Google acquires Apture: Context also is king

[Note: At the end of this post, I’ve added a link to information regarding the “end” to the current iteration of Apture.]

You know how it seems that now-a-days, it’s social media this and social media that? That’s getting dated. We need something new for the gurus of social media to call themselves.

For the past few years, I’ve been hoping contextual media would catch on among the guru-class, but perhaps contextual media has been too much conceptual content for many who like to keep it simple (or who don’t follow the writings of Jay Rosen, whose blog introduced me to the idea a couple of years ago).

Perhaps the concept of contextual content will get a boost with yesterday’s announcement that Google acquired the company, Apture. Apture is a nearly 4-year-old startup I first started writing about on this blog in March, 2010. Indeed, so enthusiastic have I been about Apture, that I once wrote, “I think Apture points to the future where both ‘real-time’ and ‘understanding’ can be presented together.”

Why do I love Apture in particular, and the concept of contextual content in general?

First, to see what Apture does, highlight any word on this post and you’ll see a “learn more” button. That’s Apture. It will display, without you leaving this page, some content from my blog or from another site (most likely, Wikipedia) that may explain something you may need as background to understand what I’m writing about. (On some browsers, if you scroll down the page, you’ll see an Apture bar at the top of the screen, as well.)

Here’s another reason I’m glad it’s Apture that’s getting some visibility today: I believe the idea for what it does — for the need we all have that it addresses — has a better chance for success if it comes from someone who has taken a very deep dive into the MediaWiki platform, something Apture CEO Tristan Harris has done in the past.

That’s because I believe that the MediaWiki platform (the software on which Wikipedia runs) is to contextual media and content what blogs and Twitter and RSS newsreaders are to chronological content.

But let me be honest: I don’t hold out much hope for there being a growing movement of people hanging out Contextual Content Guru shingles.

Why? Because most of us who are bloggers and reporters and marketers and tweeters and Facebookers are more obsessed with chronology than with context. Frankly, chronological content (that which is time-stamped and pushed out quickly) is exciting to create and publish. The faster we publish it, the faster someone can re-tweet it and comment on it — and the faster the Huffington Post can re-write it.

Contextual content is rarely considered to be exciting by the chronological content crowd. Bring up the topic of contextual content and most marketing and media people will dose off, believing that’s what librarians and historians and other academics do. Other than Kathy Sierra, I’ve never heard anyone deliver an inspiring presentation about documentation and user manuals, some the least understood and appreciated (by marketers) content most companies create — but perhaps some of the most vital and important content the customer will ever use in judging the relationship it has with the company that created the product. User manuals are contextual content — content people need to understand or solve something.

Apture and Tristan are among a small group of pioneers who are trying to marry the chronological content of the web with the contextual content of the web. (In a completely different way, the web service GetGlue can be described as another approach to addressing this opportunity. And, in a broader sense, both Apture and GetGlue can be thought of as part of a long tradition of participants in building what’s long been labeled, the Semantic Web.)

Here’s my simple way of explaining all of this (and one we use at Hammock):

There is know content and there is flow content.

Flow content is the river of information that washes over us daily: the posts, articles, tweets and endless stream of tid-bitery that our passions and work requires us to follow and process.

Know content is the type of timeless, background, how-to, definition, research-oriented, data, etc., content that we look for to understand everything from the background of a breaking story to the definition of a word to how to-dry-out an iPhone after we’ve run it through the washing machine.

I love the way that RSS and blogs and Twitter, et al, have made it easy for me to monitor the flow of news and information that is interesting or important to me.

I don’t live by flow alone, however.

Spending the past four years developing and hosting a major project that runs on MediaWiki,, has made me recognize and appreciate the unique skills, discipline and mindset necessary to organize and categorize contextual or know content. It took me about two years to get over hating the byzantinian backend of the MediaWiki platform and to recognize its elegant simplicity and, at times, beauty (that’s right, you heard me say beauty) for organizing contextual content in a taxonomic and semantical way that can help a tool like Apture match up for a user the know content found on such a site with the flow content that people need to understand problems they are trying to solve — and, dear marketers, the products they want to purchase (or to use better, if they already own).

To those who can recognize it, Apture works now because the MediaWiki platform works. And because the collaborative (backed by benevolent dictatorship) approaches to taxonomy and data structure of Wikipedia work.

One day soon, librarians using the MediaWiki platform will take over the web.

[Update (November 12, 2011): After posting this, I learned that the current service provided by Apture that I described: the ability to highlight any word for a pop-up “learn about” box will be discontinued. Sorry to hear that.]