SXSW 2012: The Evolution and Future of Online Dating

Those of you who know me well likely know I am fascinated by online dating, mainly because I have never done it before and I am afflicted with FOMSS (Fear of Missing Something Syndrome). So here we are at SXSW 2012, where I get to learn about what the online dating terrain looks like, how it’s meshing with new technologies and how it’s influencing the way humans romantically connect. And because journalism is ultimately about connecting with people, the lessons this can teach us about new-new media are in here if you think about it.

THE PREMISE: “Traditionally, dating sites have used algorithms that rely on user profiles and personal preferences to create matches, but what if the information submitted isn’t true? Sites such as Match.com are evolving their methods to provide more accurate results – like pairing algorithms with user behavior. We’ll hear from innovators in the digital dating world and get unique insights from people who’ve searched for love online. We’ll also see how technology is changing the dating game.” – Session desrciption 

HOW ONLINE DATING WORKS: Sign up, answer questions, pay a fee and you get matches. Our moderator/tester registered for a slew of sites. Apparently, eHarmony takes the longest compared to Match.com and OKCupid, and takes much much longer than the newer sites (see below). OK Cupid is apparently pretty cool in that their questions are user-generated and their profiles include some data visualizations. And in recent years, various niche dating sites have started up, aimed at the over 50 market (OurTime.c0m), the Jewish market (JDate) and weed smokers (420Dating).

THE AGONY AND THE AWKWARDNESS: Online dating changed the way people interacted with the internet, helping usher in social networking as users became more accustomed to sharing their lives online. But online dating sites seek almost exclusively to match you up, which can be awkward. Match.com’s Mandy Ginsburg:

“They don’t do it because it doesn’t feel natural. They don’t trust that a computer will allow them to find that perfect love or spark, or it feels like it’s not serendipitous so there’s no romance … so how can we make the whole experience as natural as possible?”

Continue reading “SXSW 2012: The Evolution and Future of Online Dating”

Stuff We Said During SXSW 2012, Unattributed to Specific People

Some of these people are quoted below. But so are many others, unpictured.

 

AUSTIN — The sea of humanity that is SXSW has washed over Austin. So has cold rain. The weather is not only a surprise but also a real drag — the free ice cream truck is so not gonna be fun this year.

We’ll make the most of it. I’ve already been here for a few nights for the pre-SXSW Integrated Media Association conference (for public media folks) and my week is already satisfying after catching Radiohead in an intimate Austin City Limits setting on Tuesday night.

Because people are bringing the funny, I will keep a running list here of funny musings from my pals (without attributing the quotes to specific pals).

– I accidentally made out with a stranger in front of Star Bar.
– I have been in bed all morning due to extreme karaokeing last night.
– I just got rained on — inside.
– I don’t want to be dramatic but … we’re gonna die.
– Whenever I put on glasses, I just end up looking like a lesbian.
– Everyone seems to just pair some shorts with some tights and call it a day.
– How was dim sum? I was sleeping on a couch with two dogs while $&#*( was making out with some girl. I would murder a Mexican child for a Topo Chico right now.
– Far be it for me to criticize anyone else’s style, but that hair really bothers me.

Stuff I Love: Creative News Interactives

On Saturday after I spoke on a panel called “News as Infotainment,” two lovely ladies from Frontline (FRONTLINE!) came up and asked me for examples of interactive and “infotainmenty” news presentations I really loved. I didn’t have time to go over them in person, so here you go, ladies:

New York Magazine: It’s Time to Play ‘Sheen, Beck, or Qaddafi?’


The ramblings and rantings of the actor, the pundit and the dictator have collectively compelled us as a nation, and while the three men are from vastly different backgrounds, the words that come out of their mouths are strangely similar. As the magazine wrote, “To demonstrate just what a struggle it is to distinguish between the mad ramblings of an entertainer, a despot, and a newsman another entertainer, we’ve put together this quiz. If you get them all right, you are some kind of savant.”

 

Vanity Fair: Qad Libs

Qaddafi is leading to all sorts of creative inspiration. Vanity Fair’s “Qad Libs,” based on the childhood word game “Mad Libs”, allowed readers to “create a realistic hard-line speech by inserting your own bizarre words into the colonel’s actual defiant address.” The magazine allowed readers to fill in a string of nouns, adverbs and adjectives in their interactive form to create their own Qaddafi rants. Amazingly, every customizable rant seemed right on.

 

Budget Puzzles, by The New York Times, Sacramento Bee, American Public Media, and more


In response to the nations gazillion trillion dollar deficit, and the frightening shortfalls of state governments around the country, media companies have followed in The Times’ footsteps with interactive budget puzzles that allow the user to find ways to balance the budget. Poynter’s recent piece discusses the limitations of these puzzles (the game writers get to set the parameters of what to cut or revenue to increase) but this is a great way to make real the budget troubles of governments, teach readers about the decisions that have to be made and allow for audiences to prioritize what they think is important.

 

The Chillout Song, by Ze Frank (my hero)

Frank’s project teaches us a beautiful lesson about how technology and social sharing can enable human connection. As you’ll read in the story he lays out, he received an email from a girl named Laura who was stressed out and felt hopeless; she asked for a song to help calm her nerves. Frank asked her to describe her feelings, which then led to a sketch of a song that he then asked his audience to record themselves singing. It led to a gorgeous result, no pitch correction required, that you can now purchase online.

SXSW 2011: Unexpected Nonfiction Storytelling (with Ze Frank!)

The Nonfiction Storytelling Panel

The Panelists: Ze Frank, Caspar Sonnen (a Dutch guy, natch), Tommy Pallotta and Rob McLaughlin with the National Film Board of Canada.

So we’re here to learn about new ways to tell nonfiction stories, which duh, winning, can be applied to news. Pallotta started making documentaries but switched to animation and now primarily makes media for the internet. Frank has been toying with online media for many years. “I don’t consider myself a documentarian, I work with lots and lots of people to find moments and find a way to bubble them to the top,” Ze Frank. “I have to compete with the rest of the world to find the best way to tell my story.”

Buzzwords and examples (!) from this session:

TRANSMEDIA (noun): Cross-platform storytelling.
Example: Creating a gaming aspect to put you in simulations/give a hands-on experience of the energy crisis. At the same time, having a documentary shown on television but also broken up into clips onto YouTube. To create an emotional anchor, filmmakers then take abstract ideas and embodied them in characters and stories. The combo: a documentary, a fictional part, and an interactive. How to tie it together? In a Pallotta film, they designed three panels at once, that slides left to right with interactive on left, fiction story in the middle, and more info with documentary talking heads and text info on the right. It’s annotated storytelling. “It’s interactive in that if you want to engage more with it, you can,” Pallotta says.

CLOUD EDITOR:
Encouraging people to crowdsource their own projects, by putting up various video archive elements online and putting up an online editing tool to allow the community to take part in storytelling. “I think so long as they’re talking about it, that’s a good thing,” Pallotta says.

INTERACTIVE PARABLE:
Example: The Test Tube: with David Suzuki, which examines what we’d do with our global sustainability problem in an interactive. It involves an online video,  with people contributing on Twitter with their reactions, what they would do with only one minute left in our biosphere. That data that comes in will then get visualized in bubbles that show the community reactions. “Sleep” was the largest bubble.

See also: Welcome to Pine Point, a 25 minute experience that you click through and read and experience the overall story with video elements. This is allowing the print and publishing world to open it up to new possibilities. Nieman StoryLab coverage of this project is worth a read as well.

INTERVENTION STYLE: (aka the Ze Frank style) Not so much telling stories but creating small, weird little engagements that get people to experience something particular or take risks. “When you start saying you’re going to interact with audiences, the problem is it’s really hard to even interact with one person,” says Ze Frank. “The translation to online work is how do we hyper hyper simplify the goal of these interactions?”

Examples:
youknowi.ly: Heavily moderated due to porn. But this is a simple way to share an interaction.
star.me allows you to give stars to people you think are awesome. Your desktop is then filled with appreciations with other people.
zefrank.com/youngmenowme recreates photographs from your childhood. “There’s something wonderfully special in that,” Frank says. With these submission projects, then it’s hard to get meaningful text from the users. He then has to ask questions in a “sneaky” way to get people to open up in a way that’s useful to getting a story.
Pain Pack: Frank opened up a hotline for people to leave their painful experiences. Audioclips were given to sound editors, and they cut them and chopped them into a library of discreet sounds. And those sounds were then given to music makers to create songs just from sounds from the Pain Pack. “The audio of the original recordings is super compelling, the project itself, I cannot figure out how to make it compelling.”

GUIDANCE FOR GOING FORWARD:

– Having a “voice is important to interacting with your audience. If it’s playful, it’s playful, if it’s serious, serious.”
– To finance these things or monetize them after the fact, there’s no pat answer. You have to be creative with the resources you have. “Don’t worry about it right now,” says Pallotta. “Just make it.”
– Scale your idea. If you have a small amount of resources do a soft launch to get people excited and interested in your idea.
– In every industry landscape, the leaders are afraid they are missing something. If you can create a project and pitch it like “this is what they’re missing,” you can make some money.

#newsfuture

Stiles, Reeve and I went with boss Evan to Texas Tech University in flat, windy Lubbock this week for the first stop in the Texas Tribune College Tour. The day included a civic engagement fair, a debate between two statewide candidates (who traveled to Lubbock together, actually), and an afternoon session on the future of journalism featuring us reporters. It reminded me that I forgot to post my notes from a much meatier future of journalism panel, the one at SXSW in Austin last month. So, to recap:

THE PANEL:

Andrew Huff, editor of Gapers Block, a digglike, crowd-sourced zine in Chicago

Jeff Jarvis, media futurist, professor, blogger at BuzzMachine.com and author, “What Would Google Do?”

Brad Flora, WindyCitizen.com

Jeremy Zilar, blog specialist at the NYTimes

Adrian Holovaty, web developer, WashingtonPost.com, co-developer of web programming language Django (which we use for the TT) and creator of EveryBlock.com.

BIGGEST CHALLENGES AHEAD

Jarvis: Biggest challenge is getting ourselves out of old models – the page based, product based world. Because we’re now in a screen based, process based world. Content curation is as important as content creation.

Engagement is a challenge (the belief that if news is that important, it will find me), efficiency is a challenge (we’re still way over bloated).

In an ecosystem of overabundant creation you need more help finding stuff. Everything should get turned on its head. Don’t operate under “old industrial age assumptions”. Turn those upside down to rethink what we do, how we do, how we communicate and collaborate.

Flora: Staying above, rising above the noise floor has value for future. We aren’t there yet in the physics of how the internet works right now such that the re-writer (content farms) get much more SEO than a curator who provides links. Challenge for news organizations is to keep staying ahead of content farms “stealing” search results while still providing original information is tricky. Newspapers will likely fall back on personalities – people who are able to bring a cult of personality to work are getting more attention, visibility.

Holovaty: Biggest challenge is the business model. But another issue is our current/traditional reporting process. Journalists gather all kinds of information that they just “throw away.” All the data, all the input collected during the reporting of an issue is typically just compressed into one big blob of text, when we simply write a story about it. It’s rarely “how can I take this data and do cool things with it”?

“I’m really interested in journalists who are actually taking all this data we mine and treating it with respect,” Holovaty said. He wants to see more publicly accessible databases. and more people taking the data, and then doing a story based on the data.

“We struggle with how to teach data as news. Should journalists learn computer programming? Not necessarily. But journalists should know how to communicate with developers just as they know how to communicate with photographers. There’s a wealth of stuff there, we’ve got to get at it, plumb it better, help audience get at it,” said Holovaty.

HOW TO RISE ABOVE WHEN AUDIENCES ARE DROWNING IN NEWS?

Pull it together, piece it together in an interesting way that can convey information to citizens. Windy Citizen is essentially just a front page for Chicago that can point people to the good stuff. Crowd power is used to recommend good bits of information to others. Readers/consumers are smart. Give people a way to leverage that knowledge and contribute back, weigh in on things. How can we encourage the community to better create, and get them to curate… Top stories and who’s linking to them, such that evetything’s really related.

Other suggestions: Crowdsourced wikis, wiki-based reporting structure, rethinking how we use data to create millions of watchdogs.

“We aren’t storytellers anymore,” said Jarvis. “That’s a one-way perspective to look at things. It’s not my story to tell you… we are story enablers.”

The panel argued collaborative forms are better. While many of us can be gatherers of information, editors, and marketers/distributors, the place journalists add value where distribution’s going on already is by adding deeper reporting, context and vetting.

BUSINESS MODEL FUTURE

JARVIS: The NY Times won’t die, but Boston Globe might. Newspapers should just move into the future. Newspapers are being replaced by an ecosystem, not a single company. News will become the providence of many different players who are supported by many different business models. “One becomes many,” Jarvis said. Bloggers can and have been making revenue. Optimize that by saving money, improve what you’re selling to advertisers and creating networks. Hyper local advertising is a building block. Jarvis envisions some measure of publicly-supported journalism that the market won’t meet, “the broccoli journalism”. He projects that a hypothetical market for journalism in the future, which will be a mix of publicly-supported, commercial and individual models, is an ecosystem worth about $45 million annually. “We will have an equivalent number of journalists, who are more answerable to the community, closer to community,” Jarvis said.  ” The amount of waste in the current structure still gargantuan.”

Build networks. The marginal cost of news online is zero. Journalists should add unique value. We need to ask ourselves –  how do you combine people who create good content/stories with people who can sell?

Contextualizing Context

Some great thinkers in media are leading what I’ll call the “context movement”, a push toward giving audiences more satisfying, better understanding of the worlds in which they live instead of  simply presenting ephemeral, episodic stories as journalists always have. As the daughter of immigrants, helping provide better entry points for news is near and dear to me. I’m also a fervent believer in this because Texas Tribune founder John Thornton imagined the TT as an attempt to do what the movement talks about — provide knowledge, not news.

I first heard Matt Thompson talk about context at the 2008 Reynolds Journalism Institute dedication at the Missouri School of Journalism (Go Tigers). The principle then became crystallized when Thornton said the context void inspired him to start the Tribune. We have some great examples of projects that move toward that goal, but after this morning’s panel I feel an even stronger need to try and rethink what we prioritize, how we organize information, and how we share it. If you missed the panel, I’ll try my best to provide some Cliff’s Notes. The conversation is continuing online, so please weigh in in this space or at the Future of News site if you’re interested.

THE PANELISTS

Matt Thompson, NPR and formerly of the Knight Foundation; Jay Rosen, author of PressThink and professor at NYU; Tristan Harris, CEO/Founder of Apture.

The Liveblog, by Poynter’s Steve Myers.

THE PROBLEM

We receive more information than ever, and a lot of it is ambient and unsatisfying. Take health care reform as an example. “Most of the news is ‘episodic’,” says Thompson. You hear a little about the excise tax, Stupak, reconciliation… the torrent of information is hard to keep track of. Then, new torrents of headlines come at us all the time. We ASSUME that over time this will cohere into real knowledge. Eventually you hear enough about public option that you understand a little. Mounting evidence indicates that when you’re faced an ever growing flood of headlines it’s not useful.

“Suppose your laptop continually received new updates that you didn’t have software for,” Jay Rosen said. News is much the same way; designed to provide constant updates to a larger narrative that doesn’t exist or isn’t currently provided by news producers. Audiences actually need systemic, not episodic information. Need an intellectual framework for episodic news to make any sense.

Incidentally, systemic knowledge (Wikipedia entries, “Top 10 things you need to know about [blank]”) is actually easier to provide than the episodic stuff. One news organization boiled down every health care system in the world into four types. That helped people understand what we have in U.S. and what we want to change it into. If you look at health care on a broader level,  you can distill it so it’s more understandable.  We need an intellectual framework for themes and situations and debates in the news. That’s what context means.

WHY CURRENT NEWS FORMS LACK CONTEXT

The current news system is an artifact of an earlier era of industrial production that has passed. But the web allows us to fix some of the problems.

Because journalism is structured around the single story, it’s not accommodating to help people have more meaning, more context.  But that’s a function of the old ecosystem. In prior platforms, we couldn’t give background due to limits on time or space. So we learned to produce news with updates. The ecosystem was not conducive because reporters were producing for primary time-specific models.

There’s also very little reward for providing context if you’re a journalist. News reporters see it as doing something “extra”, providing “more info”, instead of making the background – the topic page or whatever you want to call it – the main draw and the incremental stories the side dishes. The journalism system – newsrooms, reporters – compete not to equip readers with more understanding but to break news. Metrics on “success” as organizations are also skewed because they measure how many people watched, how many clicked, not more understanding.

Also, as reporters become experts, they begin to ID with most sophisticated users on their beats and then lose contact with people who are still starting out with a subject or entering late.

“EPISODIC NEWS” DOES NOT FIT OUR TIME, OR OUR TECHNOLOGY

“Episodic news is bass ackward,” Thompson says. As reporters, we map out our beats, we actually understand issues systemically so we know what’s important. Then we dribble out all we know in stingy little bits (news stories). We do this bc audiences still read these episodic bits. But also because we were bounded by old media platforms. Newspapers and broadcasts were bound by time. Newspapers had to expire, and broadcasts were here now and then gone later.

For first time we have a medium that’s capable of supporting systemic and episodic information at one time. We’re not constrained by time.

WHAT ATTEMPTS AT CONTEXT LOOK LIKE NOW

The “nut grafs” are the most common attempts at context in mainstream news right now, and it’s largely a product of the old page-based models of news (there’s only so much room to fit in the background info, so let’s wedge it in.) The result is a sprinkle of systemic information stuffed into our episodic stories. In the health care example, it might be a paragraph explaining what reconciliation is in the middle of an episodic story about the latest tussle of the House and Senate bills.

Other news organizations are providing topics pages (the TT has more than 250 of them plus extensive candidate and elected officials directories).  Thompson argues this is still not the best way to do it because most topics pages are largely automated collections of links that still don’t put all those links into context. Google’s tried to automate contextual information with Living Stories and it’s proven how hard it is.

“I worry that our approach to providing context is mirroring on the web how it looked in other media [and not optimized for the web],” said Thompson.

CONTEXT WORKS

Systemic organization of news benefits the reader, but also benefits producers of information. Your information becomes more valuable, desirable and useful as your desire for a framework becomes stronger. For example, This American Life’s “Giant Pool of Money” episode dared to start at a very basic level and explain the global financial meltdown in a way people could understand.

Journalists who did the Giant Pool of Money project were also confused when they started, then went on a journey of discovery. The people involved with financial systems did the explaining, and the journalists connected that explanation into a way that made sense. Afterward, it makes following the financial crisis with far more ease. If you understand the background, it helps you better understand the experience. Enriches you overall.

The web also rewards news providers who provide context. People are far more likely to re-visit the wikipedia page or the topics overview a year after a news event. Thompson’s “The Money Meltdown” site pulled together the best links to explain the financial crisis. Matt posted it on his blog and in one month, 50,000 unique visitors came along and looked at it 75,000 times. It speaks to a desire. It’s all about pulling together links, in some cases. What’s difficult right now is automating it. Link barns as topic pages aren’t working.

If you imagine reorienting staff around creating context as is rewarded by wikipedia, the web is set up to reward it, so what are we waiting for?

CURRENT PROBLEMS WITH CONTEXT

Lack of perceived demand. What good is a long explainer on something when no one is requesting the explainer genre? Rosen’s test-driving ExplainThis.org, allowing people to “demand” what they want to know that journalists can help respond to. “The press does not belong to professionals in journalism. It’s ours,” says Rosen. ” The more people who participate in the press, the stronger the press will be. But professional journalism was never optimized for public participation, it was optimized for efficiency on the old platforms.”

HOW TO ACHIEVE CONTEXT?

Wikipedia specializes in background knowledge. NYTimes specializes in investigations and updates. Why are they separate services? Why aren’t they the same? It makes more sense to provide context just as you’re coming into a story halfway through its development, like the health care debate.

Wikipedia is structually inspiring to us. Instead of bifurcating the story into a bunch of components, Wikipedia was pulling information together. Wiki works really well over time. It’s often the first choice people go to for news a year after something’s been in the headlines. Currently we present it as “more information”. The consumer doesn’t necessarily want “more information”. We want to present the minimum you need to understand a subject, and then develop that as your need for more increases.

As you read earlier, topics pages presented as “extra information” are the new vogue.  Where context peddlers want to head is actually flipping the model. The context should be the foundation. The systemic stuff should be what you can access first. The episodic stuff is what should be the more info. We “ghettoize” topics pages on our sites, by creating a topics section. When the public just finds just a random collection of links on a so-called topics page, “the quest for context everywhere is set back,” Thompson argues. What would a site look like if it were structured around systems instead of stories? The essential stuff is what you need to know is first, and as your knowledge expanded you got day-to-day headlines.

Journalists may think, we’re doing so much and now you want to provide context!? Think like an engineer. Make it an imperative to do work you can re-use to provide context. You can use that subduction plates info graphic again and again with every story you write about earthquakes. It’s redefining the notion of “today” value. You’re writing something TODAY that’s only appending something that’s already valuable. Engineers don’t do work they can’t re-use. Do work you can use next time.

If we reorganize the telling of stories around a quest for clarity and beat reporters weren’t just covering their beats but revealing something we need to know, and we saw news coverage not as series of updates but as a giant story, that would be on the way to where we want to get.

CALL TO ACTION

Our imperative as journalists is that we understand this systemic framework ourselves. We should devote as much value to expertise as we do to the latest news. We should also sell and market context. What happened five  minutes ago is great, but “10 things you need to know about health care” is more useful. We need journalists thinking that way more commonly. As participants in the news system, we need to demand that. We should say, we don’t understand this topic. Build stuff on your own for topics you don’t understand. Find the best links, pull them together. The web rewards context. The pieces that provide it become seminal pieces rewarded by search engines over time. Start with the users and their need to participate in the news and have a handle on the world.

Thanks for the great panel, guys. I hope this summed things up okay. Let’s keep the conversation going.