Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘social web’

11 MAY, 2010

Current: A News Project | ITP Spring Show Highlights


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.

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15 MARCH, 2010

Uncovered Gem: Marshall McLuhan’s Global Village


Why tribal man is the future of communication, or what TED has to do with Playboy.

A few months ago, we raved about this brilliant Marshall McLuhan interview from a 1969 issue of Playboy, where the iconic media scholar and pop culture philosopher — a man most famous for his contention that “the medium is the message” — lays out his fascinating and radical theories about “hot” vs. “cool” media, the loss of identity in the age of “electric media,” and other cultural phenomena remarkably relevant in today’s social media landscape, some four decades later.

Today, we look at this uncovered gem from 1960, where McLuhan explores how “electric media” are turning the world into one global village, changing our relationship with print, and extending our sensory capabilities — all issues occupying the media theorists, publishing gurus, cultural anthropologists and iPad enthusiasts of today to an extraordinarily similar degree. And though the video cuts off abruptly, it makes up in brilliance for what it lacks in ending — if there ever was a real cultural Nostradamus, McLuhan would be it.

These new media have made our world into a single unit. The world is now like a continually sounding tribal drum, where everybody gets the message all the time. A princess gets married in England and — boom boom boom! — we all hear about it; an earthquake in North Africa; a Hollywood star gets drunk — away go the drums again.

We find this particularly relevant, after just having seen a fantastic SXSW panel on making content available in 100 languages, which covered TED’s Open Translation Project, the wonderful global conversation aggregator Global Voices, and Mozilla’s translation development platform — all brilliant tools enabling and democratizing the global dialogue, using new media as the vehicle for this powerful social movement.

How will you beat the global drum today?

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12 MARCH, 2010

Beyond the Business Card: Three Alternative Tools


How to bump strangers, who killed the Rolodex, and what to do about it.

This week, we’re at SXSW, supposedly a mecca of interactivity and tech innovation. And yet we keep bumping into one massive business etiquette dinosaur: The exchange of physical, paper business cards.

So we’ve curated three handy digital tools to help unload the fossils and bring your networking up to speed with the digital age. The Rolodex is dead (we don’t even know anyone who owns one, let alone uses it), long live LinkedIn.


Bump may just be our favorite app ever. Free and available for iPhone and Android, it lets you exchange contact information with another person simply by bumping the two phones together. While it requires that the other person have the app as well, we’ve seen Bump adoption rates skyrocket in the past few months — it’s that good — so it’s bound to spare you a massive amount of number-crunching as you attempt to digitize those crumpled up business cards floating around your laptop bag.

Simple and incredibly fun to use, Bump combines seamless functionality with a kind of delightful playfulness — it’s hard not to smile when you see two grey-haired CEO’s bump fists and chuckle like fifth-graders.

Tip: If you keep your phone in your pant pocket, avoid walking up to people, saying “Let’s bump!” and pointing to said area of your pants. The capacity for martinis tossed in your face is limitless.


Let’s face it, most of us have more online profiles than we know what to do with — Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, LinkedIn, Google Buzz, Foursquare… they’re just the tip of the random registrations iceberg. And while a handful of them are actually useful for connecting with people, they’re becoming increasingly hard to manage, let alone share.

Enter, a nifty centralized home for all your digital dwellings. This tiny, update-from-anywhere video-enabled calling card contains all your favorite sites and services, giving you a simple URL to share with people.


We’ve always liked the idea of connecting real-life objects to the virtual world. Enter Stickybits, an ingenious tag-based platform for attaching digital information to physical objects. It’s simple — you get a bunch of barcode stickers, attach something to them online, and start handing them out. A free iPhone and Android app reads the barcodes and relays the embedded information.

Though meant for a much wider array of purposes — from “sticking” a wish on a gift to slapping on your laptop as a bring-it-home system in case you lose it — they’re perfect for sharing your contact info or even your resume.

Grab a pack of 20 barcodes for just $9.95 and start slapping.

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