New app Timeline brings explainer journalism to mobile

It’s the era of explainer journalism and we have a new entrant to the list. Mobile app Timeline seeks to give you historical, on-the-go context about breaking news, current events, and random stuff. It’s like Wikipedia meets Circa meets Vox meets The History Channel, and it’s addictive.

Timeline launched a few weeks ago. In the way that Circa built a new, on-the-go format for a news story with its bite-sized cards feature, Timeline is creating a fresh form of explainer journalism, one that’s mobile first.

Here’s how it works. The home feed of Timeline shows you a list of potential stories to scroll through. The topics range from fairly evergreen, like “The surprisingly tumultuous history of socks,” to newsy, like “California’s vaccination problem,” to pop culture-y, like “Super Bowl ads reveal U.S. psyche.” They leave a curiosity gap, one that’s not too clickbaity, prompting readers to click for more.

Screenshots from the homescreen of the Timeline app, where readers can scroll through the day's stories

Screenshots from the home screen of the Timeline app, where readers can scroll through the day’s stories

On its individual story pages, Timeline presents a quick “in brief” summary of the news or the topic at hand. Then readers can choose to skim the content in the overview timeline format or click to read each section more in depth. Videos, imagery, and pull quotes lend a stylish, magazine-like air to the design and break up the chunks of text. Depending on the topic, the timeline can extend months, decades or even hundreds of years into history.

For now, Timeline has hired professional writers to write the posts, so the historical context is easier to understand and more enlightening than the jumbled, jargon-filled text of a Wikipedia post.

For example, the timeline on the history of Super Bowl ads considered the larger so-what of why these ads matter to America: “When viewed with a discerning eye, these commercials reveal the American zeitgeist at the time: What is valued, what is feared and what is accepted as common knowledge.”

Timeline taps into what makes Wikipedia addictive — this swirling vortex of information about random things you never thought about before — and makes it mobile-friendly. Instead of perusing Instagram while you wait in line, perhaps you’ll be tempted to tap on Timeline.

Screenshots from an individual story page in Timeline. Left: The brief topic summary; Middle: The timeline view; Right: The in-depth view

Screenshots from an individual story page in Timeline. Left: The brief topic summary; Middle: The timeline view; Right: The in-depth view

Is Timeline taking on Circa or Wikipedia?

At first glance, the app’s nearest rival might seem to be mobile news app Circa, but that’s not really the case. Circa focuses on breaking news. People encountering the news for the first time can peruse previous updates on the issue, but the timeline isn’t historical in scope. “Ultimately, I don’t consider us a news organization, I consider us an information organization,” CEO Tamer Hassanein told me. “I would compare us more to Wikipedia than the New York Times or Quartz.”

The Timeline app frequently tackles evergreen or feature topics and doesn’t aim to cover breaking news unless its historical back story is compelling to one of the curators.

Of course, that limits the amount of information the app can offer. Hassanein hopes to eventually scale up to a user-generated content system, but that will come with a host of fact-checking and accountability dilemmas. The app is deliberately avoiding controversial topics like the Israel-Palestine conflict until it solidifies its editorial strategy.

newspaper fact check factcheck

Does anyone want explainer journalism on the go?

Sites like Vox, FiveThirtyEight, and the New York Times’ The Upshot were all created that under the premise that in the noisy digital journalism age, we needed more background on breaking news. But it’s proven difficult to explain context accurately while under the time crunch of the rapid fire Internet era. Since Timeline isn’t focused on breaking news, it might be able to avoid that problem.

Timeline’s real struggle may come in the form of app store noise. Despite the addictive nature of the app, its initial premise is a tough sell to the procrastination masses. Surf history instead of Kim Kardashian selfies during your down time? Not a sexy pitch.

Say goodbye to text in Grindr. It’s embracing the visual web

The new Grindr is all about that face. The company redesigned its iOS and Android app this month, abolishing text from a person’s first glance profile. If a user wants more information on someone than just their picture, they’ll have to click further to surface the profile summary. The matchmaking app for gay men also introduced a timing feature that tells two matches how long it would take them to walk to one another. It’s a little like Uber’s interface, but for your hookup — the bold new world of on-demand dating.

Despite the fact that it’s a comparably old app in smartphone years, Grindr has held sway over the gay male population since its launch in 2009. It’s self-funded with advertisements and subscriptions, and its biggest challenge is making sure it doesn’t lose its users to a new up-and-comer.

The redesign helps with that mission. By staying one step ahead of mobile dating trends, setting them instead of following them, Grindr hopes to keep its crown. And as Om Malik explored in this thoughtful post, the future of the web is visual. Images are easier and faster for our brain to process, they transcend language barriers, and they tap into our emotional reservoirs. As Om put it, “We are built to process visual data…That’s why the web is increasingly becoming visual.”

Grindr’s new imagery focus strips away any semblance of profile depth, arguably catering to a mobile dater’s more shallow instincts. But Grindr founder Joel Simkhai says he’s just giving the users what they want.

“One of the things we’re big believers in is men are visual creatures,” Simkhai says. “Copy and text are a lot less important. At this stage you’re not that interested in every little thing they’re interested in.”

The picture cues speed up people’s processing time for each profile. It allows users to swipe quickly through their choices, making faster split second decisions.

And speedy selection is, after all, the hallmark of mobile dating. Grindr arguably pioneered the industry, launching years in advance of the more heterosexually inclined Tinder app. When Grindr makes design decisions, it’s worth watching in case the rest of the mobile dating players follow suit.

But Simkhai doesn’t think we’ll see Tinder, Hinge, or other mobile dating apps minimize profile text any time soon. “Our target market is men and their target market is women because that’s what they need to make their app successful,” Simkhai says. “Women prefer it to be a little slower.”

Old Grindr profile (left) New Grindr profile (right)

Old Grindr profile (left) New Grindr profile (right)

Plagiarism, defamation and the power of hyperlinks

If Fareed Zakaria and Jonah Lehrer had spent more time linking to the original sources of content they used in their writing, they wouldn’t have faced accusations of plagiarism. Their cases and a recent defamation lawsuit against Gawker Media help reinforce the value of the hyperlink.

Today in Cleantech

Bryan Walsh at Time accurately points out this morning that the big winner in today’s EPA rules capping carbon emissions from power plants is natural gas. Coal has been on the way out with only one new coal plant, which has carbon capture technology, being built during the Obama administration. The new rules limit CO2 emissions for power plants to no more than 1000 lbs of CO2 per megawatt hour produced (coal averages around 1800 lbs, way outside that limit). Natural gas typically comes in at a bit under the 1000 lb limit.  And so, in line with Obama’s endorsement of natural gas during his state of the union speech in January, the U.S. goes down the road of a slightly less greenhouse gas emitting power source. As my weekly update points out, the price of natural gas is just so low that it carries the risk of slowing investment in renewables. Which is why as much as everyone hates regulation, the only way to truly push power generation towards low CO2 emissions is to tax carbon. And the only way to do that is to get people to understand that, much like cigarettes have costs to our health care system far beyond what smokers pay at the register, carbon emissions cost everyone a lot more than the spot price for natural gas.