Skype Translate: We’ll no longer have Paris.

Demonstration of Microsoft Skype's Universal translator

Demonstration of Microsoft Skype’s Universal translator

For linguaphiles everywhere, the idea that you might be able to communicate, instantaneously, with speakers of any language in the world, has always been the stuff of fantasy. But now perhaps Skype and Microsoft are turning that into reality.

I absolutely love this, and think it could be a truly powerful tool to break down communications barriers around the world. That said, it raises some really interesting questions for me:
  • Does it take away some of the magic of learning a new language? Is a world that gradually reveals itself to you as your skills develop somehow more beautiful than a world that is immediately revealed to you in its entirety thanks to a piece of software? A friend of mine used to quantify whether or not you could speak a language by your ability to date in it – if you knew enough French to go on a date with a native speaker, you could reasonably consider yourself pretty decent. This new app removes that curve, taking you instantaneously to total fluency. Which could be great news for international dating everywhere, but a bit of a shame for those who still believe in old-fashioned romance
  • The example in the video, while impressive, also doesn’t cover much in the way of slang, idioms, turns of phrase, irony, and all those other beautiful curlicues that make language such a pleasure. There’s a real question mark over how much of our spoken language consists of grammatical, semantic sentences, and how much consists purely of what linguists term ‘utterances‘, i.e. those meaningless bits of speech that we all use every day to communicate. This whole field is known as Pragmatics, and is a fascinating place to explore. I’d love to see how the Skype Translator deals with some of the issues raised in these areas. And of course, some terms are simply untranslatable.
  • Finally, Satya Nadella’s comments at the very beginning of the video open up some fascinating possibilities for those devotees of Chomskyian linguistics. Chomsky has always posited that there is some kind of ‘universal grammar‘ underlying all human language. That’s not to say that all languages have the same grammatical rules, simply that there are some basic elements of understanding the world that are universal (the existence of nouns, or perception of objects in three-dimensional space, might be examples of these). Nadella mentions at the beginning of the video that, once the system knew two or three languages, each subsequent language became easier to learn, but also that the system got better at handling the languages it already knew. Could this be because the algorithms are somehow making connections between multiple languages, and starting to understand the underlying logic behind them all? The possibility is certainly intriguing.
In the meantime, I’ll stick with my handy BabelFish.

How metrics change journalist behaviour

There is a fantastic piece over at Nieman Labs by the very talented Angèle Christin, a ‘newsroom ethnographer’.

She has just spent two years studying the habits of journalists at a publication in the US and a publication in France, comparing their claimed vs. actual behaviour when writing copy for websites. Specifically, she looked at the effects of web metrics within editorial departments.

It’s a fascinating read, touching on some characteristics of metrics that are true for all of us (As Karl Pearson said, “That which is measured improves”) and some that are specific to journalists (I’m not sure if there’s a specific term yet for ‘the temptation to knock out a quick listicle when your weekly traffic is not looking great’).

That said, it is not clear from the article whether the news sites Christin worked with generated revenues purely from advertising, or whether they also had a subscription or pay-wall element to their business. This matters, because it changes how journalists’ effectiveness is perceived within a business. (full transparency: I have not read the full academic paper, only the summary article)

On a site where revenue only comes through advertising, the temptation is to see the journalist’s role as simply generating content against which advertising can be sold. On this model, the content itself matters very little, as long as it is attracting plenty of people (ideally of the right demographic). The MailOnline is arguably the most extreme example of this model.

On sites with a more balanced revenue model (e.g. the FT, or The New York Times), the business is less dependent on ad revenue. This means that articles can be judged not just on how many people read them, but for example on whether the content was of a high enough quality for readers to think their subscription was worthwhile, or want to come back again next week. If a site is writing about very specialist subject matter (anything ranging from complicated hedge fund analysis to esoteric model railway design), the value that some readers will place on the content far outweighs the possible advertising revenue generated, so the dynamics could shift significantly.

While these are the main business models in modern news sites, you could also imagine other metrics being used to judge performance of journalists, for example a new publication trying to establish itself in the market might evaluate journalists on how many times their articles are picked up by other sources, or quoted by other influencers, rather than pure page views.

Indeed, some publishers such as the FT are now moving to selling advertising to a cost-per-time spent basis, which will arguably change the pressures on journalists again.

It would be fascinating to see how editorial teams responses to these metrics, and the pressure they place on journalists, vary according to the business model of the publication.

None of this is to say that page view metrics have no place in the editorial process – they are the easiest way for the publication to keep on track with what readers are interested in, they help keep things profitable, and ultimately contribute to many journalist’s feelings of accomplishment. No one wants to write ‘just for clicks’, but at the same time every professional journalist I’ve ever met has wanted their work to be read by others. Otherwise they would never publish.

Ikea’s BookBook

This brilliant video has been doing the rounds, and I’m sure I’m not the only blog posting about it, but the accuracy of the language used in it really is outstanding.

The media world does seem to constantly invent terminology for things that, until fairly recently, seemed blindingly obvious (e.g. the ‘sharability’ and ‘zero lag’ of a printed book in the above video). There are dozens of examples across the industry at the moment, but I’ve always thought radio never got enough credit for it’s real-time, interactive mechanics that could share user-generated content with other listeners (i.e. the oft-neglected radio phone-in).

All of this is peripheral, of course, to the most meaningless term in media: ‘native advertising’.

But I’ll save that for another post.

Everything is a remix

This is a few years old now, but an incredibly well-produced three-part documentary here on the role of remixing existing materials in the creative process. Pretty much sums up what Adopt, Adapt and Improve is all about…

Google Economist Hal Varian on the decline of newspapers

Hal Varian is the chief economist at Google, and as you might expect from someone in that position, has taken a long hard look at the media industry based on the actual data, rather than the emotional hyperbole on all sides. He’s been talking at the International Journalism Festival, and his speech is well worth reading.

He’s great on the decline of newspapers, pointing out that this began in the 70s, making it hard to blame the internet for declining circulations, as the industry seems to do constantly. At the same time (and I’m a huge fan of printed newspapers and magazines) it’s hard to deny that in several key respects, the internet is simply ‘better’ than print, so it’s no surprise that consumers are moving over to digital media in ever increasing numbers.

The only point where I think he falls a little short of the mark is when he equates time spent with a newspaper or website with ‘engagement’. On one level this is true, and I agree that newspapers will need to increase the amount of time readers are spending with their content in order to compete with pure-digital competitors. However, he neglects the impact that a particular newspaper’s environment, history or prestige may deliver. If you spend 30 seconds on a Buzzfeed story, and 30 seconds on a New York Times opinion piece, my hunch is that the latter will engage your brain on a deeper level, be more likely to change the way you think, and be more likely to still be on your mind a few hours later. All of which makes it a much more appealing environment for advertisers. Unfortunately though, at the moment there doesn’t seem to be any agreed metric on this aspect of media consummption. Until there is, we may be stuck with ‘time spent’ as an imprecise proxy.

Great speech though, and there’s further comment here:

What you miss when you’re reading newspapers

A fantastic Belgian trade ad for the newspaper industry, created by Duval Guillaume Modem in Antwerp. A very clever way to illustrate how clients themselves consume media, and how engrossing a good newspaper can be.

Of course, it’s not necessarily any more engrossing than a Blackberry, or a good article read on an iPad, but a neat illustration all the same. Time and again, the best way to communicate with clients is to put them in the shoes of their consumers (too often they forget that ‘the audience’ is made up of people, just like them).

That said, this ad might also just be proof that very senior business people consume their media with a single-minded focus that the rest of us, prone to gazing out the window and dreaming, lack.

Out of Print: information overload and nonsense headlines

There is something inherently temporary about digital media. It’s just 1’s and 0’s organised in a particular way for a particular moment, and it’s all too easy to press Delete, wipe the slate clean, and start all over again. So it’s nice to see something that emphasises the permanent and physical nature of communications –the printing of actual ink onto actual paper by an individual with a creaky wooden printing press. Which is just what a group of design students at Goldsmiths College have done on the above video.

They take it a step further, and their project ‘Out of Print’ is not just about the beauty of ink on paper, but I think it’s also saying something about the impermanence of news headlines and the way the news washes over us, becoming almost meaningless. They describe project as an answer to media ‘saturation’:

With the growth of digital media we are faced with unprecedented levels of data. We now find ourselves at a saturation point. By attempting to consume ever more, we end up understanding less.
In this context, news and media are becoming redefined to fit our shortened attention spans. How do we make sense of all the information we consume and not get lost in the process?

What do you think? I can definitely identify with the feeling of information overload, and to see it so lovingly reproduced in ink-and-paper somehow draws our attention to it more than a busy webpage ever could. Either way, it’s a lovely video, and a project worth checking out.