Fractals & Folksonomies: A New Map for Participatory Journalism

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The press is supposed to provide us maps that help us understand our complex and chaotic world, but the media's maps have failed to keep pace with the exponential growth of technological innovation and changes in our society.

Below I propose that folksonomies and playlisted sound bites could be used to map out the links and associations between the Long Tail of factual nuggets that are usually lost on the cutting room floors of news stories or documentaries -- as well as how "fractal geometry" can provide a powerful metaphor for helping visualize and comprehend this complexity. This type of approch could be extended to journalism and other knowledge management contexts.

Participatory journalism is the key to mapping out this fractal-like map of interconnections, and this post describes what "news as a conversation" might look when it is scaled up beyond the linear limitations of blog dialogues.

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I set out to take a more holistic approach to my documentary investigating the media, and I wanted to incorporate a lot more of the complexity of the significant issues that aren't always necessarily interesting -- such as the role of International Law and the United Nations leading up to the war in Iraq.

What I discovered is that journalists aggregate a lot of knowledge and information, but that they can only effectively distribute and communicate the top 5 - 10% of it. They write stories with the best sound bites and the newest news, but the remaining 90 to 95% of the information is lost to the inefficiencies of their knowledge management systems and methods for documenting smaller granular nuggets of information.

The journalist may interview someone for 20-30 minutes, and only end up using a 7 to 10-second sound bite from them.

In my own situation, the shooting ratio for The Echo Chamber documentary will probably end up being somewhere around 75:1, meaning that a total 75 hours of footage was gathered for every hour of footage that makes it to the final cut of the documentary. Apart from DVD extras, the majority of this additional 74 hours of insights are usually lost on the cutting room floor.

Isn't there a better way to manage this lost information?

It is very difficult to effectively organize and distribute these lost nuggets -- and in a lot of ways, the lack of this mechanism is perpetuating the gap between the complexity of what is happening in our world and the media's ability to describe it to us.

So we need new and better maps, and we also need new ways to connect the dots between the Long Tail of information that's trapped inside the minds of journalists, and lost to the cutting room floors of news segments and investigative documentaries.

The existing maps that the media can provide are usually a surface-level oversimplification of issues and problems as seen through the lenses of our "official sources" representing the leaders of our political institutions -- aka the "head" of the Long Tail.

It's time for a new strategy and new methodologies that use technology to implement a better knowledge management system for Long Tail information -- and one that can also engage citizens through participatory journalism.

The answer may lie in the maps that coming from Complexity Science and Fractal Geometry.

Douglas Rushkoff sets up the paradigm shift towards complexity and fractals in this 2004 Pop!Tech speech where he describes how the Internet is providing alternatives to the traditional storytelling paradigm:

Now what we're doing in this big chaotic, fractal-like media space -- where we're all talking and exchanging ideas with each other, giving away software to each other -- now it's about making connections. It's about finding patterns in this media space. When you watch the Simpsons, the reward is not the cookie that you get for making it through the story. The reward is making an association. Right? "Oh, here they're satiring Alfred Hitchcock. Oh, this is a satire of that commercial. Here -- that's that." Connections. Connections and openings. Connections and openings. It's no longer a beginning, middle and end. It's a series of connections. It's very different.

So it is no longer just about the narrative story arc of information that is trapped within the head of the mass media portion of the Long Tail, but it is also now about the links and associations between the niche nuggets of information that are usually left on the cutting room floor. Fractal geometry seems to be providing some powerful maps and metaphors for making sense of this overflow of links and associations.

In searching for better a metaphor that can be used to organize and structure these orphaned nuggets of information, I discovered this article called "Challenging images of knowing: complexity science and educational research." It describes how fractal geometry can provide "a source of images and analogies to support alternative conceptions of knowledge, learning and teaching."

This paper cites a paper by Chaomei Chen and Ray Paul who have used "fractals to characterize the relationships among ideas and thinkers in any given field" of knowledge -- as shown in these examples below:

Chen's website has a lot more information on information visualization, and he reprints the following four-step process for creating a map of a particular knowledge domain.

Chen & Paul are mapping out the citation patterns for each knowledge domain so that you can visualize the relationships between various sub-sections. This type of fractal mapping of links and associations between smaller nuggets of facts could a very useful way for journalists to organize and make sense of Long Tail information.

It would also be very useful for helping form the overall structure of my documentary film. I have captured a lot of large abstract concepts that need to be organized into an order that seamlessly flows together in the final 90-minute film. One of the most difficult challenges is to discover the structure that would best convey and transfer the knowledge that I have capture within the film. Instead of doing this time-intensive task by myself, the challenge is to find a way to take parallel input from volunteers that could help me discover this elusive structure in a much quicker and more efficient manner.

This could happen by parsing each interview into sound bites, and then assigning each sound bite to a unique URL. Folksonomy tags could then provide a simple mechanism for citizens to declare their perspectives and interpretations on these nuggets. Juxtaposing sound bites within playlists could also be another relatively simple mechanism for creating associations and deeper meaning. And then through some type of analysis, there should be a way to map out the emergent network of links and associations between all of these sound bites in a tree-like structure similar to the examples shown above.

So instead of a hierarchical set of categories or linear structure being imposed on this Long Tail information by myself or a small set of film editors, then I'm hoping to capture a diverse set of links and associations from a larger and more diverse set of participants.

Making sense of the Long Tail of information is where I think "participatory journalism" and "News is a Conversation" starts to become really powerful. The traditional conceptualization of "news as a conversation" has been the interaction between journalists and blogs, but there comes a point where long conversations and lengthy blog posts are not scalable. It's too much information to be effectively filtered through the blogosphere's existing ecosystem -- it is too easy to overlook the diamond in the rough because there is so much that is lost in the noise.

So there has to be more effective ways for co-creating meaning with the electorate and tapping into the Wisdom of the Crowd with more advanced knowledge management and intelligence analysis methodologies and technologies.

I still plan on releasing a narrative 90-minute version of my film to a mass audience, but I hope to have a way for individuals to come to my website and explore this Long Tail of information through a rich web of metadata, context and meaning that was captured through the collaborative production of the film. A person could experience rich media in a much more interactive way analogous to reading a set of interconnected wikipedia articles.

Journalism has been slow to adapt their methodologies to the fractal communications environment of the Internet, and online journalism should have a lot more freedom to explore this type of interactive storytelling paradigm -- but I think it requires a metaphor shift from only providing linear stories as a product to also offering the opportunity to explore a networks of links and associations between much more granular facts.

Print journalism is trapped within a Euclidean Geometric model of objective vs. subjective, qualitative vs. quantitative. Republican vs. Democrat, and a linear storytelling paradigm of conveying information.

There will always be linear stories that digest the essence of what is going on, but the problem is that the current implementation fails to account for the complexity and a comprehensive analysis of the other competing hypotheses.

The Internet is much better suited for handling the fractal geometric nature of information and reality by mapping out the interconnection of links and associations. These new capabilities are still in it's infancy, and so there is plenty of room for innovation for new solutions for knowledge management and journalism.

At the moment, my conceptualization of what this looks like for my filmmaking project is the combination of my collaborative filmmaking flowchart within the larger New Media Ecosystem and more complex analytical techniques.

This still has a ways to go to be fully implemented, but I just wanted to get some of these ideas down before I attend a conference next week about "Information Operations, Open Source Intelligence, & Peacekeeping Intelligence."

I'm sure that I'll get a lot more insights into how the US world of intelligence and competitive intelligence have been addressing these issues.

I'm certainly not the only one who has been thinking about these issues, and I look forward to discovering other approaches that people much smarter than I am have taken to solving these type of knowledge management problems.