Peeling back the media layers

When I consume fiction, I try to dive in with enthusiasm. I suspend my disbelief and let the story itself carry me. I try hard to not worry about meta-narrative, or technique, or politics get in the way. I try to let the story itself stand on its own. For “good” media, this often works. I readily enjoy the experience, be it book or film or tv or game. Often the first sign of problems is when the media can’t stand on its own, and I end up being forced into analytical mode.

Almost inevitably, the first layer I pull back is technical: with a literature degree by way of a few years of film studies and a perverse need to watch all the extra features, I think a lot about how stories are told. I worry about why that particularly manipulative camera-pan, or upwards-to-the-right angle, or why mention a missile at all, because now I know it’s going to come back later in the book. In the score, was that overbearing timpani in that one scene really necessary? (pro tip: no, it never is). Again, things split here. When I re-watch a really good movie, looking at it through this technical lens only adds to why I love it (My favourite movie is probably I am Cuba, which I like perhaps more for the technical elements of the film than the film itself).

Beyond technical, I start to think about meta-narrative: when you know an author’s work, you tend to see recurring themes, images, etc -both in print and screen, and I start to wonder how the decisions made this time tie into the overarching œuvre. And in film, you not only have the writer’s meta-narrative, but also the director’s. And the cinematographer’s. And sometimes the actors’. When you get to “corporate” film, you also have the producers’ (see: Pixar, Disney, Marvel, etc). Watch a bunch of Scorsese films back-to-back, or binge-watch a tv show under the same show-runner, and see how quickly you can start to identify which episodes were directed by which person – there’s all sorts of little tells that keep popping up.

And then, finally, likely to my own discredit, I often think about the socio-politics of the media (Hi! I’m a Canadian, straight, white male who has the luxury of not having to think about this all the time!). Why this casting choice? why that gender/race for that character? who directed? How is that reflective of the audience’s experience? the creators? the funders? This, most often than not, is where films that have survived all the previous examinations start to fall apart.  Just passing the Bechdel test is hard. Add in “positive/lead/speaking” roles for non-white-men as a layer and it gets worse. I have this immense luxury of approaching virtually any media knowing that I am the target audience for it. I had a small sense of perhaps what it might be like to not be recently reading “Between the world an me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which is definitely not aimed at middle-class white Gen-X… and it was fascinating to start to look at the assumed terms of reference in the book that were not at all common to me (aside: this is a reason I like to read foreign novels, particularly from non judeo-christian-heritage authors, because that means I need to work more to figure out the common terms of reference).

(all of this bubbled to mind after binge-watching the 100, and why i thought it was inevitable that Clark and Lexa would kiss. And then wondering why it made me squeamish that the only black lead in the new Ghostbusters was, also, the only non-scientists (indeed, she seems to be the “street-smart” character), and why, while it makes sense to cast a non-white actor in a new Harry Potter play, or as James Bond, it is still hugely problematic that Zoe Saldana was cast as Nina Simone).


Eastside Mural Tour project: a critique

I want to preface this by saying I love the idea of the Eastside Mural Tour project, for so many reasons: I love Vancouver’s art, particularly the hidden, surprising art. I love graffiti art. I’m a fan of community projects, and projects that celebrate them. I’m also particularly interested in the idea of digitally curated physical objects, and finding new ways to help travel, explore, learn about communities online. That being said, I’m really disappointed with this project – they’ve missed some really simple points that I feel are critical. If you’re a developer on this project, please don’t think I’m shitting all over you for no reason: if you’ll let me, I would gladly pitch in to help.

All that out of the way, here’s the misses:

  1. The site doesn’t really work on Mobile. Load the front-page: the interactive map is done in flash. The site itself isn’t optimized in any way for a mobile experience: but this is a site destined to be used by someone on a device; most likely as their doing their tours.
  2. The most prominent links are to PDFs of the tours; the big, colourful buttons on the right side. However, hidden at top at HTML versions of the descriptions, which actually contain descriptions of the art!
  3. On these HTML pages, there’s no Map of the location. Nor is there any “next stop/previous stop” links to guide my usage of this. Nor do these HTML pages contain the dial-in directions that the PDFs do
  4. The PDFs are not styled in any way, nor do they contain any of the useful descriptions of the stops on the tour – instead, they simply contain titles of the art, in a format that appear to be links, but if they are, did not work for me in any way.
  5. This one strikes me as particularly egregious: The PDFs contain an image of a Google map that contains all the stops on the tour. So someone clearly spent some time building the geo-coded tour – why not embed that map?
  6. No social: Why not at least propose a couple of hashtags for the project, per tour, maybe per site. Pull in comments/photos from Instagram, Twitter, Foursquare to let the community participate in this beautiful project, in this art. Pinwheel is brand new, but given Caterina‘s local origins, they might be very interested in participating.
  7. Data: I couldn’t find these mural’s in Vancouver’s Data set (though maybe I just failed in my search), but why not, given you clearly have all the geo-data for these murals, release that data for others to remix?

There other, smaller quibbles, but those top 5 strike me as major faults that we should fix. The last simply betrays my personal bias towards open data, and in particular, location data.

There’s also some other ways this same sort of tour could be made. There’s a site, MapTales, that exists solely to create these sorts of self-guided tours. I don’t think it should replace the current site, but providing links to another interface would be a nice way to share these tours out in a well-designed, contemporary way. Bringing up Pinwheel again, all of these stops could exist in there. I don’t think they have the idea of “tours” currently, but by creating a hashtag, locating these places, this could open up the ability to extend & comment on by the pinwheel community. I’d also recommend creating “places” in Foursquare for each of the stops on the tours, let people check in there – or at least easily geolocate photos taken there in such a way that the project itself can re-use them.

This project is sub-titled “murals and the spirit of collaboration”, and yet feels so far from being a project that the digital community can collaborate in right now. Let’s fix it.

Editorial Aside

This brings up all sorts of thoughts around the ongoing failure to provide super-easy tools, widgets, add-ons, etc that projects like this could easily make use of. Even most plugins, themes & mapping tools still require programming knowledge to configure and drop into sites. This world of digitally-curated, real-world spaces is really just beginning. We need to find/build better tools for the average person to expose their localities, their stories in a way that works for all.

Online News, Titles & Usability: The Globe & Mail Gets It

I spend a lot of time reading news online – far too much really. And why not? It’s an easy way to get a wide view of current events. Generally, in any given week, I’ll read through at least 2 stories from The Globe & Mail, The New York Times, The Vancouver Sun, The Guardian, Al Jazeera (english) & Le Monde. There’s a slew of other sites as well, but I’m focusing on “traditional” newspapers and their online forays. Each of these sites shares some layout similarities – I don’t want to talk about their design for this post – a leading article + accompanying photo at the top, under their masthead, then a list or grid of other articles. Some look more “bloggy”, others more “newspapery”. When a story breaks, a fun little activity I do is to canvas the headline for that story from each of the news sites I read to gauge their editorial take on the issue (firmly pro, anti-, on the sidelines, reluctant, eager, etc). I’ve come to the belief that the leading headline (is that the lede?) reflects the political leanings of the paper more than any other visible element. As a result, headlines are often somewhat misleading as to the content of the story hidden behind it – the lede is there to “sell” after all.

Because all the article titles in an online paper are links, this is the information that I have to decide whether or not to read a story – there’s occasionally some intro text for the lede & other important stories, but often, I’m basing my decision whether or not to click solely on the link text. Let’s take a look at 3 photo + headline combos that are around today.

First, The New York Times:

Judy Dench
Story about Judy Dench's Memoirs in the NY Times

There’s a photo of the subject of the article, Dame Judy Dench, but slightly turned away – I suspect many readers might have no idea who she is. The headline isn’t any more informative either. We can assume that the article is about the woman in the photo, but maybe not. And do I care? I don’t know who this person is. There’s not really a lot to help me decide whether or not to read this article. I personally don’t find a compelling reason to click through this.

Now let’s have a look at a headline I pulled from the Washington post today:

Story about debt from the Washington Post

This headline I find more informative, although I’m never fan of stock art without good reason. Certainly an editor could have found a more compelling image about American debt than a piggy bank? But at least I know who wrote the article (if that matters, and when it was posted. Both useful pieces of information in the online world. I go back and forth on the WP’s habit of including a couple of related stories. I like it because it groups related stories together, but I also find it distracting, because sometimes the related story is what I end up clicking on, and forget about reading the main headline. If you click on the main headline, you can still find the related stories (oddly buried in the middle of the main story), but  not vice versa – click on a sub-story and you’ve lost the relationship established on the home page. But again, nothing here tells me what I’m going to be reading about.

Finally, the Globe and Mail:

Video interview with Bono about aid

Much like the other 2, this title isn’t terribly informative. I know from the thumbnail that I’m linking to a video (actually, this bugs me: When I see a play button, I expect to be able to play something in situ, not be sent somewhere else – why doesn’t the video just expand and play right there?). The headline is ok – not terribly informative or compelling, similar to the other papers. But here’s where the globe and mail really shines: Mouse over that headline, and they’ve made smart use of the title attribute to provide additional detail about the article underneath. In this case, it reads: Bono, singer and activist, speaks about aid getting smarter since the 1960s. “Don’t be put off by the past. The present aid is working.” So I get additional insight into what I’m about to read – some context, to help me make my decision. It makes such a difference when presented with a long list of article headlines as to which I actually click on. It’s trivially easy to program, and yet the Globe is the only newspaper that makes use of this. It’s primarily why I consume the Globe more than any other paper – they help me make my reading decisions easier. I can scan the homepage quickly, easily get more context on a given article to decide if I want to read it, without having to click through to read the intro paragraph.

It’s a simple thing, news sites: Help me make my reading decisions easier. It takes me 2 clicks to get any other newspaper in the world to read the same story – so make me want to read at your site. Adding titles with information about the article I’m interested in is one tiny little detail that isn’t hard to do, but it’s that attention to detail, sweating the small stuff to improve usability & accessibility that will make winners and losers in the age on online media.