Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Smallest Unit of Information

I have become a semi-avid Twitter user over the past several weeks as a way to take notes during talks that I found interesting, get the word out on our work and occasionally relate what is strange and wonderful. While I don't use it too frequently, I have found it convenient and a good way to distribute information.

Using Twitter has made me wonder what is the smallest unit of information that is useful to help people make a decision or be "informed"?

Twitter is 'micro-blogging' within 140 characters, about three short sentences. While not clear to me the character limit on a Facebook status it seems they are only effective in one sentence. Most video news clips are not much longer than one to two minutes.

We are increasingly parsing our existence into smaller or smaller units and then distributing those small packets out to our social networks in new ways, back through Facebook, onto Youtube, personal Podcasts and so on.

Public media has always excelled with the long form; the hour and half documentary; the 58 minute program; and even the smallest unit, the 28 minute talk show. This form is effective in implementing instructional design, communicating important contextual information and helping to viewers to connect to the material.

This, of course, all goes to hell when you cut the material down into a two minute clip. But does it lose its value as a piece of information? Does it lose it's public purpose? I think that it probably does because the content was never meant to be digested in the digital age. The fact that it was recorded digitally and posted on the Internet means little other than it is more "distributable".

The problem lies in the fact that while the Internet has begun to make the short-form documentary (<5 minutes) more than just a demo reel for filmmakers, we still have an emerging opportunity to Think Smaller about public purpose content. How small can we go to help fulfill our goals of education and action?

The right answer is probably "it depends"; depends on what is the purpose of the content - education? information? skill-building? advocacy? It depends on the audience and how well you know them. It depends on the level of action/outcome you expect.

One role of ultra-short content is as a teaser to lead people into a fuller form of content. The Facebook status is a great example that leads people to more information. Another role is the short clip to teach a discrete step or a single piece of information, stripped bare. It could have the purpose of linking people together, long chains of individuals each connected by a small content element, like electrons orbiting a nucleus. (Or better yet, chains of quarks.)

One of the things that I most liked about the Internet when it started was the hyper-link, which for me was taking small pieces of information and linking to a related piece of information and linking to another piece of information and so on and so on and so on...until you built a wholly different appreciation of the subject. From the Blue Whale to textile manufacturing in ten easy steps.

In the rush for complexity and structure I think we may have lost the the appreciation of small units of information. Perhaps it is time again to reformulate the greatness of smallness?

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