Content that works: Contextual content, in context

[NOTE: This entry refers to some features provided by the company Apture that have changed since I first posted it. Depending on what browser you are using, you may or may not see the small icons I refer to. I believe, however, that if you highlight any word with your cursor, you will see an option to "learn more," which is the way the company has evolved its service. On November 10, 2011, it was announced that Google acquired Apture.]

future of context

[Note 1: If you're reading this post on Facebook, LinkedIn, a newsreader or any place these posts flow, I suggest you click over to my blog and read it, as it includes a demonstration of one of the things I'm writing about. Note 2: If you don't see tiny icons next to many of the hyperlinks on this post, trust me, they're there (at least for me). As with anything new, operator (me) error or any number of other factors may be interfering with my intent. What I write in this post still stands, even if the demo doesn't.]

[#5 in the Content that Works series.]

Last week, I attended a panel at South by Southwest called “The Future of Context: Getting the Bigger Picture Online,” moderated by my friend, Staci Kramer. On the panel were NPR’s Matt Thompson; professor, blogger and twitterist-extraordinaire Jay Rosen; and web entrepreneur, Tristan Harris, creator of Apture, which, by the way, is the way I’ve added the pop-up media boxes in this post and the “contextual search bar” at the top of my blog that appears when you scroll down the page.

(As this post is more like one of those albums “inspired by” a movie than it is a sound-track of the session, I’ve included links at the bottom of the page for those who’d like to get closer to the real thing.)

In short, the session focused on the way in which traditional methods of collecting and distributing content — specifically the type of content we call “news” and “journalism” and “posts” and “tweets” and “feeds” — do not necessarily work when readers/viewers/users are trying to gain understanding and insight of the context of a story — when the readers/viewers/users desire to gain understanding doesn’t synch with the time the news/post/tweet occurs.

Just take the last few days of coverage of the House vote on healthcare insurance reform, (please). Most of the coverage online, on TV and in newspapers was focused on the process and political gamesmanship of the process. But what most people were trying to determine was, “How will this affect me, personally?” The Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz, describing “media healthcare exhaustion,” wrote, “as time went on…journalists became consumed by political process and Beltway politics, to the point that the substance of health-care reform was overwhelmed.”

But Kurtz also defends those same journalists in the same column, displaying the bias he shares with nearly everyone who churns out “content” every day (including, I must confess, me):

Quote:

“The conventional wisdom is that the press failed to educate the public about the bill’s sweeping changes, leaving much of America confused about just what it contained. That is largely a bum rap, for the media churned out endless reams of data and analysis that were available to anyone who bothered to look.”

That quote sums up the belief of way too many people who spend all day, every day, reporting and analyzing the news: If we churn out enough endless reams of data and analysis, it will be available for anyone who bothers to look.

The need for a different form of journalism, one that compliments the “churning out” kind, was the topic of the SXSW session — and of this post. Matt Thompson uses the term episodic to describe the traditional “churning out” type information/news/journalism. It is the same type of content I called chronological in a previous post. Chronological (or episodic) news and information is that which flows over us all day, that which we believe we need in order to stay on top of things today, right now, this moment, real time. It’s the firehose of information we all complain about, as we lean over to drink more.

However, by focusing primarily on chronological/episodic content while creating the first 15 years of web-delivered and presented news and journalism, we have not gained an appreciation of the web’s ability to provide other types of information and content in other forms and structure that are described as “contextual” by Matt (or what I call, “research content”).

That’s unfortunate. For as Matt so succinctly declares, “The web rewards context.” And by web, he means (I’m guessing) Google, as it serves as a proxy for those who are searching (or researching) for specific information about a narrowly defined topic.

So what is this contextual content that journalists and bloggers have not yet mastered?

I like the word Jay Rosen uses when he describes it: “Explain.”

Contextual journalism in the form of explanations is the idea behind a concept website he recently prototyped called ExplainThis.org. It serves as a demonstration of one way journalists and readers/users can connect with one-another in ways that compliment “breaking news” with information that explains the topic; that provides context.

Content that explains things, categorizes, organizes and makes it easy to access at the precise time in which it is needed will become an integral part of what will make tomorrow’s new media, new.

Fortunately, traditional journalists are often great explainers. One of the best-of-the-best of these types of journalists is Howard Kurtz’ colleague at the Washington Post, Ezra Klien, whose blog posts throughout the healthcare reform process were islands of context in a sea of content, like this collection of blog posts he tagged with the category “health reform for beginners.”

But, alas, even a well categorized blog is not the ideal platform for the creation, organization, categorization and presentation of contextual content.

I have already telegraphied my belief that Wikipedia and its software platform, MediaWiki, provide the current benchmark for collecting and organizing contextual content. But whenever I say that, no matter who the audience, I discover most people — even savvy new media people — often allow their negative attitude about specific short-comings or policies related to the specific website, Wikipedia, to interfere with, more precisely, to detract from, their understanding of how the platform and process of developing and managing a wiki actually works. As with any technology platform that requires new approaches and new processes of collaboration and creation, you can look at Wikipedia or a major wiki project like the one I’m associated with, SmallBusiness.com, and deduce whatever you want to believe is going on. But until you spend time under the hood, often, many months under the hood, you won’t appreciate what’s actually taking place — or, more importantly, its potential. (I will gladly make an exception to that generalization for any traditional journalist or well-known blogger who has more than 15 edits on a Wikipedia article that went on to become a Featured Article.)

I’ve come to the conclusion that one of the reasons people don’t seem to get contextual content is because their experience has led them to believe it is limited to the hyperlink — and the hyperlink, they believe, is something that interrupts the flow of their brilliance or, worse, leads people away from their brilliance. (Or the company they work for believes the hyperlink is an invitation for the reader to go somewhere else to be monetized.)

But what if one could integrate contextual content from, say, Wikipedia (or Flickr or YouTube or any website) directly into a blog post? Like what I’m doing with this post.

The use of inline, contextual, pop-ups has been around for years. Some people still don’t know that if you highlight any word on a news story (but not a blog post) on the NYTimes.com website and click on the “?” that appears, a pop-up window will appear providing a definition and display of related content from New York Times sources. This is a wonderful display of how contextual content can be used. (Unfortunately, such inline contextual pop-ups have also been used for what I believe to be disruptive and in my personal opinion, unethical, advertising practices, as well.)

But what if you could go beyond what the NYTimes is doing today? Let’s say, you wanted to mention Rube Goldberg in a post, but thought some readers may not understand the reference. They would understand what you mean, perhaps, if you were able to add a clip of video in the middle of a sentence that displays a portion of someone’s attempt to create a Rube Goldberg-inspired invention.

That’s exactly what one can do using approaches like the technology being created by Apture, Tristan’s company. In fact, here’s a post on a NYTimes.com blog that goes beyond the definition-only pop-up and integrates a wide range of media from the NY Times and other sources.

An approach like that Apture enables can turn the simple, and often misused, user-activated pop-up into a rather powerful way for connecting news content with supporting “contextual” content, and does so in a wide variety of formats, including maps, video, photography and, yes, even Wikipedia entries.

Apture, of course, is just one among many ways to address the need to provide context, explanations, background information, understanding, etc., to those who aren’t on the same time-cycle as those who create and report on the news.

You can call it whatever you like: Content that provides context or content that is provided in a way to meet the needs of those doing research. But one thing is certain: unless traditional (and new) media companies respond to this need (and opportunity), they again will fumble the future.

Links related to the 2010 SXSW panel, Future of Content

News Without the Narrative Needed to Make Sense of the News” was Jay Rosen’s opening remarks.

•The post, “The Case for Context,” was Matt Thompson’s opening remarks.

•The post, “Context: The Future of the Web,” was Tristan Harris‘ opening remarks.

•A great synopsis of the session can be found in this post on Elise Hu’s blog.

FutureOfContext.com is the session’s follow-up blog.

[Coming up in this series: How the LA Times creates Google juice by reformatting its archives into "research content."]