October 21, 2013

Welcome! This blog is a key component of the StructuredStories project and is the heart of this website. I will use it to share successes, challenges and detours along the path towards narrative-based applications in digital media, as well as posting a few book reviews, technology assessments or commentaries from time to time. Connecting with others with similar interests is much of what makes these endeavors worthwhile, and so I hope that actively and transparently reporting on my progress will help to facilitate that.

I have been keenly interested in computational narrative for several years, and interested in the digitally-driven changes in journalism and media for much longer than that. I began to realize that these interests might overlap, and furthermore that several rapidly maturing technologies might make it possible to realize useful applications within that overlap. My work at Yahoo! took me deeply into digital media use cases and systems (especially automated content understanding and personalization), but I felt that narrative-based approaches to media were as yet too undefined to reasonably pursue within a corporate environment. I left Yahoo! in July 2013 and began to systematically assemble a research and prototyping program aimed at developing proof-of-concept digital media applications based on narratives. As I write this post I am now three months into this program, and my excitement about the possibilities from this approach is growing.

StructuredStories is a company but not yet a startup. This sounds confusing, but is just an expression of how I like to work on complex product design problems. I like to reduce large and gnarly problems to first principles, and then to build new approaches to those problems from the ground up – thinking through, writing down, drawing out, coding up and trying out thoughtful solutions. This approach requires lots and lots of time and intellectual freedom, and is somewhat cross-threaded with the rapid ‘code-test-learn-repeat’ approach to product development that is currently popular. While the risks of ending up in a product ‘dead-end’ are higher with this approach, it also offers the potential for finding the ‘global maximums’ of a product solution space, rather than just the ‘local maximums’ available from more evolutionary approaches. StructuredStories is therefore a vehicle for me to pursue a ‘global maximum’ in digital media products based on narratives, while working in the way that I like to work.

Its hard to imagine anything as simple to the human mind as a story, but applying analytical and computational narrative to digital media is nonetheless insanely complicated. A first challenge is just in thinking clearly about narrative – something that is simultaneously highly abstract but also as familiar as breathing. A second challenge is in integrating what I call the ‘large number of small literatures’ representing the contributions of about a dozen different research fields to the study of narratives in various guises -  a challenge that has provided me with several years of enjoyable reading, dot-connecting and occasional but satisfying glimpses of recognition. A third challenge has been developing a working understanding of the foundational issues facing digital media from both the production and consumption sides – issues like the drivers towards media personalization, the changing role of editorial influence in media, the deep causes and effects of habit-driven media and the biases within the existing digital media establishment. A fourth challenge is, of course, understanding a range of new technologies, matching them to the pragmatic requirements of platforms and applications based on structured narratives and then building useful prototypes.

At this stage I make no guarantees about whether this approach to digital media is either technically feasible or commercially viable, however I strongly suspect that it is. Either way I intend to find out, and I invite anyone who is interested in the question to follow this blog and to get in touch.