Fuzzy Media

I’m currently working with about two dozen high school and college students, in a program meant to give them a crash course in print and multimedia journalism — a gig that may be teaching me more than I’ve been able to pass on to my young charges. Last night, for instance, I sat in on a lecture in which San Francisco State University professor Andrew DeVigal offered these budding journalists a glimpse of where multimedia may be heading — toward game-like displays meant to provide not just information, but a dose of the experience, and toward a new style of non-narrative content buffet from which viewers can consume as much or as little knowledge as they wish.

That may sound vague, but as a former sailor I’ve stood watches at sea, and I know that objects on the horizon always appear fuzzy. DeVigal keeps a website where he points to examples of what he means by cutting edge multimedia, and last night he offered some object lessons to our young students — some of whom will one day bring those objects on the horizon into focus.

I know that what stuck in my mind was when DeVigal pointed us to a USA Today production called Dugout Dilemmas (requires Flash to view). As the title suggests, the site casts the viewer in the role of a major league baseball coach, posing situations such as runners on first and third, two outs, team down by two runs, power hitter up, do you tell him to swing for the fences or single to drive in the run?

So imagine a room full of hormone-activated teens, tired at the end of a long day, and they’re all “lecture, lecture, yawn, yawn” — until the game comes on and they’re suddenly engaged. –Nuff said?

Now baseball isn’t a topic that floats my boat, but what if this technique were applied to “Saving Social Security?” It would be a complex task — and by that I mean both the real-world problem and the act of modeling it in a game. But how better to involve people in a problem high on the national agenda. In the early 1990s, when the Clinton administration talked up a national health plan, the Markle Foundation created just this sort of “what-would-you-do” game around that issue. But in that pre-web era, the game had to be played on CD-ROM and that required what boiled down to a series of political Tupperware parties. I don’t think that effort went far. But the web would allow us to turn this game concept into a public policy version of eBay. And what if local media, using local programmers, started gaming local problems. Would that be journalism?

The other things that wowed me out of DeVigal’s 90-minute lecture was a glimpse of the Theban Mapping Project (requires Flash to view). I would describe it as an online encyclopedia from which you can browse as little or as much as you’d like to know about one of the most important Egyptian archaeological sites. There is some introductory material but the site is meant to be explored as a self-guided tour. It is therefore not an attempt to convey information in a narrative style, with a beginning, a middle and an end. Rather it is a new information construct. You can spend hours there if you have a deep and abiding interest, or get a 10-second dose if your Egyptology has been satisfied by any of the many mummy movies set in Thebes.

One last point. DeVigal pointed to the website of Noah Brier as a place where he goes to keep an eye on trends in this developing field, so I’ll just pass on that reference before I run.

Tom Abate
Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media