Swiss information architect Oliver Reichenstein introduced the 450 attendees at last month’s Fairfax-sponsored Media 2010 conference to tputh.com, a curated link mashup posing as a newspaper website. Matthew da Silva caught up with him in a lull between presentations.
A few days after Fairfax Digital CEO Jack Matthews opened proceedings at Media 2010, his company unveiled what it described as new versions of its signature mastheads — which include smh.com.au and theage.com.au.
The story and video that accompanied the unveiling trumpeted new features and better access to information on the websites. Those announcements quickly disappeared as users absorbed the implications for their browsing behaviour. Basically, there weren’t any.
“You were saying that domains are dead…” I say to Oliver Reichenstein, a lithe, dark-haired man sporting a grey suit, sneakers, a three-day growth and a ready smile.
“Like I said in my presentation, you should really forget about trying to keep people on your domain and organise information in a way [that] it reaches people where the discussion happens.”
Webtrendmap is anannual publication places the who’s who of digital-economy companies as stations on an intricate map of the Tokyo metro system.
“It sounds much more complicated than it actually is, but it’s hard to explain. So, people have accounts on Webtrendmap and we distil [the] information from all these accounts.
Mash and burn
The mashup derives a lot of its power from this automation of a social resource.
Research published recently by the Pew Research Center shows that 75 percent of people get news forwarded through email or posts on social networking sites and 52 percent share links to news with others via those means.
“But what’s very cool about Tputh is that we do not just take the top links. We also tag each article. And the way we do this is by sending out a [web] bot to go through the text of the article, find the keywords, and create a little tag cloud on the side of each headline.”
But it’s not pure automation, says Reichenstein. There’s human interaction involved, as well.
“You need curation. You need curation on two levels. You need social curation like we do with our Webtrendmap system, and you need final editorial curation like we do with rewriting [the headlines on Tputh].”
He says the system helps us in a sense where human intelligence will fail.
“Sometimes you think, ‘That’s a really cool article; that’s a really cool link.’ And you post it on Twitter and nobody responds because that’s just you. And you’re so sure [that] people [will] love that. And you think, ‘Maybe nobody saw it.’ And you try again. Nobody responds because it’s just you. You don’t have that absolute perspective that such a system would have, to have a very high statistical probability that this link really reaches a lot of peoples’ interests.”
Is it sort of like an automated BoingBoing?
“It’s a news seismograph that gives you feedback on what Twitter leaders are interested in and what is likely to have a big echo with all other followers of these people. Sometimes you wouldn’t guess what people are interested in.”
So is this a model for the future of newspapers?
“What we can do is deliver personalised newspapers. Right now we’re sucking in all the headlines from everyone on Webtrendmap. But we could actually just suck in headlines from your social network and run it through the system to make sure that we just give you stuff that is relevant within the network. And so you have your personal newspaper.
“You [just] display it in a newspaper fashion. That was one idea that we pitched to a couple of investors in San Francisco last autumn. We didn’t follow through because we found out that this whole VC business is not as cool as we thought, because basically people tell you then what they want you to do. We wanted to keep the liberty because we felt there is more.”
Freedom is important to Reichenstein, who lives with his family in the trendy Tokyo suburb of Ebisu and catches the subway to work in the uber-trendy Harajuku area of Shibuya, a magnet for youth living in Kanto region, of which Tokyo is the centre.
Reichenstein knows about working in a corporate environment, however.
Before setting up iA in 2005 he offered information architecture services through another small company, which was “hijacked” in 2000 by Swiss company Interbrand to work on the redesign of T-Online (like the German version of AOL).
“So our first brand never made it anywhere. It was just a website, because we were working there at this big company.
“It was an excellent opportunity for two young geeks to work on a huge project, [and] learn about the politics of big projects. We had an opportunity to design applications like a browser, email, [online] banking — to redesign the biggest news portal at the time in Germany.
“Fascinating work. Only, after four years I was getting kind of tired because, you know, as so often in a big enterprise you cannot really design things. You cannot really design in a big enterprise and you cannot really design for a big enterprise.”
The experience gave him more than just an insight into how large corporations operate. It also gave him freedom to do what he enjoyed doing. After four years he left and took advantage of the other thing his stint among the corporates gave him: money.
A Japanese (ad)venture
Reichenstein took off almost a year. He says that “more or less by accident” he went to Japan and met his wife. He decided to stay to learn Japanese.
“It quickly became pretty clear to me that I can’t work at a Japanese company. I can’t work at a Western company!”
But living and working in Japan poses no problems for Reichenstein. He lauds the atmosphere of the Kanto plain, where 36 million people live.
“The creative energy you get there, and the creative liberty you get there, that is amazing. Also the staff that we have at our office, I would really have a hard time to — maybe not find, but — afford this staff in Switzerland. Because they’d be very excellent people that have their own companies.”
He has two staff — both former clients — working in Switzerland doing project management. He works alongside the creatives in the Tokyo office.
I ask Reichenstein if living in Japan has influenced his concept of quality, in terms of things like kaizen and continuous improvement.
“Yeah, I mean, I’m Swiss so in that regard the importance and the value of craftsmanship in both countries, and the importance — almost religious importance — of work in both countries are very comparable. Attention to detail.”
They both make good watches.
“Yeah. It’s not an accident. There are a lot of similarities between the two cultures. I’m also half Italian, so I don’t get trapped into the bookkeeping side of that spirit. Hopefully not.”
And when he’s not putting his energy into his work he’s savouring the enormous range of Japanese and Western cuisine available in a metropolis the size of Tokyo.
“They nipponise it. I often say they jazzify it. It’s like jazz music, Japanese food, right?”
Read Matthew da Silva’s write up of the Media 2010 conference, published earlier this week: Hacks and geeks ponder media’s ‘Humpty Dumpty’ moment at Media 2010
Matthew da Silva writes feature stories to fulfil a dream after working in communications and technical writing roles for two decades. He grew up in Sydney, lived in Japan for nine years and now lives on the Sunshine Coast, in Queensland. He blogs daily at Happy Antipodean.