Craig Mod is one of those people that everyone in Tokyo seems to have heard about. From his successful harnessing of Kickstarter to fund a new edition of Art Space Tokyo to his early involvement with Chin Music Press and various startups, and his love for photography and travel, Craig Mod is a galvanizer with, digitally speaking, an apparent Midas touch.
So when we heard about his new project with Chris Palmieri (of AQ), we knew it would be interesting, not to mention bound to have fantastic design. And we were right. Hi is a real-time storytelling website where you share snippets of moments through text and photographs linked to a location. This then expands into a network of moments grouped by where they are in the world and which, as users return and extend the moments, morphs into a narrative map of the planet.
We spoke to busy, globe-trotting Craig Mod to find out some more about Hi.
First off, why the name?
Well, it’s obviously very catchy and memorable, but are there are any drawbacks?
Discovery in the digital universe now extends well beyond search engines thanks to social sharing. So the SEO issues around something called Hi aren’t quite as worrying as they may have been, say, five or ten years ago. That said, we’ve only got to beat out Hawaii for a top spot on Google. No problem, right?
At PingMag we have fond memories of Hitotoki. What happened there? Are we right in assuming the concept matured into the “full-blooded” Hi?
We loved Hitotoki but it just wasn’t particularly scalable. So we abstracted the geo-storytelling bit and rebuilt an entirely new system — one that has become much more complex (under the hood!) than anything we’re built before — allowing for a much more inclusive and scalable ecosystem.
On your About page, the slogan is “real-time storytelling and publishing”. It’s very nice. But when you say “publishing” does it exclusively refer to micropublishing on the site or will there be spin-offs? I ask because I know what an evangelist you are for the “future of books”.
It refers strictly to the publishing component on the site, which is not entirely micro, nor strictly traditional.
We think it’s important to reconsider what “publishing” means in today’s digital contexts. To publish — in its most base definition — is to prepare a work for public consumption. Many of the constraints around content and workflows for physical publishing are tied, unsurprisingly, to the physicality of the output. Digital allows for a more fluid systems. And we have been experimenting with this fluidity.
So, if you look at the publishing process on Hi, you’ll notice a few tricks that bridge – very deliberately — so called “micro” and “traditional” publishing.
First — in the service of “micro” — the writing process begins on the smartphone. This is where you “sketch”. A sketch is just a geo-tagged snippet of text or photograph which can be expanded later into a more “traditional”, fuller story. That expanded story can be written on the smartphone, but more likely (although less likely than expected), it’s written on the desktop.
This split between sketches and stories allows us to structure the notion of publishing on Hi into two tiers.
This two-tier publishing system allows for much higher signal subscriptions. When you subscribe to someone on Hi, you only get notifications for their expanded stories (of which there are usually very few), not their individual sketches (of which there are usually many).
We think this more tiered notion of subscriptions allows for really high-quality connections between users. When you subscribe to someone, you only get their most considered output in your inbox or as notifications. So we’ve found engagement to be great.
You’ve spoken before about “digital apnea” — “in the face of endless content streams, it’s hard to stop and take a breath.” Is that why there is a need then for narrowing things down to precise moments? Instances that might be transcendent or simply entertaining. Cutting through the deluge of content. Hitotoki was like this in a poetic but unpretentious way. Also, after the Fukushima accident, going online and looking at social media felt like you were being drowned by all the information out there. There was just too much. Is your goal, then, to present alternative ways to approach documenting life in the digital space?
Well, our philosophy is that you should collect a ton of stuff — sketch often and prolifically. The goal being to develop an eye for curiosities, a heightened awareness, and so on.
It’s never been easier to grab snippets of life and store them in a virtual bucket. We’ve become habituated to these magic, networked blocks of aluminum and glass in our pockets. They make collection very easy, and we’ve wholeheartedly embraced them as evidenced by products like Twitter and Instagram and Foursquare.
But to focus only on “transcendent or simply entertaining” storytelling would be to miss how important these devices are in the context of journalism — an area where we see the potential for Hi to become most powerful.
In the next five years a billion new smartphone users are going to come online in places most of us have never been to or thought to visit. Providing them the tools to tell their stories, to document their newsworthy events is extremely high on our priority list.
Digital apnea, a derivative of Email Apnea as coined by Linda Stone in 2009, comes into play when you’re consuming. And that why we’re so focused on the two-tier publishing system — so we can make sure readers are able to easily focus the highest quality content without feeling like they’re hyperventilating. If they want to then dive in and explore sketches, they can. But we try to curate respectful hierarchies of information for the readers – something about which we think more software could and should do a better job.
Sketches are, as you describe them, a “quiet public stream” and not fully promotable like the extended moments. How participatory, then, is the ethos behind “moment mapping the world”? Are you hoping users will be like writers, observing and capturing moments primarily for themselves? Or is it more like contributing to a network of shared moments?
We’ve recently launched Topics. Topics are the most collectively participatory piece on Hi yet. They allows users to coalesce around ideas and events worldwide and contribute to a shared storytelling space. You can think of Topics like hashtags, but more human readable and with a few other tricks going on behind the scenes.
Hi is also littered with tools for our Editors. These tools allow them to move throughout the community and promote the best content — be it sketches, photos, or longer stories. Some sketches may be full-formed and stand on their own, so they also deserve the opportunity for top-tier placement.
Our notions of what can be promoted, and how to structure the hierarchies of content is shifting as the platform evolves.
Hi describes its process as: “Sketch, map, and extend your moments.” To publish you sketch a location, photo and a minimum of 20 words. The interface seems simple and very clean. As I understand, there are three formats (sketch-text only page, landscape photo page, portrait photo page). Will the functionality be streamlined and/or expanded?
Storytelling in its most atomic form is just a place + an event. So the system is centered around that. But of course we’d love to expand the interface and allow writers to add more photos or other media (video, sound, etc) to their pieces, too.
The default record of the weather is also a nice touch. Why did you come up that?
There’s a tremendous amount of real-time ambient data being collected. Some of it is even available through apis; weather was just one that was obvious, simple to implement, and readily applicable to all moments. Another one, for example, could be real-time radiation data — imagine having a group of people living up near Fukushima documenting their status, and each update contains current readings. There are many other opportunities to play with similar data.
What is the immediate future for Hi?
Continue to evolve the product, tools, and messaging as quickly as possible.
Thank you, Craig Mod!
Hi is currently invitation-only but 2,000 PingMag readers can register for a special invite code.
Hi — Real-time journalism and storytelling