Friday, March 4, 2011

Anchors & Curators

Curated content on the internet is all too much like the employee-picks shelf at the local bookstore (or video store). A selection, maybe even an interestingly thematic one, but just a collection of existing items. And presented with no other information to help you decide, but what you would find if simply searching on your own. Consider instead what people with Curator on their business card actually do. They collect, investigate, verify, and organize. They then build exhibits of some items from the collection, in a manner that tells a story. They add their own content. Maps, brochures, labels. Often, it all works together to make the point, to reveal deeper truths about the collection, and to encourage the viewer to explore further on their own. Compare these two paintings, though 20 years apart, the similarities help point out how the artist has grown in the intervening time. Or, consider the classic format of the national nightly news. Behind the scenes, the anchor is the Head of News. He sets the tone for the whole department, and makes key decisions about what and how it will be presented. Then as the on-air anchor he gives an intro to the story, frames not just the basic facts but the reason we care. If there's a graphic over his shoulder, it may well be a map, so you know where this is taking place. And then he hands off to a reporter who was on site, or at least pretends to be based on footage retrieved otherwise. And maybe, if it's a multi-faceted story, then you go to another reporter who gives another point of view; after the on-the-spot report, the reaction in Washington.
All this is all in relation to a number of posts* and discussions I've read and had with people about the point of online media. And it's coming up since I am being paid during the day to actually develop an IA for a very large product catalog, and integrate existing (magazine and other) content and personal details into one experience. I have seen at least a little of most of the available experiences. I don't subscribe to them because I am un-thrilled with the consumable media available. I still read paper magazines, because even cut down to save on costs, They do a much better job than pretty much any digital version. Web and tablet versions seem to have lost the key point of sidebars or related stories, and just use paper paradigms instead of developing their own; or learning from education, museum information design and broadcast radio/TV media even.
If this seems like a subtle change, it's not. Go back to the examples, and look at how much internet content is served. I call most of that a subset of "portal theory." An article is reduced to a smaller version, on a category page. It can be reduced to a smaller-yet version, even a title-only for a higher level category, for cross-linking or for the (portal) home page. Instead, I am starting to think that I want to break that whole model, and use the intelligence of humans, not just to tag and categorize and group things, but to differently re-order, to choose what is presented and not just sort, and to not just crop but actually rewrite content to present it most relevantly to the context. No, I don't have diagrams, or mockups for you. Yet. Maybe later. The only impediment, as I see it, is people. Good, smart, dedicated people who can write have to be found, persuaded and paid. And too much focus is on technology solutions, and paying for software. We have the software and interaction nailed enough. Now it's time to bring people back into the job of presenting information. Give me a news aggregator with the voice of an anchor, and I'll listen. But it could also be a great opportunity. To give a new type of voice -- or a reason to hope for the future -- to writers, and to the whole profession of journalism. If not this, then something like it simply must happen. Not to preserve a dying business, not just to make money in a new market, but to keep the public informed so we can all make decisions about the way we live.
* Now that I look for the links, way too many seem to be centered around Khoi Vinh. And he's a good voice in design and interactive publishing. But I swear others are talking about it also. And some rather interesting ones I can't quote.

** When searching for the links I ran across this, which I swear I didn't read before. It also has good points about curated computing. Very different ones, but the over use (or I say, mis-use) of the term "curated" is covered pretty well in there, if circuituously.

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