How to Teach Google What a Story Is

Deep inside Google, a small team has been trying to solve a problem that's easy for any schmuck around the watercooler but frighteningly difficult for the world's most data-rich company: telling a story.

Google wanted to solve a problem we can all understand. People take so, so many photographs and yet they actually do very little with them. A chosen few are posted to Instagram. Most sit in vast wastelands of thumbnails on phones or in iPhoto never to be seen after the moment of their creation. 

"You come back from a trip with 300 photos and no one is trying to help you do anything with them," said Google social web engineer Joseph Smarr. "You think about how people deal with that, and the main way is to not share anything. The second biggest thing is to share one little vignette or Instagram. Or the worst thing is they dump the whole 300 photos in an album. And that doesn't tell a story in a meaningful way. It's just a series of pictures. It's just a monotone drum beat with no fills: boom-boom-boom-boom."

So Smarr and his teammates—product designer Brett Lider and user experience designer Clement Ng—set a task for themselves. They wanted to create software that would have rhythm and flow like "actual storytelling." Actual human storytelling. 

Their solution is available to all Google users as one of Google+'s genuinely awesome photo tools. (One can poke fun at Google+'s foibles, but they nailed photos.)

The product is called Stories, and it takes photos users upload and automatically packages them up into narratives.

Maybe that sounds easy, but that's because you're a human. Teaching a machine a sense of narrative and place isn't quite so easy, even using all of the information that Google knows about a user.

So, I spent time with the Google team that built Stories. I learned how they did it and began to consider what that says about computers' ability to understand the human world enough to help us live in it. 

* * *

The early prototypes look nothing like the finished product.

At first, Smarr and Lider created something that looked more like a personal report card, a bunch of data compiled like the nerd-famous "annual reports" produced by one-time Facebook designer Nicholas Fenton. A May 2012 design mockup features Lider's check-ins and hiking stats, interactions with people, and musical choices. It's a fairly comprehensive and detailed set of information about a person, artfully chosen and arranged. The idea was to create something like a Facebook News Feed, only for a single person: an algorithmic distillation of your own personal news. 

Stories mockup, May 2012 (Google).

But that was just a mockup. When they began to see what they could actually create with all of Google's data about its users and all its processing might, they discovered something: "Our history is noisy and incomplete," Smarr said. At the same time, they were honing their concept. And they kept coming back to photographs.

Lider ran user group studies, asking people to talk about each of the last ten photographs that they took. Why'd they take it? Who was it for?

There were three broad categories. The first was obvious: they took the photograph for someone. The second category makes sense, too: people used photographs for memory augmentation, to remember a beer they'd liked or a place they wanted to come back to. The third category, though, was "documentation of adventures." And when they asked people how often they actually used the pictures that they took, "recorded adventures had the lowest percentage of people acting upon their intentions," Lider said. 

The first two categories have obvious apps and services associated with them. Every messaging app in the world helps people send pictures they've taken for someone. And Evernote, among others, exists to help people remember things. 

But adventure recording? That didn't have an App Store-leading app. In fact, people tended to blame themselves for not using those photographs they'd taken. They'd say they were lazy for not getting the photos to friends or into a form that they themselves could enjoy. 

Smarr, Lider, and Ng began to sense an opportunity. Lider ran more user tests. He had people come in and play with print outs of photographs.

He'd literally ask them to lay them out on a table. Most people organized the images left to right in a chronological strip. They clustered photos from the same place together, and even place an "establishing shot" of that place at the beginning of each location section. 

It's not a photo album. It's not a collage. It's... a kind of narrative biography, Lider realized. So he started looking into the history of that art. This research led to the project's codename: Project Boswell, after James Boswell, Samuel Johnson's biographer. (Seriously!) 

James Boswell, human biographer (Wikimedia)

"The moment in history we focused in on was when narrative biographies started coming out in the 19th century. Biographies up to that time had been lists of dates and 'just-the-facts' and then you saw famous people and wealthy people commissioning biographers to write narrative biographies. And the most famous of them was this guy James Boswell," Lider said.

"So we thought, what if we could democratize this? I think a big story of Google and technology is the bringing of things to people that were formerly only available to the elite. So the idea that we could be your personal storyteller, be your personal biographer, help you articulate the narrative arcs of points of your life was really exciting to us."

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