Today, Engadget unveiled ‘Follow the Saga’, a metastream of related articles bound for easy reference. If you need to catch up on the current story, you can simply display a Follow the Saga, saving the writer a ton of time and energy establishing back story in every new article. If you want to read up on SOPA from the very first mention to the latest protests and blackouts, you can peruse those works chronologically with a Follow the Saga or StoryStream. But the problem isn’t attribution – who really made the tech first, Engadget or The Verge? – because everyone’s dipping their toe into this pool. At the end of the day, Engadget’s crime is in the implementation. Also, the name is awful.
SB Nation introduced StoryStream in September of 2009. Not being a sports guy, I’d never heard of the site until they announced they were backing Joshua Topolsky’s new tech venture, The Verge. Back in those days, being a massive hive of blogs, the idea of following an athlete or a team as each new story unfolded was paramount and added to SB Nation’s value. The StoryStream concept was based on the ‘stream of consciousness’ aspect of Web 2.0 companies like Facebook and Twitter. In both, you “read” other people’s content as if they were their own editors, posting their own photos, referencing links, sharing feelings and life stories, all in one logically constructed stream. SB Nation threw this into a new Content Management System (or CMS) in which stories could be linked together through a special widget that collated the information, rather than through primitive text links (*blushes*).
A supremely early version of Engadget’s Follow the Saga tech landed at Engadget in January 2011, during their lead-up coverage to the Verizon iPhone 4. The article was posted by future Verge editor Paul Miller under the lead of former Engadget chief Joshua Topolsky, who co-founded The Verge. Based on how little it was used and how similar it is to its latest version, it appears that their original effort was little more than sculpted cookie arches supporting a cardboard facade. Whether they simply didn’t have the funds to move forward or Topolsky was assured that this tech wouldn’t be available to him for some time, the reality is simple: as a person who doesn’t program, I know it didn’t take the entire year since the Verizon iPhone 4 launch to build Engadget’s new Follow the Saga.
Not long after that article, Topolsky, Miller, and other prominent Engadget writers left to form This Is My Next, which became The Verge. In turn, The Verge launched with StoryStreams since they were piggy-backing SB Nation’s CMS. It was easy. Now three months after the launch of that site, Engadget has followed up with their own version.
And What A Version It Is
Like I said, attribution isn’t the problem here, it’s the chunky, unfulfilling format. Each “Follow the Saga” (blargh, that name is so awful) exists in a socketed box that can be scrolled independent of the main article’s content. Related links flank a central timeline (or stem, if you think about it) that take up an unnecessarily large amount of space and don’t seem any better presented than any existing StoryStream-style tech. The entire thing feels janky and the implementation to date is a small handful of threads, especially with a smattering of empty space at the terminus.
Engadget has inspired my ire before and it’s not just because Topolsky and his crew are off the roster, it’s that in their attempt to match wits with the more creatively equipped Verge, they come across as unoriginal. They have a product database that isn’t theirs (it’s GDGT’s), they have a StoryStream that’s clunky and unimplemented, their video production is inconsistent and… sorry, this isn’t a time to rant on Engadget, it’s time to get to the real heart of the issue:
StoryStreams Can Get So Much Better
It’s obvious who’s copying who when the derivative product isn’t any better than the genuine article. Engadget had a real opportunity to capitalize on the flaws of StoryStream, but instead hummed the bass line. But, what’s wrong with StoryStream? The implementation. Ladies and gentlemen, handing me a bunch of links and saying ‘read this to contextualize that’ is ridiculous. This isn’t school. That shit is boring.
Imagine going to Facebook, but all of the images and videos were removed and you were just left rows and rows of text. You’d call that Twitter, but the advantage of Twitter is that it’s built for the format, forcing people to craft 140-character comments with some wit about them. (But most of that’s noise, anyway.) But here are the contextual images? Where’s the multimedia or the smallest hint of curation? It’s cool that you tagged all of these articles together, but why should I really care? Neither StoryStream nor Follow the Saga resolves this issue with much creativity, but it’s cool that you have a ton of linked articles that I can reference if I were ‘ever lost’ somehow. Thanks.
Maybe I’m just thinking to the future too much. Maybe I’d hoped Engadget didn’t settle on such a rudimentary solution. Maybe I just need more sleep. My point is that the future of aggregate editorialization isn’t here yet. Maybe our little bootstrap organization will have it some day…