A storytelling triumph: All good algorithms need adult supervision

by Paul Furiga, on Mar. 13, 2013

In my last blog, I leapt right off the deep end to argue that storytelling and context trump math and algorithms for Internet success, despite all the hype about artificial intelligence or how math could predict trust or communications success online.

In turns out I was on pretty solid ground in making my seemingly bold assertion. A few days after my blog post hit the web, none other than the New York Times reported that algorithms aren’t perfect and that one of the most important jobs in the Internet world these days belongs to humans who provide the context for search and related functions that computers just can’t “get” on their own, no matter how fast they process data.

creative word cloud

In reporter Steve Lohr’s story, “Algorithms get a Human Hand in Steering Web,” Carnegie Mellon University computer scientist Tom M. Mitchell put it plainly: “For all their brilliance, computers can be thick as a brick.”

Lohr wrote that at Twitter, where users can create content at a speed that would crash many Internet server farms, staffers called “Mechanical Turk judges” must provide the context that algorithms alone can’t deliver.

In a fascinating blog cited by Lohr and written by Twitter engineers Edwin Chen and Alpa Jain, the Twitter process is laid bare with some fascinating examples of how Twitter is working to make real-time search more contextual and relevant.

As with all things Internet, Twitter isn’t alone; there are even outsourced companies that provide this talent. And of course, at Google, where Lohr notes “algorithms and engineers reign supreme,” a team of staffers known as evaluators or raters are helping to improve search results.

So, aside from proving that algorithms alone can’t provide context and a compelling narrative like those that our brains crave, what does Internet search tell us about storytelling?

To paraphrase Ben Taylor, a product manager of FindTheBest also quoted in the story, the amazing powers of search, great as they are, can’t provide the context that humans require to make sense of the world. As he told Lohr, “You need judgment, and to be able to intuitively recognize the smaller sets of data that are most important. To do that, you need some level of human involvement.”

Yes indeed. But here’s where so many who are chasing the technological Holy Grail of perfect search are missing the point. This is not a technological problem. It’s a matter of human biology. It’s not about developing algorithms or mathematical sequences that fool our brains into finding exactly what some smart techie thinks we want. It’s about developing the technology that unlocks the power of human comprehension. And to do that, we need to remake the technology paradigm around what the brain needs: narrative that creates context and meaning.

That’s my story – and I’m sticking to it. What do you think? Let me know by leaving a comment below.

And if you want to know more about the science behind our view of storytelling, download our whitepaper on the subject.

Topics:inbound marketingstory
Paul Furiga-wordwrite-headshot
Paul Furiga
President and Chief Storyteller

Paul Furiga is President and Chief Storyteller at WordWrite. Follow him on Twitter at @paulfuriga. 

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