letter detailing speculative strategy for a massive indexing of all past, present, and future talks of a well-known arts, culture, and technology festival (excerpt)
Background: Herbert Bayer, whose art and architecture can be found around the Aspen Institute campus, remains a tremendous influence on both my work and work philosophy. Of the two lithographs hanging in my home office, one is a Bayer signed original.
In How to Read a Book, philosopher Mortimer Adler identifies four types of reading.
- The first, “elementary,” is basic literacy.
- Once literate the reader can progress to the second level, “inspectional” reading, something Adler describes as the “art of skimming systematically.” It's at this level we decide whether something is worth our time, attention, and concentration.
- Next is analytical reading: “the best reading you can do,” according to Adler. Analytical readers are “intensely active” in their efforts to develop a thorough understanding of the text.
- The fourth and final level is “syntopical” reading, in which “the reader reads many books, not just one, and places them in relation to one another and to a subject about which they all revolve.”
Engaging all readers
This doesn’t apply only to books. People who engage in deep reading are bound to adapt that behavior across different publishing mediums, including video. Most websites however don’t engender reading beyond the second level. In all fairness, a vast majority of websites simply don’t need to: for the average reader, which is all of us most of the time, they can get away with surface-level cataloging and referencing, provided any cataloging is to be done at all.
Unfortunately this basic content modeling, which we’ll call ‘dumb,’ is the norm for many websites even when the content is conducive to analytical and syntopical readings.
On the other hand, ‘smart modeling’ can create connections – synapses – that facilitate immersion and broaden understanding.
Design for engagement begins here, in the findability – and discoverability – of content.
For sake of comparison, let's look at TED.
Needless to say how TED organizes, relates, and presents content is impressive. If a user drops into 'hack' through the 'Discover' page, they're greeted first with four editorialized playlists, each of roughly 10 talks, thematically related. These are then followed by a reverse chronology of videos for which 'hacking' is presumably the central topic of the presentation. And that is, more or less, what you get: election hacking, cybercrime, scientific improvisations, security.
Two however stand out: "How to use a paper towel," and "A thought experiment for crows." Except to say paper towels and makeshift tools are crude technological devices, these apparently have no relationship to the rubric they've been filed under.
So what's going on here? In the case of the paper towel video, and in fact one of the collections, an editor has tagged them with 'hack,' intending 'life hack.' This is a lexical ambiguity that's fixed simply enough.
The crow video however is not a mistake. Though it appears to be the result of another lexical error, it was tagged, arguably accurately, because the presenter is a hacker. But what's truly worth noting here is the chance encounter of many different sub-topics within the higher classification of 'hack': adaptation, biodiversity, human-animal cohabitation, ecology, symbiosis, environment, pollution.
Instead, the video has been tagged: animals, design, hack, intelligence, interface design, technology. It is all those things, yes. But it fits none of them comfortably.
Which brings us to our recommendations.
1. Index all 2018 Festival
content for cross- and deep-
Returning to the book metaphor again for a moment, consider the index. We're so habituated to their presence we take the index simply as an inevitable fact of a work of non-fiction. But think how useless a, say, cookbook, might be without one. For the home cook it's the index and not the table of contents that's frequently the point of entry, facilitating both meandering discovery and targeted search through a mosaic of carefully selected locators: ingredient, course, cooking method, region of origin, and so on. There is probably no better standard to measure content taxonomy against.
To index the Festival content, we must:
- Review the 2017 and 2018 videos and flag the topics and sub-topics covered in each
- Record the time elapsed when each subject is covered (explained below)
- After indexing, aggregate the taxonomy and eliminate redundancy
- Implement the revised taxonomy into the CMS
- Tag each video with the appropriate master classification and attendant sub classifications
2. Enable comparative/combinatory (syntopical) research
For the last several years in our sales deck we've introduced our company philosophy with a quote from Walter Isaacson's The Innovators: "The sparks," referring to our preference for diverse work over areas of specialization, "come from ideas rubbing against each other rather than bolts out of the blue." To place it in context, Mr. Isaacson was remarking on mathematician John von Neumann's "propensity to collect and collate ideas" as being in lockstep with the frictive environments at Bell Labs and MIT's Building 20. Unsurprisingly Einstein knew this too, telling a friend in a 1954 letter that combinatory play is “the essential feature in productive thought.”
It should be taken as axiomatic that the intersection of concepts, disciplines, and points of view is central to intellectual progress, irrespective of the field it occurs in.
Two, then, is almost always better than one. To make the sparks fly, we must:
- Complete the research, tagging, and implementation outlined in the previous recommendation
- Design an experience, including a user interface, that encourages exploration at the crossroads of ideas
As a final point, we'd love to explore what role The Atlantic's vast repository could play in the redesigned website.
3. Adapt the Festival website to the event
While what we've outlined thus far aims to make a destination of the Festival website and create a year-round experience, there are three issues to consider with respect to the Festival: one, the necessary details, instructions, and purchasing information/flows required for attendance; two, how the site may change in the lead-up to the event to promote it; and three, the website experience days of. In this section we focus on the latter two.
To increase awareness beforehand, a few simple things we can do are:
- Establish a promotion calendar in the weeks and months ahead of the event which would be measured and adjusted week over week
- Ask speakers to tweet in support of the event: combinatory play works to enhance brands, too
- Publish interviews with speakers about the topics they’re presenting or discussing
- Launch a small 'why you should attend' promotional microsite
- Engage partners like The Atlantic to better surface/promote Festival content
- Align/share core content with like-minded or influential organizations to extend reach
While the event is taking place:
- Make it easy for attendees to find needed logistical information
- Add an option for push notifications to the website for those who aren't in attendance but wish to receive news alerts
4. Get to design quickly
The worst habit of the business of design is to devalue – if not entirely omit – the function of beauty. In the words of biologist E.O. Wilson, aesthetic "holds and distracts you long enough to lead your mind away and through the remainder of its content – perhaps to understand the whole intended meaning, perhaps to revisit a fragment for sheer pleasure."
(That we've turned to reason to defend aesthetic from the tyranny of reason is an irony not lost on us.) And one more, if you're still unconvinced; this from Herbert Bayer's 1966 extension of his personal credo, when it seems he was coming to grips with the stringent ideas of late modernism: "while reason prevails over human aspirations, the ethereal sky leads to look, as if through a window, into the transcendent realm."
"Transcendent" is maybe a touch lofty for website design. But you say it yourselves: "We want our online home to match the vibrancy of our event."
So why not shoot for it?
We'll need to:
- Develop a process that weaves together structural design (information architecture) and aesthetic design through several iterative cycles
- Prototype, as necessary
- Start early: Exploration can begin soon after Discovery
This approach is accommodated for in the timeline we’ve provided further on in this Proposal. While each discipline typically has a primary center of activity, there are fluid moments of collaboration throughout the entire project process.
5. Be topical
The success of any organization in drawing new audiences is largely dependent on relevancy. Three of the sites you mention – TED, World Economic Forum, and the Library of Congress – all demonstrate a strategy for responding to annual events and emergent topics. (There are, we should point out, two kinds of responsive – to zeitgeist and to device – and both are necessary.) In fact, Judy Woodruff's and Vivek Murthy's recently posted conversation on gun violence is a fantastic example of how to respond to emerging topics. Indexing, at least in summary if not deep-linking, might grease the attention span of a person who's curious but unwilling to commit to an hour-long sound clip. (Back to Adler, without a summary or index, inspectional reading is inhibited.) But that is strictly tactical: you have the basics covered.
Still, let's turn it up by:
- Curating playlists or collections – modular microlibraries –which can be used where they're best suited
- Responding to annual events, such as International Women's Day
- Exploring the feasibility of live, Reddit-style AMAs with subject matter experts*
- Exploring the creation of long-form content on a regular basis, such as media-rich feature articles
* For boosts to accessibility and SEO we strongly encourage you plan for and publish transcripts for all media.
6. Be social
The greatest obstacle to the infectiousness of your content is its length. Even for audio a person has to be in a particular frame of mind to invest that kind of time. The Long Now complements their seminars with written articles, the links to which are shared on Twitter disproportionately more than the videos. In keeping with a recommendation above, mixing content types will offer more entry points into the content and brand .
The alternative is shorter videos. That's not to say shorter sessions. In addition to full talks, TED posts well-edited snippets of varying length on their Facebook page. Length depends on which independently branded 'show' they appear under: either Small Thing Big Idea (2–4 minute videos) or Wise Guide from TED Talks (7 to 15 minutes). Small Thing Big Idea has more than 135,000 followers; Wise Guide a third as many.
We recommend emulating such a strategy as well as content and your resources will allow.
Other ideas to consider:
- Incentivizing speakers to document their trip on Instagram stories
- Facebook Live for featured talks