Boston.com's viral explosion videos

Written by Adrian Holovaty on April 15, 2013

Today's explosions at the Boston Marathon were heartbreaking and horrifying. But a mundane detail in one site's news coverage put me over the edge.

I saw a few tweets saying that Boston.com, the hometown newspaper, had high-quality video of the explosion. So I clicked through to one of the links (warning: disturbing video) and couldn't help but notice: the page's <title> was (and still is, as of this writing) "Boston.com viral video page - Boston.com". And the URL starts with "boston.com/video/viral_page".

I clicked through several related videos. All had the same title and URL pattern.

Putting aside the fact that if you have to say a video is viral then you've already lost, advertising these explosion videos as "viral" is sad. It's cheap, it's wildly inappropriate -- and, frankly, for a news organization with the power of the Boston Globe -- it's pathetic and beneath them.

Now, this is obviously a content-management system problem, not a case of a Boston.com editor saying, "Here's hoping this goes viral!" Clearly there's a template somewhere with a default title "Boston.com viral video page," and the URLs are hard-coded to include "viral_page". And let's keep some perspective: overall, what's important here is the news event itself, not the details of how one particular CMS titled a video.

And I don't mean to berate Boston.com. As somebody who used to work for news sites, I have been in their shoes. There are many, many more important things for a news organization to do in this situation -- vet new information, feverishly post updates and, well, keep the site up and running under huge traffic levels! And to their credit, after I posted a snarky tweet about it, a few Boston.com folks responded within minutes, saying they were migrating videos to YouTube and didn't have much control over their software.

But I'm writing this because I think there's an important lesson here for makers of Web products. That lesson is: tools will be repurposed, and they should be designed with that in mind.

Whoever designed this video gallery system (sounds like it might've been a vendor) was too narrow-minded. Judging by the URL and default page title, it was meant to be a clearinghouse for viral videos, but it ended up being used for all types of videos. They ought to have designed for broad use, not specific use.

If they truly wanted to build a "viral video" platform, one that lived up to its rather lofty URL, it should have included specific features that made it work particularly well for viral videos and not for other videos. But that doesn't make any sense, because, when it comes to publishing-system needs, nothing distinguishes a viral video from your run-of-the-mill news video. It's completely reasonable that Boston.com would start using their "viral video" publishing tool to publish any video. Which I assume is what happened.

So if you're building a CMS-ish thing, keep that in mind. Think of the most wildly inappropriate thing that your system might have to handle some day, and make sure your system is still robust and appropriate.

(See Peter Harkins' rules of database app aging for some excellent related points from a database perspective.)

Several years ago, I rather obsessively blogged about how news sites' technologies were often at odds with their journalistic standards -- like, advertising not being labeled depending on your browser settings, or bad JavaScript leading to inaccurate statements or date formatting leading to ambiguity. (Yes, images in those old posts are currently broken...) At the time, I remember thinking, "It'll be great when the Web has matured and we won't have to worry about this kind of stuff." Well, a decade later, we haven't progressed as much as we should. Tools have gotten better, but they're still being abused, to the detriment of the user experience and sites' reputations. If you're in a position to fix that, please fix it.

Comments

Posted by Glenn on April 15, 2013, at 10:48 p.m.:

My guess is that page path is externally cached and they put videos there as a signal to whatever CDN they are using.

Posted by Loren Davie on April 16, 2013, at 8:52 a.m.:

I think this has to do with how the sales process for this kind of software affects its design. Those with an understanding of their potential markets (say news websites) make feature requests of engineers who interpret them through the context with which they're presented (news websites are asking for a way to publish 'viral videos'.)

It takes a real effort and no small degree of insight to break out of that context and understand your product has broader applications ('hey, this relational database thing might be good for a lot of stuff!'). It usually makes everything harder in the short term, both for the engineers building the product, and the salespeople who are trying to sell it.

I agree that understanding the broader context of the product is much more desirable, but it means overcoming natural forces that want to pigeon-hole it.

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