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Google’s Living Stories is in a Coma at the Moment

While I have tried to seek out people who are currently trying to develop Google’s code of Living Stories I was able to interview Neha Singh, software engineer for Google and another person, we will call him Eugene, at Nature Publishing Group who is attempting to develop it further.  There is a huge silence surrounding this code if in fact it was such a success that Google found it to be.  Digging around the forum and discussion group, I was able to find Eugene and inquire about how he is working on the code:

Eugene pointed me to some scientific news stories for an online journal at Naturenews.  “We’re looking at experimenting with it to show both science news and the human stories behind important scientific discoveries published in the journal,” said Eugene.  He went on to comment about the code itself and the problems that he encountered with it.  Apparently, installing and getting the code running was pretty straightforward, however, the content manager kept timing out a lot.  “I do like the possibility of applying the system to stories that have already happened though I guess they’re not “living” any more. Living Stories is a good way to browse any sort of narrative, see the people involved, browse relevant media etc.  The default content manager makes this as difficult as possible, unfortunately – to put in dates from say 1950, so you have to do a lot of clicking on a popup date widget, you can’t just type in the year.”  It was interesting to hear how Eugene was trying to use it almost like a historical and categorical reference tool along the lines of what libraries use.  This reminds me of the historical overview that wikipedia has on many topics.  The difference would be that you would have a historical time line of scholarly articles using the Living Stories interface.

Back to Google’s representative – Neha Singh>>

Neha answered a lot of my questions, but couldn’t really answer the harder ones.  To my understanding, he has to be careful with what he divulges to the public.  For example here are a couple harder questions that were asked,

1.  How does Google benefit from this type of investiture?

Our interest is in helping journalism thrive in the digital era, because it’s important to society and an important source of the high-quality information our users turn to us to find. We’re doing the Living Stories project to learn about creating more engaging experiences for consumers of news online

2.  Because Google has been deemed by some as an aggregation thief of news, was the open sourcing of this, to some degree, a  political move in a way to win over the hearts of the publishers and people?

Cannot comment.

3.  What are those two news companies doing with it at this point since they were the two main guinea pigs for the experiment?  Are they continuing to develop it on their own?

They are currently evaluating how they want to proceed.

4.  Could you give me some contacts of people who I can talk to at the NYTimes or The Post to ask them some questions about it?

I would have to ask for their permission first. So it will take some time.

5.  Is there a list or a distribution list of developers that you released it to?

We just announced it on the Google open source blog.  You would have to solicit replies on the discussion forum.
Ok, it looks like I wasn’t able to get the harder answers out of him, but they do insinuate a sense that Google is trying to help out the traditional journalism’s journey to the online environment.  I’m kinda skeptical at such a benevolent approach without any financial incentive.  Maybe that’s why Google open sourced it in the first place.  I do wonder if Google was paid by the NYTimes and The Post for their help in creating such a format.  Yet, this wouldn’t be that plausible based on the fact that they open sourced it. 

One of the biggest questions that I tried to focus on was whether or not Google’s decision to open source the code for Living Stories was planned from the beginning or was it something that was considered after the experiment was over.  Mr. Singh had informed me that, “Open sourcing the code was the logical next stage of the experiment and was always planned. From the beginning, we had said that hosting the stories on Google Labs was temporary. We want to help interested news publishers cover stories this way on their own websites. The Times and Post had teams of reporters publishing through the Living Stories format for over two months, which helped us collect a lot of data and feedback, and improve the code.“  I confirmed his statement, by checking the Google News Blog, which had indicated back in December, when Google started the experiment, that they were going to release it to the public after the experiment was finished.  This could have a tremendous impact on the way people search for news online based on the topic.  Google News aggregates and filters the topical search, but it still takes you to the traditional news article that has stayed the same for quite sometime now.  The topic of the article would be the key ingredient rather than the publisher or article itself.  Moreover, “If you look at search behaviour, that’s often what people search for (and why Wikipedia is so popular), declares  Paul Bradshaw, of the online journalism blog, on his report of Google’s Living stories.  Bradshaw asks two very important questions that many are wondering (if you decide to peruse through the discussion forum of Google’s Living Stories).

  1. How much of the construction of the page is done automatically, and how much requires someone to input and connect data?
  2. How does this address the advertising problem?

What advertising problem you ask?  Well, d3vianted@gmail.com articulates this well in the discussion forum:

Publishers want to drive people to their sites in hopes of attaining ad impressions.  Thus the “free” content they are giving away is providing some source of income.  As more and more papers see a decline in readership and their sales decline, the money their make from their online products is becoming more and more important. Living Stories takes away any ability for the publisher to direct traffic to their sites (other than name recognition and the hopeful conversion of a curious reader) or provide any support for advertisers.  Publishers would be producing content with no ROI [return on investment] simply for the convenience Google’s users.

A counter solution to this payment for content problem has just been announced by Google’s competitor Bing.  Apparently Bing is trying to help UK newspapers better monetize their online news.  Here’s the article.

Lastly, it would have taken more time to generate the contacts at the NYTimes and The Washington Post to inquire where they are taking the project at this point.  Mr. Singh could only tell me that, “They are currently evaluating how they want to proceed.”  Even if this statement foreshadows the vague undertones that surround the future of this project, it does however, imply that Living Stories is something that we could see changing the way that we consume and experience news online in the future – however long this might be.

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  1. ElzbthMllr 15:25, Mar 5th, 10

    Must be frustrating not to get answers to some of the most important questions, I’m running into that with my travalogue also – very annoying. I think the whole concept of it so interesting, it almost seems like if it was done correctly it could provide an interesting model or version of verified collaborative news production. I wonder if there’s been resistance from news organizations because they want to hold onto their own content under their own brands. Were you able to get a sense of how many people are playing around with the open source software? I tend to be a bit more cynical about Google’s motives after taking this class (sorry, but true) so I also question whether Google making this project but not actually doing with it was a political move or not. The relationship between Google and mainstream traditional journalism is very interesting to follow and this is definitely another link in that chain.

  2. HoniehLayla 16:09, Mar 5th, 10

    I don’t have the best impression of Google after being in this class.

    I do wonder what their relationship is like with the Printing Press community, being that this form of journalism may become obsolete in the next few years.

    Ever wonder if every Google product that flopped would become open source?

    They always have the intention of releasing it as “open source” but what I also am skeptical as to what Google’s motives are.

    It seems as though every week they are creating another product to suck us back into their world!

  3. Leslie 17:07, Mar 5th, 10

    Wow- how disappointing to hear that Google’s rep wouldn’t answer some of your questions! Kinda funny that they made their project “open” source, but can’t be “open” about their reasoning behind it. I wonder if Google knew that Bing was helping newspapers to monetize their news? Maybe this played into their decision?

  4. Ryan 17:19, Mar 5th, 10

    @ Leslie > I also asked him this question about motivation, but I chose not to mention it because his answer was almost the same as the one that you can read on the the official Google Blog concerning Living Stories.

    – What was your motivation for developing it besides the ideas from the senior executives at the NYTimes and The Post?

    “Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. We think there’s a lot of room for innovation in how information, including news, is displayed online. But we don’t produce our own news. So we worked with news publishers to help drive innovation. (Other teams at Google also work with news publishers to help them attract bigger audiences, better engage those audiences and generate more revenue. In our case, we were working with them to test changes in the product.)

    In the context of this overarching goal, there were a few things we wanted to address with the new format. One was that news publishers produce a wealth of information on the internet, but it’s hard for readers to find and consume it quickly and efficiently. Moreover, the product is not tailored to the needs to the user – it’s a “one size fits all” approach currently. For example, if you are new to a story and it has been going on for a while, you might have to dig through several articles to find out what’s going on. On the other hand, if you are following a story very closely, there is a lot of background with every article that you don’t need to re-read. With Living Stories, we attempted to gather all of the great content in several mediums (text, photos, videos, etc.) that is produced by publishers today and put it in 1 place so that it’s easy to find, but also have affordances on the page for readers with different backgrounds.”

  5. Harris 06:02, Mar 7th, 10

    Michelangelo’s David is sexy, but that does not mean the members of the Cathedral Works Committee that commissioned it were gay!

    Can anybody remind me of any reading we did in this class that said Google’s motives were always necessarily evil? :o )

    Who is Mr Google anyway? It is a corporation of people, every one of who sees their own meaning in life, and have their own hopes, fears, needs and goals. And these goals align at some point. Engineers may want to develop solutions because that makes their lives more meaningful. But they also needs money to sustain their life in line with their aspirations and fears.
    You cannot reduce the many dimensions of the lives of all these humans into only the profit-making goals of the top few people in the corporation’s hierarchy.

    As far as I recall, Google employees are allowed to use a percentage of their paid time and the company’s resources to work on personal projects, and that is how major contributions like Gmail and Orkut were made.

    I don’t have a major problem with Google’s stated goal behind making Living Stories open source. Even if making money was one of the goals behind this project, which I don’t see why it shouldn’t be, Living Stories is still a major contribution.

    @Honieh, did Living Stories really flop? That’s a question that still needs to be answered. In Nadine’s words: “Was Living Stories turned into source open because it was a success or because it was a failure?!”

  6. mushon 11:29, Mar 7th, 10

    Great investigative work!
    As for the debate whether Living Stories is Google, it’s not. But Google’s motives are clear. LS has the potential to help create human generated semantic data on realtime stories in a format Google is comfortable with. This aspect is maintained even if LS is opensourced and installed anywhere around the web. This can be a win win situation as it can still drive traffic to news sites. On the other hand it does require human labor to index these articles, this human labor might be too expensive for news companies and if it is crowdsourced (like it would probably) it might be deemphasizing news sources as they will not be able to control the inputs.

    The missing part of the puzzle is the experience of the news companies. Nick Bilton is director of new media at NYT. Maybe you can track him down for some input. If not, you still have plenty of data for a great final post.