Web non-fiction, journalism and documentary are finding crossover of late with a converging interest in new uses of data. In the digital world in which we now live, everything is recorded, documented, saved and archived, the paper trail has moved online and it swims in a digital sea.
The difficulty with this is that human beings simply cannot synthesise oceans of data, we don’t know what to do with it and certainly can’t process it individually. Clay Shirky, digital evangelist and social media theorist, in a recent interview with Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian newspaper, says that the public doesn’t consume data, it consumes stories - so the challenge is in turning data into the kind of stories that people care about.
On a SXSW panel this year on data as narrative (podcast here), Burt Herman of Storify also talked about stories being a way to make sense of this mass of data. For newspapers, this often means making infographics or other forms of data visualisation, something the Guardian and the New York Times have embraced. The ABC’s Hungry Beast television series also made great use of animated data visualisation to get points across.
In talking about creating stories, in a way Shirky is talking about simple qualitative coding that social scientists have done for a long time - pulling themes out of long political debate transcripts for example. The data doesn’t have to be hidden or secret - he comments that Bethany McLean, one of the authors of the book on which the documentary film Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room was based found her explosive data simply by trawling reams of publicly available information, to find an answer to the question, ‘how does Enron make money?’.
The building of online communities also involves new approaches to data management, through for example moderation and curation of user input. Rusbridger quotes Nick Denton of Gawker as saying that user-generated content had great promise but never materialised, to which Shirky responds that if that was true, Wikipedia would never have happened. Instead, he believes the interesting question is, what is keeping us from implementing great conversation spaces online? Size is a key, and Shirky argues that if you want a large population using your site and you want quality content, it won’t be cheap. Good moderation alone requires serious input, and he points to BoingBoing as a site that does this really well. As an aside, here’s another SXSW panel podcast on curation.
This all has huge potential for webdocs and other online multimedia that can draw on data and present it in a range of audio-visual ways that make it more palatable to an audience. For some tips on getting started, here’s a list of some the tools available for making infographics, via @kanter.
About this writer
Physicist and author Brian Greene, brings us a mind-blowing new exploration of space, time, and the very nature of reality.
Acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns chronicles the worst man-made ecological disaster in American history.
A fresh perspective on the birth of civilisation in the Near and Middle East and its dynamic influence on the West.