More from the ego department. Kevin Sablan thinks that I may be partly to blame for what has come to be called the "future of context" movement. While I'm not sure this is true (but thank you Kevin anyways), the subject is closely related to a lot of what I've said in this blog, so I thought I would add my twopence.
First some context, in case "future of context" is not in your buzzword lexicon. This basically refers to certain ideas and concerns being voiced by an eclectic bunch of editorial, technical and entrepreneurial types about how news should be organised. The common theme is that news organizations have mainly failed to take advantage of the web to give readers a fuller sense of the context of what they read. When context is given at all this is usually done in the old-fashioned way, i.e. by writing content summarising the story so far. But what is needed - the story goes - is links to relevant, existing content. This throws up questions about competition (the 'link economy'), redundant content, and redundant journalists. For more, see Matt Thompson's opening statement for a panel on this at SXSW, this good writeup of the ensuing discussion by Elise Hu, and this digest by my chum Kevin Anderson. Context for you.
Here are my thoughts, in no particular order.
- Cracking the "context" puzzle may help crack the paying-for-content puzzle. I've argued before that people will not pay for news content, but may pay for "news" if by that you understand a service that people turn to every day. Content without context is worthless - i.e. not worth paying for.
- Often, the demand for "context" is not just a demand for more "information", or for content of a "contextualising" kind, but for relevance. That is, the question is not so much "how does this information relate to other information?", but rather "why should I care?", and the first question is only relevant when it helps answer the second. This is tied up with who your reader is and with how s/he came to be interested in a given article. In the web, your brand may give you an idea about the people who come via your front page, but you have no idea about the rest (easily 50% of your audience). For them, the referring page (not owned by you) is the context, and any further context provided by you may be counter-productive.
- Of course any page can be a referring page, but for some pages the main aim is to provide context, not content - e.g. search results, a news site's front page, or a "topic page". Managing these editorially is very different to managing content. Here, audiences' prior context is often just a general need (e.g. "today's news") or mood ("I'm bored"). What you produce, of course, is an aggregation of relevant and appropriate links. But this is about editorial judgement, not just algorithmically organizing stuff (Google, Google News and Digg are just algorithmic ways of summarising these judgements, made by real editors). Storytelling, not information retrieval.