Posted by: structureofnews | March 26, 2011

The Altar of Instant

Suw Charman-Anderson, at Strange Attractor, has a great post on the how the emphasis online on the present is robbing us of our past – and our future.  It’s so good that I shamelessly cribbed from her headline, “Sacrificing web history on the altar of instant.”

She was researching news stories and blog posts about the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in 2010, to see how people reacted to the event.  What she found instead was a mess: Results that couldn’t be properly restricted to a certain time or place, or simply couldn’t be found. She details her experience in the post, which I’ll only excerpt a small part of:

I wanted to search for the news on particular days, e.g. all the news about the Eyjafjallajökull on 16 April 2010. Do that search, and you’ll be presented with lots of results, many of them not from 16 April 2010 at all, but 17 April or even 18 or 15 April.

I  wanted to refine the search by location, so restricted it to Pages from the UK. Fascinatingly, this included Der Spiegel, Business Daily Africa, Manila Bulletin, FOX News, Le Post and a whole bunch of media sources that, when I last looked, weren’t based in the UK.

And so on.  To be sure, she wasn’t using professional archive services, but most of us don’t, either – and there’s a broader point about the way we’re approaching the content that we’re creating and the products we’re building around that content.  Not just news products, which I’ve tended to focus on, but even search, as Suw astutely notes:

What’s going on right now? That’s the question that most search engines seem to be asking these days. Most have limited or zero capacity to look back on our web history, focusing instead of instant search. The immediacy of tools like Twitter and Facebook is alluring, especially for brands and companies who want to know what’s being said about them so that they can respond in a timely fashion.

But focusing on now and abandoning deeper, more nuanced historic searches is a disturbing trend. Searching the web’s past for research purposes might be a minority sport, but can we as a society really afford to disenfranchise our own past?

As I’ve noted before, we need to understand the characteristics of each medium – and how people approach it – if we’re to really take full advantage of it.   And the obsession on speed – certainly one characteristic of the online world – at the expense of persistence – possibly a much more important trait – is skewing the way we approach information on the web, from expending precious resources on ephemeral live blogs to rushed tweets on news that most people don’t care about until later that day (or the next day) to, as Suw points out, interfaces for search that don’t make it easy to look back at the past.

This wouldn’t be a problem in a world of infinite resources, of course – we’d hire the live bloggers and taxonomists, and we’d have armies of researchers combing through daily stories and building elegant archives.  But in the real world, we need to make choices and prioritize.  Some instant news is important – ask Wall Street, Bloomberg and Reuters.  But much isn’t.  And seeing how many people turn to Wikipedia for information gives us a sense of how important providing a step-back, contextual understanding of an issue is.

Equally important, there are very few people who have managed to build a business model based on speed.  (Again, see Wall Street, Bloomberg, Reuters, et al).  It’s not that there are only so many people willing to pay for fast news – although that’s probably true.  It’s that the costs of providing fast news are very high.

And so even when we do need to – or can make a buck from – providing fast news, we should also be thinking about how to structure that news so that we can continue to serve readers well (and/or make a buck) long after the fact.  The fact that Suw can’t even effectively find postings from less than a year ago just highlights how much we’ve already sacrificed to the gods of speed.


  1. […] in a useful way, as Suw describes very well in her article. In response, Reg Chua points out that search is skewed towards speed and the present — a perfect corollary to our obsession with real-time and […]

  2. […] been so focused on the idea of speed and reach on digital that we often forget about the value of its (potential) permanence.  We find […]

  3. […] to the possibilities inherent in these new media.    Treating digital largely a way to publish faster and further, and to embed in more multimedia, doesn’t really tap the possibilities inherent […]

  4. […] that fixating on news as what-just-happened not only underserves people who aren’t tied to the latest update of an event, but also potentially leaves a chunk of value on the table.  But the broader point is that there […]

  5. […] extent, why Wikipedia has become a real destination for news searches, and certainly pushes the value of depth rather than just speed. (Not that speed doesn’t matter as well, of […]

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