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Data as Narrative at SXSW Interactive

Yesterday, when I was discussing the panels that I had been hitting up over the weekend about audio documentary, the future of journalism, and digital content, a puzzled technologist asked, “Why is that a whole track this year?”

Although, for the Digerati it may seem obvious that ‘storytelling’ has been a HUGE (slightly overused and diluted) buzzword as of late, it wasn’t a focus at SXSW Interactive just three years ago. This year, those in “traditional media,” and the original masters of conversation and story—radio documentarians—spoke proudly of the way that they have quickly adapted to new forms of journalism, storytelling and the remixing of content for a digital audience.

Man vs. Machine?

In the panel, “Maps of Time: Data as Narrative,” the debate emerged again around what is needed when there is incessant documentation and not quite the right tools or platforms designed that help us sort through the glut of data. Because, as Burt Herman of Storify put it, “Stories are the way to make sense of the data deluge.”

But right now, with the ability to instantly publish from tablets or phones, there is little space between our experience of an event and our reflection of the event (expressed through tweets, blogs, stories, etc). That can give a misleading knee-jerk, reactionary retelling of a particular experience. It also raises the question about whether aggregation through algorithms can provide a proper narrative of a major news event. It also points to the need of humans to take the selected data, slightly narrower than the infinite glut that the computer pulled from, to make it meaningful.  Ironically, in the middle of the panel discussion the twitter hashtag was hacked and the direction of the panel discussion's narrative was disrupted. Collectively, everyone changed the hashtag, an effort that, Herman pointed out, couldn’t have been detected and done if a computer was following the “story.”

Nicola Hughes, Knight-Mozilla Fellow at The Guardian, reminded us that until now the “roles of narrators, curators, and computers have been very differentiated, but now it is super smeared and undefined.” She also reminded us that  the “algorithms we use to sort through data are not apolitical. What you find on Google are things that are interesting to the public, but not necessarily in the public interest.”

Transmedia to the Rescue

Collectively, from the CEO of PRX Public Radio Exchange Jake Shapiro to Executive Editor of the New York Times Jill Abramson, it is agreed that interactive media platforms need to be designed in a thoughtful way that beautifully showcases the content while engaging the reader. 

In fact, in her featured conversation today with Evan Smith of the Texas Tribune, Jill Abramson—along with Michael Zimbalist and his New York Times R&D lab—said her key challenge is to integrate the news room without a barrier between print and digital and create a culture of innovation.

So, as I posited in yesterday’s curation vs. curators recap, how can we elevate new forms of authorship and storytelling through beautiful digital design? Who are the people experimenting with this new challenge?

I spoke with Jesse Shapins, Founder and Chief Strategy Architect of Zeega, to discuss how to create experimental platforms that highlight new roles for authorship and designing ideal online places for storytelling.

 

 

 

Photos from: feltron 

As frog's Content and Community manager, Kristina Loring curates, writes, and edits the design mind platform. When she's not spreading frog's ideas across the Internet and the city, you can find her raving about digital activism, the power to humanize tech, and community-led innovation.