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Qwiki and Storify: Disruptive storytelling comes of age

On October 26, Qwiki, a new “information experience” platform, opened its doors to pre-invited users as an Alpha web product. As this year’s winning startup of TechCrunch Disrupt in San Francisco, a lot of expectation is riding on co-founder and CEO, Doug Imbruce, who is promising to do nothing less than change the way we receive information.

In its current form, Qwiki trawls the API’s of the web (including Wikipedia, Google Maps, LinkedIn, Yelp and others) to assemble (mostly) coherent, interactive videos on over 2- million topics, from the French Revolution to The Godfather movies and Thabo Mbeki. Every slice of every presentation is clickable and links out to whatever sources it is compiled from.

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Crucially, the whole process is automated from start to finish: the finished multimedia, or ‘qwiki’, is compiled entirely by algorithm, while the presentations are narrated by a text-to-speech engine that sounds ominously like a female HAL 9000.

Take a look at an example on John Lennon:

Qwiki – John Lennon from Cédric Bellenger on Vimeo.

Given the grand scale of the TechCrunch Disrupt’s mission, namely “creative destruction on an industry scale” – can we truly call Qwiki a technology with real ‘disruptive’ potential? And who cares?

Brian Dear cares. He sees Qwiki as an enabler of “Idiocracy”, the pinnacle of intellectual decline envisioned by Mike Judge’s movie of the same name. In a blog post titled “Why I think (and hope) that Qwiki will fail”, he argues that the service is only superficially interactive:
“Oh sure, they say it’s interactive. Like everyone says when they build Flash apps like history timelines. It may look pretty, but whoever uses it more than once?”, writes Dear.

In other words, it’s still an inherently linear experience, whereas resources like Wikipedia let you skip straight to the good stuff (see Speakertext’s solution to this video quandary).

Dear’s real gripe with Qwiki, however, is summed up in this excerpt:

“When it comes to comprehending information, the journey should not be the reward. The destination should be the reward. The destination is the ‘aha’ moment. These Qwiki guys do not seem to have any understanding of the learning process. They’re thinking flash cards.”

Of course, Dear is criticising bread based on what the dough tastes like. Qwiki has a lot of growing up to do before it reaches Beta, and for that reason alone, we should cut Imbruce and his team some slack.

Granted, there’s nothing disruptive about turning Wikipedia and Flickr into glorified web TV. But once we think of Qwiki as a platform, then the avenues towards disruption, towards real social impact, become wider. Specifically: what happens when this startup turns over the keys to the users?

This is what Storify, a San Francisco-based startup run by former journalist Burt Herman, has done. Like Qwiki, Storify is built on the insight that there is a whole lot of knowledge out there that doesn’t necessarily ‘belong’ to anyone. What the tool does, essentially, is allow users to shape narratives from social media (tweets, status updates and pictures) as a standalone page or as an embeddable object.

Recently, media outlets in the US have used Storify to chronicle the flurry of Twitter activity during the November 2 midterm elections. In a media environment that has relied on screenshots and awkward copying-and-pasting to tell the story of social media, the service is already demonstrating its value to publishers and bloggers.

Storify demo from Burt Herman on Vimeo.

These companies have chosen two very different use cases to market technologies that combine non-copyrighted inputs to one cohesive story.

Which is more disruptive: connecting users to a library of machine-made knowledge remixes, or connecting users to each other’s curated content, shaped into narrative by human hands?

After taking the spoils at Disrupt, Imbruce and his co-founder & CTO, Louis Monier, said that the number one question they had been asked about qwikis was: “Can I make my own?”. It’s part of the larger plan, the duo assured them, with Imbruce adding that “Qwiki is not a product, it’s a platform”.

Indeed, both Qwiki and Storify might turn out to be massively disruptive technologies, just waiting for the right use case to come along and change the way we receive content forever.

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