being posted on ProPublica’s Facebook page Thursday night. In less than 48 hours, the image received more than 17,000 likes, was shared more than 10,100 times and received a whopping 1,298 comments. And those numbers are still rising.

A quick perusal of the site’s Facebook page shows that links shared are generally liked, shared or commented on a couple of dozen times — nowhere near the amount garnered by the image.

“This image really resonated with people,” said Daniel Victor, the news non-profit’s social media editor. “If we had posted a link to the blog post, the image would have been tiny and distorted. This allowed the image to be the focus.”

The graphic, which is technically a screenshot, is part of the SOPA Opera, a news app created by ProPublica developer Dan Nguyen. After websites across the country, like Wikipedia and Reddit, protested the two bills by going dark on Jan. 18, more and more congressional members came out against them. Both were quickly tabled. It was a “no-brainer” to do a side-by-side comparison, Nguyen said.

Along with the image going viral, the overall news app also caused Internet traffic to spike.

“I think the app had already practically set the daily traffic record at ProPublica by the time I showed up early to work the day of the blackout,” Nguyen said in an email message.

About the SOPA Opera
The SOPA Opera tracks which legislators have publicly taken a stand on the bills and what they have said about it. Nguyen created it after attempting to do research on the legislation and find out who supported or opposed it. He ended up being frustrated by how hard it was to find that information.

“I thought I was late to the debate but after putting up the app it seems like even those who had been passionate advocates weren’t aware of the breadth or nature of support SOPA had among lawmakers,” Nguyen said. “I think this says a lot about how obscure our lawmaking process is even in our digital age.”

What’s so great about the SOPA Opera is that it’s a relatively simple concept — executed superbly by Nguyen — that could be copied in newsrooms across the country. And it doesn’t just have to be a nationwide piece of legislation you choose to focus on. It could be a controversial state law being considered or really any other law that has a fair number of people voting on it.

It’s also a good way to engage users. A lot of the updates on where Congress members stood came from readers, Nguyen said. On the day of the blackout, he said he could barely keep up with the amount of updates he was receiving.

The main tip Nguyen has is to remember that “many stories are better told in non-linear non-traditional formats.” The staff at ProPublica used the graphic to their benefit when they decided to post the image, not the story link, on Facebook. So the next time you have a story with a great piece of art or an amazing graphic, don’t forget to emphasize that. Create a .jpg or take a screenshot and upload that to Facebook or Google+.