Sunday, October 26, 2008

Our Old Language

Our behaviour and the technologies we use change faster than the language we use (I'm still "spinning" when I'm DJ'ing, even though the only thing spinning these days is my hard drive).

Similarily, old models trap us into using outdated mental constructs to make sense of a world that no longer really fits those models. I'm fascinated by this, and the process by which we collectively abandon those old models.

Journalism and the "news" is a perfect example. Matt over at the has written a series of brilliant posts over the past couple of months that explore new ways of thinking about journalism. An emerging theme is the assertion that the article is no longer the basic unit of the news

On the Web, the lowly, essentially static article often proves an insufficient instrument with which to present stories, yet the basic unit of today’s news site is still the article. For this reason, we still find it difficult to tell our most complex stories well on the Web.

From what I can tell, we inherited this state of affairs from our printed predecessors. When we started news sites, there was just no other plainly obvious way to present news stories, and most of those stories were coming from the newspaper at any rate. So we presented them on the Web the same way we do in print — discrete, self-contained compositions, including whatever context could fit into a paragraph or two, ornamented with photos and graphics.

Parallels to how marketers and brands think about media and communication are pretty clear. For the most part, the discret, self-contained composition has the "creative idea" (or, the television advertisement). Mostly because, well, that's the way it has been, technology packaged it like that, and so on.

Matt has some brilliant thoughts on what the future looks like, starting with the understanding that "every news event represents a data point to another story", and that a richer understanding of the broader topic might generate further interest in that topic. Many of the other data points might not be known to us right away, but it will be the job of journalism to provide that context by using powers of pattern recognition to connect the dots (planners pick up your pencils and get to work, because in marketing that will be you doing the lion's share of pattern recognition).

So, rather than think of articles as compact pieces limited by the physical space they once occupied (in print for instance), and aimed at a target audience of people who knew what the story was all about in the first place because where would you have the luxury to spell out the context?, the job now is to expand our understanding by building richer stories, more layers and a stronger context for the interconnected pieces.

That last point is crucial, especially when thinking about brands and media, since we'll need to make sure that we don't confuse the article (the advertising) from the story (the context, the interconnected ecosystem of nodes that "bubble up" to a something much bigger). For, as Matt says, somewhat echoing a transmedia vision of what the future might look like.

We’ve been wedging our stories into articles for so long, it can be difficult to separate the two. But a big part of the opportunity before us is to start telling grand, complex and unending stories with tools fit for the task.

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