CT No.20: Which content tech innovations defined the 2010s?

Consuming content during our culture's digital adolescence

Twenty issues? Well, that’s gone quickly. Here are a couple of announcements to ring in issue 20.

  • I’ve launched The Content Technologist website! Right now the website houses all of the content from the newsletters, except structured and organized. It’s built and hosted on the Ghost CMS (I have lots more thoughts on this tool now!).

  • What do you want to see more of in The Content Technologist? I’ve put together a one-question survey to gather feedback on topics from my running notes document.

The most innovative content formats of the 2010s: Part 1 of 2

Congratulations! We’ve almost made it to the end — not just the end of the year, but the end of the decade. The 2010s were our culture’s digital adolescence, a mobile bonanza and a major shift in how we consume and produce content. Open digital culture was swiftly commoditized, distributed, abused and reconsidered. We’ve ended 2019 with digital ideals of eliminating tension in user experience at loggerheads with old business models.

You'll see all kinds of marketing- and tech-focused 2010s wrap-ups, mostly all of them leading to “we need to break up big tech” (yes but yes and). Our online interactions are shifting from big social to back to small networks. We’re seeing the scariness of scale but still craving more. But hey look! In content tech there’s been some cool shit.

Please join me in putting aside our justified quibbles with the algorithms, with the bad data management, with the drain and sag of late capitalism. Let’s instead consider what keeps us going: the bits of content that make our world delightful and useful — the top innovations in content tech from the past ten years.

This list considers content types that are tech-enabled. What won’t make this list: storytelling techniques that existed before (i.e., old radio/tv conventions that are now thriving on podcasts or live video); innovations that came into their own but weren't invented this decade (all virtual reality); features that don’t directly enable new forms of creation (the Facebook like / Reddit upvote).

But I could write thousands of words about all of the innovations below. Here we go, the first of a two-part series:

12. The sharable playlist

If this were 2003 and I had a crush on you (romantic, platonic or otherwise), I would have made you a mix cd. Mostly I would want to show you the music I liked, but I'd also want to signal my feelings. My vibe.

These days I would make you a playlist. And if it were any good, I’d share it with more than just you. The sharable playlist crumbles barriers to sharing not only your taste in songs but also your whole vibe. Playlists remind me of tuning into community or college radio stations, where you're gleefully at the mercy of the dj for as long as you want to be, but without the awkward breaks or potentially embarrassing vocalizations in between.

Sharable playlists are a curated personality 90 or 900 minutes long. Hear from your favorite music critics or just friends. Make your own and include the weirdo songs you like alongside the poptimist favorites. You don’t have to listen to either Fleetwood Mac or illuminati hotties. You can have both. You won't get any weird viruses on your computer. You can skip right over the shitty songs that you hate.

fidelity GIF

Today, as I'm grooving to Spotify’s algorithmic and brilliant annual Wrapped series, I want to raise a glass to shared entertainment, the biggest reminder that the digital cultural economy is lively, delightful and social. (Here’s my curated best of 2019, meant to be shuffled, still being amended until the year’s end.)

11. The Twitter auto-thread

One-liners are brilliant, but we’ve learned this decade that context is key. In 2017 Twitter took a cue from its users and Storify who were piling their Tweets together in long streams and finally made it easy to thread your thoughts. Tweet threads are brilliant when used properly. Although authorship can be confusing, it’s much easier to pull together seemingly disparate thoughts into essay-cum-conversations that suit the way most of us actually communicate.

Sometimes we want to say a little. Sometimes we’re thumbling our play-by-play narration of the scenes around us. Sometimes we think of something hours later that we want to add. Your thoughts can be simultaneously pithy and thorough. Just put it in a thread.

10. The viral illusion

I’ve never seen white and gold and I’ve never heard “Yanny.” But I'm into the way that mundane digital illusions offer something for everyone. I don't really understand how viral illusions pop up, but I know that they can’t be manufactured. I know that the popularity of these illusions scares even Facebook, according to Jonah Peretti. The reason they're popular: they're proof that digital truth is slipperier than we ever imagined.

One time a clothing rental service advertised an item that looked like The Dress to me and I regret not wearing it.

9. The Buzzfeed quiz

Despite asserted individuality and yelling at the world “don’t put me in a box,” many of us don’t mind being categorized. Over and over again.

This decade Buzzfeed transformed the one-note print personality quiz into an experience that’s a bit like the villanelle poetry form: its formal complexity belies its thematic simplicity. Buzzfeed understands its audience’s tastes and cultural currency and builds interactive tests that don’t feel sinister. Before the platform laid off its director of quizzes this past January, the quiz page was a multigenerational smorgasbord of tastes and styles: checklists, would you rathers, sliding scales and multiple choice quizzes that contained a deep complexity and understanding of their audience, a true melding of content and tech innovation into a digital content that other platforms can only dream of.

If we were killing time while traveling, my partner and I would pull up Buzzfeed quizzes and watch what the other chose. Those quizzes connected us, collecting only the most insipid data, killing time, providing a view into how we’re digitally classified. For whatever reason we trusted Buzzfeed. Other quiz providers can’t even come close. Buzzfeed showed us all how to do it right: developers, designer and editors need to listen closely to their audiences and collaborate. Too bad they stopped making their secret sauce earlier this year.

This is the only thing remotely related to The X-Files you will ever see in this newsletter.

8. Pokémon in the park

Was there any weekend more digitally and collectively joyous and social than the week Pokémon Go came out? Even if you weren’t playing, you knew where the monsters were. AR has been difficult to introduce to wide audiences with this one giant exception, which drew strangers into public spaces together, a fantasy of event planners and community organizers.

Nintendo/Niantic’s map of the world is impressive and terrifying, but as long as they’re just filling it with tiny monsters, I guess I'm ok with it.

7. The interactive feature

At the beginning of the 2010s, digital longreads surged into popularity, but the heavy load times of images and videos made it difficult to recreate the holy grail of the print feature well. Still reeling from post-recession layoffs and steeply declining revenues, legacy media brands spent the first few years of the decade holding up the iPad app and the digital flipbook so they could just upload the print designs and corresponding ads, not taking into account the fact that people read content very differently on print and digital media. Only large media properties like The New York Times were able to throw development dollars at digital features, first striking a chord with Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek.

Remember the first two... or maybe five... years after Snow Fall? When everyone was saying “we want to do a Snow Fall” but no one had the design, editorial and development collaborative chops to really make it happen?

Here’s a picture of all other publishers immediately after Snow Fall came out.

The widespread development of high-quality interactive features rose to prominence after tools like Ceros not only provided the technology but also built example after example of how a feature could be done. Other tools focused on making data visualizations more accessible. Edward Tufte and Scott Berinato outlined best practices for incorporating data into static visuals; development teams followed suit with movement and interaction. Popular Javascript frameworks like React and Vue make more complex visuals and interaction points far more accessible on all devices.

My favorite part: interactive features require intense collaboration among multiple creative minds. It’s completely inefficient to separate the editorial from the design and production on interactive features or data visualization. As with a feature film, no interchangeable parts truly exist with an interactive feature. It’s impossible to succeed without the collaborative process.

Next week: The final six decade-defining content types.

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The best-looking data collection on the internet: Typeform

It’s really hard to ask questions creatively when the formatting sucks, and I’m often astounded by how ugly most webforms are. Marketing automation (MA) platforms seem to have no interest in making their default forms even remotely attractive (or fully usable on mobile device). There’s no reason for why those forms are so ugly, other than that most enterprise MA tools don’t want to invest in design because they’ll collect the data anyway. Platforms have a higher margin if you don’t hire a designer or care about UX.

Many MA webforms are also still using iFrame, which makes every digital professional on the planet want to spring for a drastic breakup-level haircut.

But Typeform makes pretty, useful non-iFrame forms. And they’re not just pretty, they’re functional. They’re easy to use… for the most part. They integrate. They’re secure. They feel good.

Typeform at a glance

Typeform’s been a part of my tech stack for a few months because of the aesthetics and ease of use. From surveys to quizzes to event responses to plain old contact forms, they collect data gracefully and integrate with most common CRMs. Some of the best features include:

  • Customizable fonts and colors, but the defaults are good-looking enough to use on their own

  • Unlimited logic paths and question groupings for those of us who want to get into really tailored responses — because if you make data gathering enjoyable and personal, your users are more likely to actually complete your forms

  • Super collaborative options for teams but really… so very intuitive.

Typeform makes it easy to design content. It’s close to becoming like Canva — completely irreplaceable in my tech stack.

However — one huge caveat — Typeform does not like my browser plugins so I always have to use it in an incognito window or else it will log me out after every action. (Pretty sure it does not like my password manager.) Typeform had me screaming last weekend because it was so buggy. But it’s so pretty and easy to use and I haven’t seen any versatile replacements out there so…

Substack is buggy AF today too. You’d think a program with such a limited use wouldn’t be so buggy.

Content tech news of the week

Newsletter recommendation: If you liked the series on how algorithms work from the past couple of weeks, you will probably like all of Normcore Tech by Vicki Boykis, a data scientist in Philadelphia. It is all good.

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