Lessons from the Web

By Jake Dobkin

I run Gothamist.com, a website about New York news, arts, events and food. Over the last ten years, we have covered an enormous range of topics, from serious reporting on Hurricane Sandy to silly stuff like a rat caught in the sidewalk. But throughout this time, one subject has been a constant source of inspiration, and lots and lots of web traffic: bicycling.

Why? It’s partly the fact that New York’s streets are a precious commodity, already crowded with cars and buses and taxis and pedestrians. There’s also a certain perception of bikers as gentrifiers, granola-eating environmentalists, hipsters or another broad category that repulses and attracts with equal strength.

But that’s not the whole of it. Three of our most popular bike stories of the last 12 months were “Cyclist Slapped With $1,555 In Fines During A Single Traffic Stop” (285 comments), “PSA: Please Don’t Bike On The BQE” (168 comments) and “Subway Etiquette: When Is It Okay To Bring Your Bike On The Subway?” (172 comments).

Three of the worst performing were “Next Sunday: 7th Annual ‘Ghost Bike’ Memorial Ride” (0 comments), “Bruised Butt Bicycling On LES Will End Soon As DOT Repaves Roads” (5 comments) and “Cyclist Struck In Bensonhurst Hit & Run In Critical Condition” (6 comments).

Do you see any trends? When I consider a bike story for potential coverage, I ask a few questions: First, will this post expose any schisms in our society that will get people talking? Are there gender, race or class issues at play? It’s an uncomfortable reality, but a young, white, female biker hit by a car driven by an Orthodox Jewish man in Bushwick is going to get more attention than a Chinese deliveryman hit by a cab in the Bronx.

Second, is the story unusual or surprising? $1,555 in tickets is—in my business—a lot better than $50 in tickets.

Third, does the story have a strong point of view that people will want to share by email, Twitter or Facebook? Sharing is really what spreads a story and attracts readers and commenters. That’s why happy stories generally travel faster than sad ones, unless the sad one is also shocking. And it’s worth remembering that people share stories because they want to be perceived in a certain way—for instance, as a hipster, or as someone who hates hipsters.

Image Courtesy Tien Mao

After you do this for a while, you get a sense for what is going to work, but it’s an imperfect art. Even someone who is good at picking stories for coverage will strike out half the time. And sometimes it is okay to strike out. I see Gothamist as a quasi-public-good, even though we are a private company, and sometimes that means covering less viral stories that advance important social causes, like health (more bike lanes) or safety (better street design by the DOT) or justice (more resources for the NYPD Collision Investigation Squad.) But even when we cover serious topics, I still try to find a viral angle, because if a story is boring and no one reads it, we’re not contributing much to the conversation.

And the conversation, after all, is the point. So what does that mean for advocates and everyday cyclists? Well, there’s an obvious lesson that we’re all familiar with: One cyclist running a red light or riding too near a pedestrian is the kind of story that can be shared and retold and come to define a group. But the opposite is just as true: noticeably kind acts—like stopping, smiling and saying hello at an intersection, or dismounting and helping someone cross a busy street—can engender positive feelings and praiseful stories that last far longer than the single moment.

As cyclists start to flood the streets this summer and Citi Bike brings tens of thousands more riders into the mix, that’s a lesson we all ought to remember. Whether we make the most of it, or make a mockery of ourselves, Gothamist will cover it and start a conversation that helps define this new era in New York City cycling.

Jake Dobkin is the publisher of Gothamist.com. In his spare time, he photoblogs at Bluejake.com and covers graffiti at Streetsy.com. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two kids.