qwiki – can linear narratives still be relevant in hyperlinked contexts?

On: October 22, 2011
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About Daniel Luiz dos Santos
Coming all the way from the beautifully chaotic São Paulo (after a brief upbringing in France), this Brazilian graduated in Social Communication (with a minor in advertising), while working in the online communication industry for the past 5 years, focusing in strategic planning, mobile initiatives and social media. Also collaborated with the research lab Digital Culture Observatory of the School of the Future - University of São Paulo. A geek by profession, and by nature (since before it became cool to be one). Related interests: - Social Recommendation - Information Architecture - Augmented Reality - Digitization of culture - Video gaming Random interests: Cooking / Modern literature / Martial arts / Zombie apocalypse / TV series / Basketball / Atheism

   

Some time has passed since the official launch of qwiki (see the Masters of Media Blog initial impressions). Although still in alpha, a more profound critique can be put forward as the platform evolved and opened itself to users.

A brief summary: qwiki is a tool to…

…deliver information in a format that’s quintessentially human – via storytelling instead of search.

After an user submits a query, qwiki’s system searches for indexed information (such as fotopedia pictures, youtube videos, and wikipedia articles), combining them in a video, using text-to-speech technology to give the impression of a linear narrative. Think of it as a combination of the eponymous hitchiker’s guide to the galaxy, this scene from the fifth element, and Portal’s GLaDOS.

See an example below:

View Blog and over 3,000,000 other topics on Qwiki.

Uses and restrictions

The initial awe right after the launch gradually gave place to questioning: apart from the novelty factor, which genuine niches can this type of platform occupy? So far, there hasn’t been a clear answer. A new feature, “News Summary”, was introduced as an experiment to branch out the possible applications of qwiki’s core functionalities. We are all habituated, one way or another, to consume news as traditionally linear narrative stories. By automatically creating visually attractive and context relevant pieces of up-to-date content, qwiki may have found it’s calling. But it is of course too early to tell.

The release of an API would undoubtedly generate a cascade of interesting concepts using qwiki’s engine. From e-learning applications, to the tourism and museum industry, many fields could benefit from these automated content adaptation techniques.

Critique

But apart from those uses, the linearization imposed by qwiki’s format is problematic as it is inserted in a highly hyperlinked context. The entries themselves only link to other qwiki entries, or to their source articles (such as wikipedia entries). And even though the links are somewhat present, users are actively discouraged to access it mid-video, as they are continuously persuaded (and historically conditioned) to watch the presentation through the end. By consuming content in this way, we limit ourselves into following the cognitive path of the system that generates it. No more surprises, no more aimless browsing.

This surrender of control can be advantageous in some contexts, but definitely not all. Some could even call this a fast food model for knowledge: tidbits of easily digestible information for an increasingly attention deficient audience (see also Is the internet ruining our brains?).

Switch the “revolution” for a more honest “evolution”

In conclusion, even though it is still been sold as a revolutionary concept in search, qwiki must direction itself to specific niches in which is assumptions on linearized content narrative can be explored without compromising other aspects of social, cultural or technical views on acquiring knowledge.

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