Brain Pickings

Current: A News Project | ITP Spring Show Highlights

by

What Sandra Bullock has to do with Tennessee traffic law, British election results and the future of news sensemaking.

Last weekend, we stopped by the annual ITP Spring Show, showcasing the best of interactive sight, sound and technology by students at NYU’s Interactive Technology Program. While the festival was brimming with fascinating installations and projects, we were particularly taken with Current: A News Project. Created by Zoe Fraade-Blanar, the project uses data visualization — a chronic favorite around here — to explore the life cycle of internet memes in reaction to news media in real time.

Current is essentially a snapshot of “hivemind,” offering a collective portrait of what America’s entire internet user base has been concerning itself with in the past 24 hours via their collective search history. Keywords are distilled into memes, which Fraade-Blanar treats as “living ‘thought organisms’ that act as though they have agency, control, and a selfish motivation.”

An active meme with medium coverage

A meme with two submemes

The project aims to expose something we too believe is one of the information economy’s greatest follies — “Digg mentality,” or the tendency for certain types of news to be regurgitated and pushed to the top by groupthink, while more niche yet important and fascinating content sinks to the bottom of our collective awareness — and, in the process, reclaim news readership lost to sensationalism.

News relies on soft stories like horoscopes, celebrity gossip and restaurant reviews to subsidize the important but less sensational stories that keep democracy running. At base, any solution to News’ present problems must address the balance between the hard news we need and the soft news that drives advertising dollars. By visually anthropomorphizing the capricious nature of public attention Current can spotlight these missed opportunities in news coverage.

A saturated meme

Fraade-Blanar, who worked at the New York Times Analytics Group last summer exploring ways to analyze incoming traffic behaviors, was inspired by the disconnect she noticed between the kinds of stories that caused spikes of traffic and their cultural footprint, with superficial stories often rising above reporting on important political events.

An unsuccessful news item published outside the Memescape

A long-lived meme in the Memescape

At base, any solution to News’ problems must offer a path to financial success in addition to advice on maintaining journalistic integrity. Current seeks to fulfill this purpose by supplying the ability to differentiate which news items are most likely to draw web traffic to a news source.

Current comes as a free desktop app for both Mac and PC (though make sure the Read Me on the Mac install — it’s not as seamless as we like our apps), allowing users to track and examine custom memes.

A highly carnivorous meme

The project reminds us of a more visual, minimalist version of Zoetrope, another brilliant news visualization concept you may remember from a couple of years ago, and illustrates the increasing necessity for a sensemaking platform for news data and meme propagation.

We’ve got a weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays, offers the week’s articles, and features five more tasty bites of web-wide interestingness. Here’s an example. Like? Sign up.

Share on Tumblr