'Storm' video shows future of news in uninterrupted stream of our lives

Recent news events from Joplin to Tripoli have provided plenty of examples of how news has become a real-time experience, something you observe and discuss as it's happening rather than waiting hours or days to watch or read.

You may have lost the weekend of August 20 to Andy Carvin's furious chronicling of the fall of Tripoli. Perhaps you followed along with Brian Stelter as he tweeted his observations and photos of the devastation left by the tornado in Joplin, Mo. Maybe you watched the minute-by-minute drama leading up to the execution of Troy Davis, or read tweets about the East Coast earthquake before you felt it. Earlier this week, it was the helicopter crash in the East River.

Such examples prompted Jeff Jarvis to wonder whether articles sometimes are just byproducts. If we can wade in the stream, what's the point of a wrap-up article?

Perhaps it is unnecessary for the leading edge of news consumers – news junkies and people in the news industry. But the vast majority of people – anyone whose eyes aren't locked on a smart phone or laptop screen – still desire for their news to be packaged in some way so they can make sense of what they missed.

News is an interruption

As it stands, people have two choices: interrupt what they're doing to check on the real-time stream, or catch up on the news later when they have some downtime.

Of course, we've always had to interrupt our lives to consume news. People once gathered around a radio for a presidential address or made an appointment with Tom Brokaw at 6:30 p.m. every night. Now you can scan Twitter or an RSS reader while you wait for a friend to meet you for lunch.

For years radio has filled the time in the car; now we have iPads to read on the train and smart phones to pull out at the slightest lull in our day. Those interruptions fit into our lives better now. But they still pull you away from what you're doing right now.

A media-suffused future

This choice – to go about your day or catch up on what you missed is what makes “The Storm Collection,” a new video from Robin Sloan and Matt Thompson, so interesting. Their previous effort, “EPIC 2014,” envisioned a world in which everyone (except news outlets) contributes to an expansive information database that is tailored for each individual. The vision becomes less farfetched, and less unnerving, every year.

In "The Storm Collection," Sloan and Thompson show us a near future in which people don't have to interrupt their lives to get information. There is no dedicated period of time, no discrete thing, connected with news consumption.

The news is absorbed into the everyday objects around us. Photo frames, windshields and eyeglasses become heads-up-displays for information. Call them NUDs: news-up-displays.

The framework for their discussion is the storm story, something that has been recounted countless times in different ways. In this world, the photo of a friend sitting on your desk automatically updates with her status when she checks into a storm shelter. A video display in a lobby shows a data visualization related to the storm. And if you venture outside to survey the damage, augmented reality glasses will warn you to watch out for a fallen power line.

In this image, which imagines "ubiquitous augmented reality" in 2021, you can't tell where the image ends and reality begins. (Image by Matt Thompson, with credit to thomashawk and patrick_q)

In the video, Thompson and Sloan's characters discuss this image.

Sloan's character: “You can’t really tell where the device ends and the rest of the world begins anymore.”

Thompson's character: “Quite so. The story is uncontained, fully part of the world around you, inescapable.”

Sloan: “But after all, at this point, it’s no longer one story anymore. It’s actually a great many, all overlapping, all the time.”

Thompson: “It’s an incredible achievement. But you can never turn it off.”

Sloan's character: “Well, you never could.”

Much like they did with EPIC 2014, Sloan and Thompson urged the audience at the Society for News Design conference, where they presented the video, to figure out how to design news that fits into people's lives.

“If the world is suddenly this new terrain full of all these new screens and all these new ways to get stories out there,” Sloan said, “we should be in the business of identifying rich new territory, sending out scouts, and seizing it.”

The stream only deepens

Watching a stream of updates and reactions to a live event on TweetDeck seems Paleolithic in comparison to what Thompson called a “media-suffused world.” No more will we be forced to choose between living our lives and following what's going on.

So what becomes of these packages called articles? Do they become even more of a byproduct, for more people, than now?

With every device and flat surface a potential vehicle for news, it will be more important to provide exactly what each person needs. I imagine people will be even less tolerant of being told something twice when they can't turn off the TV or close their laptop and go on with their day.

It will be even more essential to know what someone knows before he comes in contact with the news, so that news outlets can provide the proper context and deliver analysis to the news junkie and an explainer to the newcomer.

Perhaps analysis and commentary will become even more important as scannable updates are divorced from longer pieces to be enjoyed “resting by the side of the stream," as Sulia CEO Jonathan Glick put it.

“News stories,” whatever form they take, will assume that readers are more familiar with the basic facts of the news. Those stories likely will be aware of what we've consumed so far and will be tailored appropriately, like Amazon's recommendations. You won't have to learn that Sarah Palin isn't running for president on Twitter, relearn it via an email alert, and again with a push notification on your iPhone.

Yet any prediction will seem rudimentary in retrospect. In 2009 we published a story on Poynter.org suggesting that a reporter could tweet each element of a story as she verified it. So a reporter would get the facts for the headline, tweet it, then get the facts for the first paragraph, tweet them, and so on. Now that we know what concurrent reporting and publishing looks like, it's easy to recognize that this vision merely applied one process to another platform.

In the world Sloan and Thompson describe, we are swimming in the stream rather than taking a dip every once in awhile. It's wider and deeper. People will value, even more than they do now, information and services that help them navigate the currents.

Maybe that navigation will be some kind of real-time guide that tells you what's going on nearby, informs you when you pass something of historical importance or fact-checks ads vying for your attention.

Guides like that mean we will have to interrupt our days less and less to stay informed. But they won't be universal. Whatever kind of augmented reality glasses Apple or Google or Googlezon sells, there will be ways of populating your world with information that does little to inform. Even today, as some people say "You can never turn it off," some rarely turn it on.

  • Steve Myers

    Steve Myers was the managing editor of Poynter.org until August 2012, when he became the deputy managing editor and senior staff writer for The Lens, a nonprofit investigative news site in New Orleans.


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