Sunday, March 21, 2010

A Failure To Communicate

Today was the health care reform bill vote in the House. I'm still avoiding political topics directly, but there's a technical topic here as well which continues to mystify me, and that is the complete lack of any kind of unified information stream available on the Internet. There's a raw stream of Congress available on a number of websites, sure -- unfiltered, and without context. There are news articles updated every couple of hours, but with no real status updates. This is obviously the big story of the day, and these two items are at the top of the page, which shows they know this.

The difference between the website content and that on television is night and day. The television broadcast has extensive, rich commentary including highlights of the event, and nearly real-time analysis not only of the proceedings, but of historic context around them. It's wonderful, and provides a lot of important information to help make sense of what's happening (note that here I'm referring to the MSNBC coverage -- I don't care much for CNN). But since this is on television it's inherently a one-way experience, with no opportunity to direct the conversation from my end.

The television broadcast indicates that they do understand how to create a compelling context around a real-time event. So why can't they do it in a bi-directional medium? I hope it's self evident how much more valuable this could be, since the asides could be selected when the viewer is interested rather than when the producer thinks everyone will be interested. I would even be satisfied with largely the same experience as the television broadcast with an additional "procedural comments" ticker provided by another set of commentators working in the background.

I think part of the problem may be the volume of pre-created content that needs to be available. CNN or MSNBC simply doesn't have prepared text to handle every eventuality as the thing goes on, so to provide a strong experience they would have to be willing to direct viewers to another source. I see no real reason that something like Wikipedia couldn't serve this purpose. I'm sure they have pages on every parliamentary procedure in the book, since that's the kind of minutia that at least some of their contributors love to obsess over. Proper form might require some kind of revenue sharing deal, but the richer experience would draw more viewers, so I'm sure they could work something out that would justify the cost.

They'd need somebody to make those connections, which is another person to pay, but honestly they'd probably get more out of that one political expert live-blogging the proceedings than they do out of the talking heads, guests, and all the staff it takes to produce a television broadcast. The potential for amplifying individual effort is much higher when the presentation medium is simpler, and if this is just to augment the main show rather than be the center of attention it just makes it that much easier to wing it.

To make it even more engaging, provide a panel of 5 or 6 experts in various fields, and assign them all topics. One could be an expert on rules in the House, one on the history of the key Democrats, another the key Republicans, another on the bill under discussion, and so on. Let them all chime in every couple of minutes, but have some loose coordination so they're a bit staggered, and let me as the viewer pick the sources I prefer to add context to what's happening on the screen.

The only thing left to add is a toggle to switch between the talking heads and the raw feed. Because as much as I was impressed by the MSNBC coverage, they had an annoying tendency to talk over everything they didn't want to play as a sound bite. They picked some good ones, and at times their ongoing coverage was better than the proceedings, but other times I would have loved to be able to silence the chatter and hear what they were talking over. A choppier experience, yes, since I'm no editor, and I don't know when they're going to try to make some important point, but still way more satisfying than having to wait for the snippets they choose to share.

What really kills me is they've already tried to do this, only in broadcast. Remember 10 years ago when news was just a person on the screen? Now CNN is taken over with tickers, banners, flyouts, and a bunch of other things competing for your attention. They're trying to give you the extra context, except it's all going out to every viewer. The only selection mechanism is which random blinking object you pay attention to, and the only content available is extremely general because it has to appeal to so many people. Give me a switch to turn that off, or switch to a source that's targeted at my interest, and the tone of the conversation changes completely. Instead of overloaded and irritating, it's contextual, informative, and personalized.

That's why I truly do not understand the approach I saw today. The banner event on both news sites was a raw feed empty of context, while the live broadcast was a mishmash of short clips, brief bursts of insightful commentary, and in general a very spastic view of what was happening. I can't be the only one who wants a slider that I can put somewhere in the middle, right? We have the technology to provide a customized, contextualized version of the raw feed, but nobody seems to be willing to step up and do it. In a world of 24 hour news cycles, this was a total failure.

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