Interview with Jane Friedhoff
For podcast release Monday, October 10, 2016
KENNEALLY: In the digital era reading travels a two-way street. Indeed, in the view of cutting-edge media theorists, a blurry, disintegrating dividing line is all that keeps the traffic apart. Welcome to Copyright Clearance Center’s podcast series. I’m Christopher Kenneally for Beyond the Book. Urban dwellers recognize the challenge. Bicyclists and drivers must learn to share the road, and that’s not always easy. The same applies for authors and readers, particularly in the news business. Communities and conversations form naturally around digital journalism. Mostly, though, they are confined to comment sections on news sites. Journalists and audience today are only just shouting at each other.
Jane Friedhoff is a game designer, creative researcher, and experimental programmer whose work focuses on experimenting with media forms in order to create new, unusual, and even playful relationships between people. While working as a creative technologist at the New York Times R&D Lab, she developed an interactive journalism model called Membrane that has the potential to transform a reporter’s article into a community’s conversation. She joins me from New York City where she is currently on the staff at The Office for Creative Research, a hybrid research group working at the intersection of technology, culture, and education. Welcome to Beyond the Book, Jane Friedhoff.
FRIEDHOFF: Hi, Chris. Thanks for having me.
KENNEALLY: We’re delighted you can join us because this caught our eye. You are appearing in the Books in Browsers conference coming to San Francisco November 3rd and 4th and always interested in how technology is having an impact in the newsroom. But in particular I like the way you describe your work. You are a creative technologist, and I don’t know that there are quite enough of those. What do you mean by creative technologist? What are you trying to accomplish?
FRIEDHOFF: So I think it’s a very broad job description. I get this question a lot from people. I don’t always know how to answer. But I think to me what it means is that you try to work at the intersections of technology. It’s a very interdisciplinary practice, looking at many different sources. And it’s a way of thinking about technology that tries to project more into the future – how technology will be used, what ramifications it has, how it affects people, not just how it works today. And I feel like that’s the critical thing, is sort of working not just at the margins of the technology, where it’s new or strange or broken or interesting, but also working at the margins of time, right? So trying to project out from today to tomorrow to next year to 10 years from now to 100 years from now.
KENNEALLY: It seems to me that that’s what the real pioneers in digital technology have always done. I think Steve Jobs was able to see the future and probably not only just rely on Moore’s law, but understand that these devices were only going to grow in power and you have to anticipate not where the device is today but where it will be, as you say, in the future at some point – 18 months from now, two years, whatever.
And the challenge must be for you in a newsroom of reporters and businesspeople and technologists and everyone else – is to find a common language. I have to say journalists are pretty picky about the words they choose, or they should be, and some of the language with technology kind of stretches things a bit. So there are things like affordances and something you refer to as go backends. So I wonder, first of all, whether as a technologist you walk into a newsroom setting or a conference room where there are journalists and others – is it tough to find a common language so people could begin to really share what the problems are?
FRIEDHOFF: Yeah, I think there’s definitely something to that. I don’t think that it’s ever been super hard to find the common language necessarily, but what I think often happens is it’s very easy as technologists to enter a room and to kind of feel as though we have all the solutions because we’re coming from this “objective” place of code and technology. And it can be a little bit easy to sort of steamroll other people and not necessarily take their skills and take those skills into account.
So for me, what I think is really important is getting ownership – sort of sharing ownership of a project early on. If you kind of just try to drop a technological solution into people’s laps, eight months or a year down the line probably if you didn’t really consult with them, that’s not going to end very well, right? If they don’t feel ownership, if they feel like you’re just giving them a solution where they haven’t had any input.
That’s actually one of the things we try to do a lot at the OCR is to really involve the stakeholders from the start. So when we work with scientists or curators, it’s not necessarily that we take their dataset and we come back and we say, here, we’ve solved the problem. We’re done. It’s sort of a collaborative process where we absolutely do use our own artistic skills and creative skills to come to what we think are unique and innovative solutions. But it’s also about helping people feel like they have ownership over what’s going on, helping people feel listened to. And then when they feel listened to, they get into a very collaborative, open mindset, and that’s a really exciting place to start to collaborate from.
KENNEALLY: Right. I could see how that would happen, and I can also see how that really prevents people, reporters – I am perhaps generalizing here, but they could probably feel overwhelmed by someone like yourself, right? They’ve got a real job, which is getting the news right. They already have several bosses, editors and others. And to have a technologist come into the room, it must feel like, oh my gosh, someone else that I have to be responsible to.
FRIEDHOFF: Yeah, and it’s a very different sense of time. I should probably clarify that I’m speaking for myself right now, not as a representative of anywhere else. But it’s interesting, because when we were working – or when I was working in the R&D Lab, the nature of R&D is that it’s projected into the future, right? You’re able to fail, and you can learn from failure, and that’s valuable on its own. It was definitely like you had to be mindful when you went down to the newsroom to understand that these people are on intense deadlines. Failing publicly is like a very – it seemed like to me a very different beast, and so you have to take all that stuff into account. Again, the not steamrolling type of thing.
KENNEALLY: Right. So the experiment that you did to engage in that newsroom was what you call Membrane. It was an attempt to create something called permeable publishing. So tell us what that is.
FRIEDHOFF: Sure, so Membrane – yeah, is a sort of experiment in the way that we can write using digital text. And the idea of permeable publishing is this idea of a reading experience, where there is not just like a wall between the author and the reader. Typically, you have some sort of webpage or an article, maybe there’s a comment section, and that comment section is down below or off to the side. It’s not necessarily really linked in a way to the source material, and it’s a very particular kind of interaction. It’s sort of two-way. Maybe the author comes into the comments. But it feels like it’s happening somewhere else. So it still kind of feels walled off.
And what I was interested in – and this was actually very much informed by my game design practice – was how we can create holes in that wall, how we can start to make it more of like a membrane, (laughter) so to speak, and allow things to flow back and forth and kind of have commenters influence writers influence commenters and back and forth.
KENNEALLY: So how did you create that, then? Sort of the vision, the image, is of a tree that branches along as it grows and grows and grows. Tell us how that really works in practice.
FRIEDHOFF: So in practice, the way that it happens is an author writes some sort of article. It can be anything. It’s not really determined. There is no subject matter requirement. Once they write that article, they can think about what kinds of questions they’re open to being asked. Maybe if you’re a reporter, let’s just say you want to do the classic who, what, when, where, and why. If you have a special interest blog or something else – maybe it’s a cooking blog, so you want people to be able to ask, what could I substitute here? Is it Celsius or Fahrenheit? Whatever.
So you sort of say what questions you’re open to answering, and then when your readers arrive at your site, they can as they read through the article highlight any piece of text, any length, doesn’t matter, and choose a question from one of those drop-downs. So for example, if you’ve written an article about a particular war, a reader could highlight a person’s name and ask, who is this? Or highlight a past event that you’ve referenced that maybe you thought everyone had the same background information on and say, what was that?
Then the writer can go on their sort of admin end, they can go see the list of questions that people have asked, and kind of batch reply. So if they happen to notice, wow, 50 people asked who this person was. I should probably give more background on that. They can select all those questions and sort of write one answer to them, which is then embedded on the front end. So any reader who comes after that will see that term or name or phrase highlighted, they can click on it and see the author’s description right in the page. So everything is really centralized. All the questions are really answered right around where they’re asked. It’s just a way that authors and commenters can sort of collaboratively flesh out this piece of writing.
KENNEALLY: Right. And the point is, as you said, is that the authors can define the questions they’re looking for.
KENNEALLY: That really, I imagine, would propel them to do further and further investigations. It’s more than just answering who is this guy. It’s really driving the story deeper and deeper.
FRIEDHOFF: Yeah, absolutely. And in fact one of the technically interesting things about it that kind of pushes it into like Borges territory is that you can, inside a response – so if a user asked you a question and you answer it, someone can ask a question of that answer you just gave. And so it can go basically as far down the rabbit hole as you want it to. So it does kind of create this sort of treelike structure where you kind of together collaboratively explore what’s interesting about this thing.
KENNEALLY: And the phrase you used in a probably you wrote on this – and probably you’ll elaborate on this at Books in Browsers – is this kind of, it’s not call and response, but it’s prompts and provocations. I like that phrase, because it really does sort of show a kind of a teasing that goes on – a teasing out. Not a teasing as in sort of making fun of someone, but it really teases the story out.
FRIEDHOFF: Yeah, that’s exactly it. It was really tempting at the start – I’ll tell you, coming up with the set of ways to discuss the different parts of this was really hard. Because you think about question and answer, but question and answer kind of brings its own assumptions with it. Maybe you don’t always want to ask a question. When we had some authors start to play with it, we had people who were just like, I want this to be like a big smile emoji. Right? That’s one of the responses that you can do to a particular part of it.
So it’s not always a question, and an answer might imply a kind of finality that really doesn’t reflect the way that you’re starting a conversation. So yeah, we kind of tried to figure out what other ways we could think about that kind of interaction. Prompts and provocations felt a lot more like you’re sort of hitting the ball back and forth to each other. You’re offering something up and then returning something, and maybe that person returns something after that and so on and so forth.
KENNEALLY: Right. What’s interesting is that it’s at least an attempt at a new form of communication, the same way that an emoji is a kind of form of communication that really didn’t exist maybe a decade or so ago. And so that implies, I think, a new kind of literacy. Your work there at OCR, as I’ve just looked at it on the surface, is really trying to explore ways of supporting what you call data literacy. Can you tell us about that?
FRIEDHOFF: Yeah, so when I think about the term data literacy, what I think about is giving people the tools to understand the data that’s around them. Because it’s very easy to either obscure that data – the collection of that data, the analysis of that data, or to just present it in a way where it becomes so overwhelming that people get demoralized and they don’t want to deal with it. And we’re really excited at The OCR at finding ways to allow people to explore data, to understand data, to understand their role in that data, to decide what stance they have on the collection of that data, and just to feel more empowered in that way. So yeah, that’s definitely a huge thing for us there.
KENNEALLY: A good example would be the Elephant Atlas. Tell us about that.
FRIEDHOFF: Sure, so the Elephant Atlas was a project that we did in collaboration with the Great Elephant Census. Basically, they did one of the first, I think, pan- African surveys in 40 years, I want to say, to get an accurate count of the number of elephants in Africa. They did that because it seemed according to the science that the populations of African elephants were falling very, very rapidly, but there wasn’t one unified study with unified methods to provide data. So they decided they were going to create that data source. They partnered with, I believe, 18 countries to fly these aerial surveys back and forth across all these different countries.
And at the end of that, what they had was a pile of data – this big database on all the things they had seen, all the flights they had flown, all the patterns and paths of the individual flights, the counts for each region and area. They came to us because they wanted to create an interface where people would feel compelled to learn more about this issue. They wanted to make an interface that would appeal both to the general public, who maybe only has a couple minutes, to scientists, who may be interested in delving into it a lot more, and also to policymakers, the people who are actually going to be voting on these kinds of conservation issues, to give them a way to kind of get an executive summary that they could take with them.
So what we did for the African Elephant Atlas was to think about how we could organize all of this information in a way that would be compelling, be clear, tell a clear story, but also not oversimplify the story either. It was a pretty tall order, but I’m really happy with what we ended up having. I guess this is a thorn in my work – we tended to organize the site more by question than by topic. And I actually think that’s really compelling, because I feel like that’s how you really spark people’s curiosity. I feel like when people are curious about something, they are much more inclined to try to learn more about it versus when you just tell them something that either they already know or that’s too complicated for them to understand, which is when they tune out.
So we really framed it around questions. And I think that was really successful, because we sort of primed people for the work that had been done and then framed everything underneath that as, well, how did they do this? How do we know these numbers are accurate? Well, why did this number drop so much? What’s it like in all these different countries? And then finally probably the biggest question of all is, well, can I see the data? Can I mess around with the data? Which you can. That was really important to us that we have that. So yeah, I am – as a developer and as an artist am just really interested in facilitating people asking questions, because I think that’s where the most exciting stuff happens.
KENNEALLY: I couldn’t agree more. You’ve really raised a lot of great questions here, because so much of the time we turn on a device and we sort of accept everything that comes through it. Sort of raising questions and allowing the individual consumer, the reader, whatever you wish to call them to have a chance to kind of work with it in whatever way possible – I think that really changes the experience, and it changes it in an important way. So thank you, Jane Friedhoff, for joining us today.
Jane Friedhoff, a game designer, a creative researcher, and experimental programmer. She’s on the staff at The Office for Creative Research and will be presenting a lecture, if we can call it that, on Membrane, her experiment in permeable publishing, at Books in Browsers coming to San Francisco on November 3rd and 4th. Jane Friedhoff, thanks for joining us on Beyond the Book.
FRIEDHOFF: Thank you so much for having me.
KENNEALLY: Beyond the Book is produced by Copyright Clearance Center. With its subsidiaries RightsDirect in the Netherlands and Ixxus in the United Kingdom, CCC is a global leader in content workflow, document delivery, text and data mining, and rights-licensing technology. You can follow Beyond the Book on Twitter, like us on Facebook, and subscribe to the free podcast series on iTunes or at our website, beyondthebook.com.
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