Visuals and Text

So let me start by saying that I’m a sucker for long-form text. The condo my wife and I share in Ballston is overrun with books. My office is filled with the pieces of my collections of philosophy books that I couldn’t bear to give up when I left academia. I never go anywhere without my Kindle. I mean, hell, you’re reading this on a blog, fercryinoutloud. Scroll back a few entries and you’ll see that I’m clearly a fan on long (so very long) pieces of prose. I have been an academic (where I wrote long articles), a journalist (where I wrote long-ish articles), and now work at an agency full of academics (who like to write long studies).

But I’m also a web guy. And part of my job as a web guy is to recognize that long-form text is really not the future of the web. I see this at my own site, where our average time-on-site generally  hovers around 3 minutes.

So how does someone whose own background is in producing lots of text help an agency whose processes revolve around producing lots of text stay relevant in the web world? How does our three-person web team retcon a 100+ page PDF file into something suitably byte-sized? (Sorry, couldn’t help myself.)

It’s a process.More than one person has asked me why the solution to optimizing for mobile devices isn’t just to produce a 3-inch PDF shaped like a BlackBerry screen.

Still, there’s reason to be really excited. We’ve introduced some very simple interactive charts, and we produced our first ever infographic recently. Analysts are starting to ask for help in producing charts that aren’t of the single-line or bar-per-year variety. We’re looking hard at some of our print products that are either short already or that contain a bunch of discrete pieces. Crazy ideas like jQuery and Ajax are getting tossed around. In some ways, we’re actually a little lucky: by getting into the game a little late, we can skip Flash and move straight to HTML 5 and CSS 3.

It’s a fun time to be working on the web. You’ll forgive me, though, if I slip away every once in a while to write a blog post or tweak an essay. I do enjoy some prose.

SharePoint Saturday: The Conference

With the Congress in recess (more-or-less) for most of August, and the mad scramble over the debt ceiling debate behind us, all was quiet at CBO this week. CBO’s web team took advantage of the quiet time to get some additional SharePoint training at SharePoint Saturday: The Conference. Simone focused on train-the-trainer and power-user sessions, while Annette leaned more toward developer and architect courses. That left me to focus on project management, administration, and governance.

  1. Governance, governance, governance. The total amount of data produced is growing faster than storage costs are dropping. So even with storage costs/GB dropping to pennies, total storage costs are increasing. Moreover, in most enterprises, about 50% of the data stored is junk <hyphen> duplicate files, outdated information, irrelevant items. Unstructured data storage (read: SharePoint) exacerbates the problem. Unless you have some sort of information management policies in place, SharePoint will end up a sprawling mess, eating up infrastructure, and actually making it harder to find things.
  2.  “The Cloud” is more than just a buzzword. Microsoft’s push into the cloud with Office 365 isn’t just about competing with Google Apps on price. Pushing collaboration outside of the firewall eases telecommuting, which at CBO is one of the biggest roadblocks to wider SharePoint adoption. Microsoft’s various hybrid environments—collaboration pushed to Office 365, with proprietary data staying inside the firewall, and all of it accessed through a SharePoint portal—is well-suited for allowing people to work where they want to work while letting IT protect what needs protecting.
  3. Social business is just good business. Yes, I know that sounds like a line from a here-today-gone-tomorrow business book. But there’s some real truth to it. Facebook didn’t amass 500+ million users by being a fad. It got there by allowing people to connect in ways that they want to connect with the people to whom they want to be connected, and it did so via a user interface that is simple and easy to use. The days of the top-down Intranet are numbered. The future is the individualized portal that allows users to connect to the agency in the way that makes sense to them.
  4. Business requirements are not functional requirements. Perhaps this is a well, duh point for experienced project managers. But it really struck home for me. I see this all the time at my agency. Business users say, “I want X.” Too often we then proceed to give them X without ever trying to elicit what the business user really wants to accomplish. The result: A system that will do exactly X but won’t do other any of a pile of other things that are X-like but not exactly X. We then end up with a method for X another one for X1 and a third for X2 and so on. The takeaway is that developers need a project manager to take business requirements, translate those into functional requirements, and then document—that means write down—those requirements.
  5. If you’re committed to a project, you have to keep funding it. An Intranet built on SharePoint is not a build it and forget it for the next decade kind of deal. It requires refining, updating, expanding, etc. That means it needs a dedicated stream of funding. Period.
  6. I’m not a big fan of shilling for products. But is the perfect product to drive adoption at my agency. CBOers love, love, love them some email. Bringing SharePoint to them is a way easier sell than bringing them to SharePoint. I’ve been using the free version for months. The newest enterprise version is fantastic, and the mobile app (still in alpha, but scheduled for late 2011) is really slick.

There was more—so very much more—but those are my big takeaways. I’m looking forward to getting back to the office on Monday and setting some of these in motion.

The Future of the Web: Aggregating, Editing and Filtering

Techdirt’s Mike Masnick wrote a short piece a couple of days ago about the most recent spat between old school journalists and new media news sites. At issue was the claim that journalists create content whereas sites like the Huffington Post simply aggregate content produced elsewhere. The whole thing is worth a read, but the main takeaway is that journalists are also really just aggregators at heart. At bottom, journalists write down what other people say and so are, in some sense, simply aggregating the views of a bunch of people who are connected to a particular event into a story.

I’m not entirely convinced that this is exactly right. There is a difference between a list of unedited quotations running down a page and a story that weaves these different views into a compelling narrative. There’s a kind of creation that is going on at the desks of NY Times reporters that just isn’t going on in my Google News feed, and I think it’s probably a bit misleading to pretend as if those acts aren’t very different.

That said, I do think that there is something similar between aggregators and journalists, even if it isn’t quite the something that Masnick seems to think. But that something is that both are acting as a sort of filter. And while content aggregators aren’t necessarily taking over the content creation role from journalists, they are usurping journalism’s traditional role as arbiter of what’s important.

Consider, for example, the Times famous slogan: All the news that’s fit to print. The Times doesn’t report on every possible story out there. Its reporters and editors look at a bunch of possible stories, then decide which ones merit the time and effort it takes to produce a NY Times-worthy article. The paper in effect acts as a filter, deciding what things its readers ought to know.

That approach makes sense in a world in which news coverage is a (relatively) scarce resource. Printing presses are, after all, fairly expensive, and full-time writers and editors aren’t especially cheap either. But the internet reduces distribution costs to nearly zero. And the supply of people wanting to be writers has always been much, much higher than the market for printed news will bear. So now suddenly you have armies full of amateur journalists who create content for very little money (or even for free) and who can then distribute said content for very little money (or, again, even for free.)

These days, the problem isn’t so much that news coverage is a relatively scarce resource. Indeed, I can find someone, somewhere who is writing on pretty much any topic that there is to be written on. There is no longer a filter. If the Times doesn’t want to cover a story, then someone else will just step in and do it. A simple search will bring me to reports and/or opinions about — well, just about anything.

What that all means is that these days, the really scarce resource is time. Once, I could outsource the filtering to the editors at the Times. Now I have to act as my own filter, and that (as it turns out) can take a great deal of time. That’s where content aggregators can sometimes help. If I outsource the filtering to Ariana Huffington, then I can keep up with what’s important by going to just one place, much as I used to do with the Times. (Of course, this means that I’m likely to have trouble with issues like epistemic closure, since my chosen filters are likely to end up being those filters that tell me only things I want to hear. But that’s an issue for another post.)

All that said, I’m not entirely convinced that content aggregators are particularly good at the role of filtering. At the end of the day, the Huffington Post is more concerned about SEO and pageviews than it is about good journalism or getting the truth out to the public. Crowdsourced filters like Digg or Memorandum are interesting experiments, but they are really best at telling me what everyone else thinks is important. Whether I want to rely on the wisdom of crowds who aren’t sure if the earth goes around the sun or if the president faked his birth certificate is a bit of an open question. Plus, they don’t get me to those hidden gems. Like, say, random articles about journalism and content aggregation.

At the moment, really good filtering still requires some sort of human involvement. The real killer web app is the one that can automate my filtering. Some combination of my social graph plus my RSS reader stats plus my browser history would seem a good place to start.