EXCLUSIVE: The inside story of how four techs broke open triple j's Hottest 100
(Clockwise from top left: Nick Drewe, Andy Thelander, Jack Murphy, Tom Knox)
On a stifling Sunday evening three weeks ago, Nick Drewe was surfing Facebook, attempting to kill the languorous, leftover time that fills in the end of a typical Brisbane summer weekend. It was early January, and voting for the annual triple j Hottest 100 was beginning to heat up.Drewe—a twenty-five year old search engine marketer by trade—began scrolling through a friend’s Facebook and found a link to a triple j ‘My Vote’ page. Curious, he clicked through and checked out some of the friend's picks—Spiritualized, Death Grips, nothing that really interested him—before returning to his feed. But seeing another Hottest 100 ‘My Vote’ post made him stop.
He hit the page, but this time noted the root URL: triplejgadget.abc.net.au. Directing his browser towards Twitter, he typed ‘triplejgadget’ into the search bar and hit ‘enter’. Twitter spat digital reams back at him, as semi-automated tweets sent from vote pages populated the feed. Suddenly, what had been the kernel of an idea began to snowball in his head.
(Click here to enlarge and follow Drewe's screencaps.)
Working quickly, he automated his browser to collect the HTML from his Twitter search and dumped it into a text document, applying a formula that would isolate the URLs in the process. He then sent the results to a spreadsheet.
Then he hit the sack.
“Check out what I voted for in @triplej's #Hottest100”
In person, Nick Drewe is soft-featured and gregarious. It’s now the evening of the Thursday before the countdown and I'm sitting with him on the back deck of a rambling Queenslander in the Brisbane inner city suburb of New Farm. The house is that of Jack Murphy, 24, a graphic designer who sits to Drewe’s right. On the other side of a round table is Tom Knox—also 24—a freelance product manager.
Together these three have managed to create one of the biggest music industry stories of the last six months. A week ago they launched the Warmest 100—their version of what was likely to appear in the Hottest 100—and blew open national youth broadcaster triple j’s annual Hottest 100 poll. The trio—along with LA-based web designer Andy Thelander—have been riding a rollercoaster ever since, labelled everything from “maths wiz”s to “clueless dickless donkey-ass-flossing jabroni”s.
Drewe pulls his MacBook across the table to show me a demonstration: the day after his discovery he had a list of voting URLs, but needed a method of lifting the artist and track names from the voter pages. A Firefox browser plug-in called iMacros was the answer. He arranged it to automatically open his spreadsheet of URLs, head to each ‘My Vote’ page in sequence, and scrape the artist and track names. He shows me how it works by simply hitting a key on his MacBook -- the different voter pages flash before our eyes as each artist and song is checked off and added to a new spreadsheet. Drewe then dumped his results into a larger list and used a pivot table to collate them.
By Monday morning Drewe had spent an hour on the project. He’d counted 6,000 votes, or 0.4 percent of the anticipated total, compared to the 1.3 million who voted in last year’s poll. “I went into work, and the first thing I did was email a journalist friend saying that I had this data,” he explains. “I was more interested in asking about whether triple j would sue me. The second thing I did was message Tom.”
“I found an interesting way to spoil the Hottest 100…”
“My first thought was, ‘We should put a bet on!’” Tom Knox says, laughing.
The athletic, personable Knox is arguably the lynchpin in the group. He’s known Drewe since university days, works with Murphy, and went to secondary school with Thelander.
Drewe and Knox threw ideas back and forth over Google Chat. “I found an interesting way to spoil the Hottest 100,” Drewe jokingly began. Most of their initial exchange centred on the potential to place a bet on the poll. But soon talk turned to publishing the results: first as a simple list, then as a microsite where each predicted song would be playable.
A large part of Knox’s résumé is his work with online music aggregator, We Are Hunted -- his instinct was to do something similar with Drewe’s idea. “It was ripe to do something more creative and get a bit more attention,” Knox says. “Jack, he’s from Hunted also. We’ve both been working in online music charts for a long time. So we know the ins and outs of how something should work and how to pull something together really quickly. I called Jack and asked if he’d be keen to get involved.”
Murphy jumped at the opportunity: “I thought it was a good idea to begin with,” he says evenly from the other side of the table. Murphy looks younger than his 24 years, but is a man of almost unnerving repose. “I guess my first thought was betting too. And then Tom said that we could put it up as a site, and I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s a great idea.’”
The trio spitballed different ideas, Drewe suggesting a scrolling site with a coloured gradient from blue to red. Despite the initial joke, he didn’t want to be accused of ruining Australia Day for triple j fans, and so penned a series of warnings for the site, which would appear as visitors scrolled their way towards number one. “I didn’t intend to spoil anyone’s day with the website. I thought we needed to find a way to make it tongue-in-cheek. Not a ‘f*** you!’ to Richard Kingsmill,” he laughs.
By Monday night the team had a rough plan sketched out. Drewe would continue to scrape data as more votes were posted to social media and improve his sample. A name for the site—The Warmest 100—was settled upon, and Murphy would start pulling together a final design for the waiting Thelander. They figured there was only one time to go live: the moment Hottest 100 voting closed at midnight on Sunday, January 20. It gave them just under two weeks to get the site, data and design up to speed.
By the time voting closed, the team had collected 35,081 votes from 3602 entries, giving them a massive sample size of 2.7 percent, compared to voting numbers from last year. They had no idea how their project would be received. “We thought it might do the rounds,” Drewe says. “I thought it might get 2,000 hits or something, and then go across to Twitter.”
Either way, Drewe was too busy to give it much consideration. Thelander’s family was visiting Los Angeles, preventing him from working on the final site, and so Drewe put in place a two-tone, WordPress back-up. He went through the laborious task of separately posting song after song, loading them all in, before realising he’d made a mistake with his numbering and had to go back to redo 75 of the posts.
Anybody who might have stumbled across the site would have witnessed it slowly appearing in front of their eyes. “There were a lot of copy-paste man hours on this project,” Knox chuckles. “So that’s probably why it took a while.”
“I just thought, ‘I’m tired. Whatever happens, happens,’” Drewe says. Closing his laptop, he went to bed.
On the morning of Monday 21st January, Drewe’s attitude quickly changed. Overnight, the Warmest 100 had attracted 700 views – more than he was expecting. That was just the start. As the morning wore on, the site experienced an explosion in traffic, driven in part by an exclusive story on TheVine that had started gaining traction on mainstream media.
“I remember refreshing the page and seeing it jump up by 500 or more, every time you left it for 20 minutes,” Knox says. Soon, stories were popping up across the internet, both on music blogs and the mainstream mastheads. Once the Sydney Morning Herald, WAToday.com.au, The Age and brisbanetimes.com.au had syndicated the story from TheVine, the site began to receive 600 views a minute. By 8pm that night, Warmest100.com.au had received 25,935 visitors and 51,657 page views.
Any lack of faith in their own statistics were pushed aside for a moment as Drewe, Knox and Murphy enjoyed the exhilaration. “I was a little slow at work that day, yeah,” Knox admits, smiling.
But the attention paid to the Warmest 100 wasn’t all positive. Some Triple j fans, Australia Day fanatics and online gamblers began to take potshots at the idea. “You shouldn't do this, it ruins the hottest 100. Totally pointless, thanks for nothing,” read one email sent to the Warmest 100 Gmail account. Another missive took aim (bizarrely) at the infinite scrolling of their website: “You f***king pleb c**t what the f**k were you thinking with this shit?”
Me-too punters came out of the woodwork, pissed off their jig was up and claiming to have had the idea first. The mood darkened further after it was widely reported in Tuesday’s newspapers that betting markets had closed because of the prediction. No one in the Warmest team believed they were responsible, however: “We always thought that betting was closing on the Tuesday,” says Murphy. “I was confused when people were saying otherwise. I was under the impression that it shut down [then] anyway.”
Meanwhile, Drewe received an email from a former triple j employee asking if he’d received any “blowback” from the ABC, legal or otherwise, saying it was something the public broadcaster hadn’t been afraid of doing in the past. Drewe squirms in his seat when recounting this: “That ruffled me up a little bit, for sure.”
Some sections of the media weren't impressed, with the travel magazine TNT labelling Drewe and Knox “unAustralian” in a story that claimed that “a couple of social media whizzes have done their best to ruin the [Hottest 100].”
But there were positives. One high-profile concert promoter reaching out to the group and asking for detailed statistics on their touring artists. “Obviously, these numbers have never been released before,” he wrote. “It's something our bands always ask us and of course something we have always been keen to find out.” Elsewhere, in a second exclusive for TheVine Chicago-based economist David Quach ran 20,000 simulated samples of the same size as the Warmest 100, his results indicating that there was almost a 100 percent probability that the team would get 90 or more entries correct, regardless of order.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, triple j itself was quiet on the matter, although ABC Managing Director Mark Scott did acknowledge the Warmest 100 on Twitter: “Can a big data analysis predict the #hottest100? Who knows? We will all find out on Australia Day.”
Elsewhere, former triple j presenter Maynard, who worked at the station from 1987 until 1995, conducted an interview with Drewe for 1233 ABC Newcastle radio. Whatever the reaction, word was well and truly out.
(Continued next page: the team question their accuracy; listening to the final triple j countdown)