This is an intro to my panel next week, exploring the Future of Context w/ Jay Rosen, Staci D. Kramer, and Matt Thompson. I’m writing this to share some early thoughts and get you involved in the conversation, so pls leave your feedback in the comments and come Monday the 16th!
This is how I think of the word context.
Context is information that informs your understanding of the world, literally allowing you to derive more meaning from an experience. In the case of the painting above, it deepens the meaning of your experience in the Met by increasing the # of features, patterns and ideas you’re aware of in each painting. Even though the rectangle of colored brush strokes is the same as the one you saw before the NYU professor told you all about it, you actually see the painting in a different way after you have context.
Context in web-based news and storytelling:
So how does this relate to my panel next week on the Future of Context in publishing?
If you think about it, the way we read news on the web is much like walking down the hall of the Met without having context. Much that we read relates to big topical issues we probably don’t fully understand: the Health Care debate, the standoff between Iran and the United States, the Financial Crisis. We know we should pay attention to these topics, yet we’re massively under-equipped to understand their nuances and complexity of the issue, especially since it comes to us in a daily flood of headlines (e.g. “UN weapons inspectors are visiting Iran today…”). Articles like this are about as helpful as the little “yellow notecards” are giving basic information about each painting in the Met.
Re-inventing publishing around Context
As Jay Rosen put it, the word “context” itself implies something that information that is secondary or supplemental to the “main” text. But you can see from the examples above that that’s wrong. Context is primary. You actually need context before you can make much sense of what’s in front of you.
The exciting thing is, the web is most incredible tool we’ve ever had to solve this problem. We’re at the point where there is always something out on the web – a video, a background story, a Wikipedia article, a set of photographs, or an idea in someone’s head – that could provide a greater context and understanding for the topic. Go ahead, think of any topic in the world, and there’s something out there.
A new approach to context
At our panel we’re going to explore a new context-oriented approach to publishing and user experience. As I see it, the problem breaks down into a few distinct challenges:
- Repeatable & leveraged work: how do we provide context in a scalable way?
- How can organizations leverage existing work and not re-invent the wheel each time they want to explain something or provide context? It bugs me that when NYTimes or BBC creates a fantastic infographic explaining how subduction plates cause earthquakes, they don’t re-use that infographic the next time an article runs about the next big earthquake or tsunami.
- Coming from an engineering background & culture, you learn that you should never do work you can’t modularize and re-use. This was the whole revolution of object-oriented programming in the 1980s. But journalism doesn’t follow this practice at all. Articles are written from scratch every time, never truly re-using or building upon previous writing to save time and money. What news needs is object-oriented journalism in which context is a basic building block upon which to create articles.
- When walking in the Met, maybe some of us know a lot about 17th century Italian painters, but a lot of us don’t know anything about it. Context needs to be personalized to the audience so we don’t waste time repeating information to those who already know a lot, while still giving fresh audiences a good entry point into the topic. Like Malcolm Gladwell once paraphrased at TED, the answer for creating the best experience isn’t about finding the single best article for everyone, it’s about finding the set of best articles so that there is a version of the story that suits each customer of the news perfectly.
- Sources of context
- What sources can we leverage to provide context, and with what guarantees of authority? What about all the information harnessed in the vaulted archives of media organizations (all previous articles, photographs, videos, or interactive infographics)?
- Brevity and hairstring attention spans
- Suppose we were to invent the perfect way for people to be provided with context, as humans we are bound by the physics of shortening attention spans. People have less and less patience for articles that cause the scrollbar in our browser to shrink to a tiny little nib, and we have less and less time to invest in learning something new.
- How do we design context for the attention-strapped psychology of our minds?
- Structure & Design
- What is the ideal structure to communicate context anyway? Is it just another web page, a contextual window appearing within the page, or a wiki? Many news organizations today attempt to solve the problem by providing “topic pages” with links to further materials… but everybody knows a page full of links is overwhelming and too web 1.0. Who has the time for more links to more pages, and inevitably more tabs? We need a content-oriented context architecture, one that aims in the shortest amount of time to give people the information they need, without leaving the page (sounds familiar, probably)
- Business model and web economics
- Changing how articles are written & published will inevitably affect how publishers generate revenue from advertising, and how it impacts things the ecosystem of link-love and SEO. We can’t re-invent news around context without respecting the business models that allow publishing on the web to thrive.
- What we’ve found so far though, is that today’s most popular sources of context (Wikipedia, NYTimes Topic pages, fascinating blog posts smothered in link love) are largely rewarded by Google in SEO. If you Google for just about any topic, how likely is it that Wikipedia is in the top three results? This speaks good things to publishers if they were to succeed in re-orienting their content into SEO-rich, evergreen pages with persistent URLs that describe the bigger picture.
I’ve been fascinated by the role of context in our lives for more than four years and can’t wait to discuss them with you and several leading thinkers in this area next Monday.
What do you think? What else should we address in our panel?