2010 was a robust year for explanatory content, both in and outside of journalism. But before we move ahead to what is sure to be an equally exciting 2011, let’s take a look back at some of the best explainers last year had to offer:
Special thanks to Sean O’Neill for letting us know about this great explainer
There are few subjects more daunting and confusing to the general public than America’s financial system. Luckily, this demand for knowledge has led to some of the best explainers, including NPR’s “Giant Pool of Money” (without which, the “Building a Better Explainer” project probably wouldn’t exist). On the news, we constantly hear quotes like “the stock market is up x points” or “the market plummeted today.” But unless we know the context surrounding these changes (the market may be up… but from what?) these are nothing more than empty, meaningless figures.
That’s where New York Times’ recent story/pixel chart, “In Investing, It’s When You Start and When You Finish,” comes in. This clever infographic shows how S&P 500 investments have performed over the past 90 years, depending on when the money was deposited and when it was taken out. By providing a long-term perspective, it becomes easier to determine whether past market changes were merely temporary ups and downs or signs of larger trends.
Happy New Year from Explainer.Net! If there’s one thing we can count on in 2011, it’s that Mark Zuckerberg will continue to hear criticism over Facebook’s erosion of its privacy settings. But at what point did Facebook go from innocent time-waster to target of privacy crusaders the world over? In the Evolution of Privacy on Facebook, Matt McKeon, a software engineer for Google (who says on his blog that “someday I’ll get to talk about what I do there”) has presented the data behind this evolution in a way that is clear, concise, and comprehensive.
If someone handed you an article published in the Journal of Virology about the potential of RNA interference to cure diseases, would you understand it? Would you even want to read it? Unless your background was in biochemistry or molecular genetics, probably not. Now what if someone explained the same concept to you, but did it by telling a story that involved pirates, chefs and a cop who knows kung-fu? That’s exactly what the people at PBS’ NOVA have done with their
RNAi Explained interactive piece.
In January 2010, four NPR reporters bought their very own toxic asset to get a first-hand perspective on the housing crisis. Last September, their asset, “Toxie,” died a tragic if not unforeseeable death. This animated video explains how assets like Toxie led to the collapse of the housing market.
Explainers often have lofty goals in their subject matter, but we know that different people have different styles of learning. Explainers utilize many tools to break down complicated subjects beyond just a block of text, and we’ve collected eight of the best. Some of them are visual, interactive, or entertaining, but all of them help users easily digest intricate topics.
Infographics are visual representations of data. They can be as simple as a bar graph, or may contain complex interactive elements. In any case, infographics can render information that might seem esoteric in its raw form into something much easier to grasp. One great example is Naming Names, a visual chart of “he said, she said” political games that is visually pleasing, informative, and interactive. Whereas many infographics are merely supplements to larger stories, this manages to have its own unique narrative.
Whether you use After Effects, Flash, or good old paper and pencil, animation can be one of the most successful tools for visual explanation. Sometimes, the simpler the better, as is the case with CommonCraft, which uses basic stick figure drawings to describe a wide array of topics from “Saving for Retirement” to “Augmented Reality” in a way that is basic, direct, and most of all, elegant.
There are few people more committed to explanatory content than Tristan Harris. In July 2007, he helped create Apture, an application that allows users to highlight any piece of text on a website to view contextual videos, search results, and Wikipedia entries, all without leaving the page. In March 2010, Harris joined Jay Rosen, Staci Kramer, and Matt Thompson to lead the South by Southwest panel, “The Future of Context,” that explored the importance of providing background to ongoing news stories.
We recently caught up with Tristan to discuss some of the best (and worst) explanatory practices. Continue Reading →
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