Current: Meme Tracker With Data Visualizations

While in New York earlier this month, I attended New York University’s annual ITP Spring Show. ITP is a graduate program for communications studies and the Spring Show is a chance for students to showcase their interactive projects. I saw everything from Matrix-like interactive squiddies, to a woman on stilts powered by an iPhone app, to a paint brush that made music.

Probably the most impressive thing I saw, though, was a media project by a student named Zoe Fraade-Blanar. Current: A News Project is a prototype meme tracker using data visualization.

Current tracks the lifecycle of internet memes over 24 hours, using data visualization of U.S. news media coverage. It makes it easy to identify when a meme is starting, trending, at its peak, or dying. The tool is aimed at newspaper editors and writers, as it tells them which stories have the best chance of success.

The underlying data of Current comes from Google Trends, in particular the Hot Searches section. So it is ultimately powered by Google search queries. That data is cross-referenced with the five largest newspapers
in the United States, using Google News.


“…it is not the
placement but the thickness and volume of each line that
represents the fluctuating level of interest.”

Creator Zoe Fraade-Blanar has a noble goal for the project. In an explanatory paper, she explains that the goal is to “spotlight missed opportunities in
news coverage, and, potentially, recover news readership
that has been lost to more sensational sources.” Current is Fraade-Blanar’s third attempt to use data visualization “to
tackle the question of what topics news media should be
covering.”

Fraade-Blanar did a stint with the New York Times
Analytics Group in the summer of 2009, helping to analyze incoming
traffic behavior. She discovered then that it often wasn’t ‘hard news’ like politics or economics which drew the most traffic, but ‘soft news’ such as celebrity gossip or entertainment news. Here at ReadWriteWeb, we’re well aware of this issue. Some of our best posts are ones that our writers sweat over for hours, yet probably won’t hit the Digg frontpage because of the topic. Whereas a top 10 list about YouTube videos can draw hundreds of thousands of visitors!


“Each of these circles is a news item. So every time you see a circle inside this information stream, that’s a successful news item.” – Zoe in an On The Media interview.

While Current has a noble aim, curiously it’s the exact same goal that motivates content farms like Demand Media and the newly Yahoo-acquiredAssociated Content. In the words of Fraade-Blanar’s white paper: “Each highlighted meme represents untapped traffic that could be
channeled to a specific news site if only an article existed
on the topic.”

As we’ve noted before on ReadWriteWeb, content farms aim to supply content to meet demand – usually perceived to be what people are searching for on Google. Demand Media, for example, has a sophisticated analytic engine that identifies topics that will be most attractive to Google.

So although Current aims to mediate between a writer’s “need to drive traffic
to [their] website and the need to cover important, albeit less
sensational topics,” in reality it would most likely be used to identify high traffic topics (the ones that will make money).

Regardless of how it might be deployed in the real world, Current is a beautiful tool that nicely illustrates trending stories on the Web. Although currently it is based on Google Trends, it may add other sources like Yahoo,
Technorati, Twitter and Bing.

Congratulations to Zoe Fraade-Blanar for a smart and well-designed project! There is definite potential for Current to become a useful commercial product. Check it out for yourself on the project website.

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