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Why I Think (And Hope) @Qwiki Will Fail

Doug Imbruce introducing Qwiki

"Today, consumers are absolutely overwhelmed with information."

"Information is an experience that we can watch. Wow, that is an amazing idea!"

Quotes from Doug Imbruce, the CEO of Qwiki. Quotes that quite ironically and quite perfectly suggest why I think Qwiki will fail. And why I hope it will fail. Yes, you heard that right.

So they copied how some futuristic computer interfaces are portrayed in movies. It's no wonder interfaces have been portrayed visually in movies. Movies are visual! They're entertainment! Simple words or text would be boring. That doesn't necessarily mean that such interfaces are the right direction for the future in the real world.

When you are researching information, sure, sometimes a visual explanation is the best way to explain something. But most of the time, if you are looking for a definition, or a fact, text (with one or two appropriate images or animations if truly needed) is sufficient. What I fear with tools like Qwiki is that it takes us further down the path of -- speaking of movies, I'll give you one -- Idiocracy. It's a service that seems to say, "People don't read, so why make them read? Give them what they want, and what they want is visuals with a simulated female cyborg voiceover!"

In the Qwiki demo at the recent TechCrunch Disrupt event, Imbruce showed how Qwiki might wake you up using an iPhone app, and start talking to you about the weather outside and then remind you of the stuff you have to do that day. The Qwiki people are dipping their toes in the right future, but they're only dipping their toes and they don't go anywhere near far enough. The killer app in this space will be one that saves you time. You do not save time when you have a big audiovisual "experience" every time you want a simple piece of information, a definition, or an appointment reminder. Why overwhelm people more with a Qwiki "experience"? Whatever happened to scanning? How does Qwiki improve scanning? It seems, from the brief demo, to do the very opposite: it seems to impede it. At least on Wikipedia when you look up, say, Idiocracy, you can scan down to the "Plot" section and read that, or skip the "Cast" section and read that and get to the specific info you want. Qwiki is not, it seems to me, "qwik". it suffers from being time-based, like any video or audio sequence. 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?

The fundamental problem with Qwiki as an informatioin tool is that it is focused on a snazzy production, re-hashing and re-purposing tons of existing web content, to create an "experience" of the content rather than facilitating the most efficient comprehension and utilization of the content.

There is a common trap that filmmakers fall into, especially documentary filmmakers, that is often called "Show and Tell." For example: imagine a documentary where the narration voiceover might be saying "the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog." While those words are narrated, the accompanying visuals frantically jump from a quick fox, with a zoom in on its brown coat no doubt, then showing how it jumps, followed by a picture of a "lazy dog." It's really hard to do Show and Tell well: usually it comes off as annoyingly amateur. And too much Show and Tell stupifies an audience. Building a Show and Tell product like Qwiki is potentially deeply pernicious for society. Another example: imagine a voiceover of Clinton in the 1992 campaign saying "It's the economy, stupid!" with a quick succession of "show and tell" visuals showing a picture of, say, the front page of the Wall Street Journal, or the NYSE's entrance, or factories and smokestacks, or whatever the web hive mind that day thinks is the most likely visual associated with the word "economy," and then cutting, say, to a picture of Larry and Moe from The Three Stooges to represent "stupid." Lots of documentaries lately suffer from this weak filmmaking technique, probably because so many documentaries are edited using computers and once you're into the digital realm, you have Google and Getty Images and YouTube and the Internet Archive and all the rest at your disposal, with the result being: Show and Tell.

Show and Tell all too easily dumbs down information. It reminds me of the really old days, say the 1700s in London, where the butcher shop had a picture of a pig out front for its sign, and the flower shop had a sign with a picture of flowers on it, and so on -- all the store signs were pictures because so few people knew how to read! My big concern with things like Qwiki is that if it succeeds, we all fail. We become less literate.

Let me stop for a moment and acknowledge that on this very blog in the past I have advocated for more visual, iconographic interfaces. Sometimes I think they can be very effective. But there are times when they're useful, and there are times when it's just flashy "ooh! a squirrel!!" distraction, something that the web (and products like iPhone and iPad) are enabling and promulgating more and more every day.

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. They are trying to make the journey -- a multimedia experience -- the reward and I worry about that. What is so desperately needed today and in the future are better skills at reading, comprehension, composition, analysis, and critical thinking. I worry that Qwiki is a giant step back from all that.

Yes, "consumers" (I very much dislike the term) "are absolutely overwhelmed with information." So what does Qwiki do? Offer more information. That's not helping, that's making things worse. Qwiki is a flashy Show and Tell. It needs to fail. This is not the right way for us to go forward.

Sometimes things work because they have cheap or minimal production values. Wikipedia and Craigslist are excellent examples. Qwiki is like a 1994 CD-ROM production of Wikipedia. Fancy production, tons of Show and Tell, and a novelty that wears off very quickly. We should all hope.

A picture may well be worth 1000 words, but a word is not always worth 1000 pictures.

UPDATE 2-OCT-2010 19:59: Doug Imbruce responds.

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