Back in college, I took a lot
of statistics classes -- and I did pretty well in them, but it wasn't until I was well into a pretty high level stats class that I finally started to understand
statistics, and it had nothing to do with the class or the teacher. It had to do with the job I'd taken as a stats tutor for six different intro stats classes (and, eventually, that resulted in teaching a full class on stats to incoming freshmen). What I realized is that as useful as the book learning and problem sets and everything was, it wasn't until I had to actually explain something back to someone who really didn't understand it
, that I finally started to really understand the more important aspects of statistics. I couldn't get away with "well, I understand this because it works." I had to so fully understand statistics that I could actually understand questions that came from way out in left field, and try to figure out how to fit them back into the framework that was being taught. It was a valuable lesson.
In talking about the future of journalism, one point I've made repeatedly, is that news organizations need to realize that their community is their best asset, and they need to cater to them more and involve
them a lot more in the process. Today's news "consumer" isn't really a consumer, but a participant. I've talked about how they want to share the news, write the news and comment on the news, but what about actually experiencing the news in some manner?
Whether on purpose or not, it seems like that's what Wired just accomplished with its ambitious Vanish project
. If you haven't paid attention to it, it started with an article last month in Wired, called Gone Forever: What Does It Take to Really Disappear?
, written by reporter Evan Ratliff. The article itself was quite an enjoyable read, about people who have simply tried to disappear and start a new life (and the difficulty of actually vanishing from your old life). Despite the topic (and the fact that I love such stories), I probably would have skipped the article over. There's only so much time and so many things you can read in a daily basis -- and (as you might have guessed) I already read a lot.
But, Wired combined this with a contest. The reporter on the story, Evan Ratliff agreed to "vanish" himself for a month, and the contest was to see if anyone could find him
. If someone found him and said the word "fluke" to him, Evan would respond with a codeword that would allow the "winner" to alert Wired's Nicholas Thompson and claim a $5,000 prize (including, I believe, Ratliff's own $3,000 for writing the article). That certainly made the story a lot more compelling. I have to admit that I didn't participate much in the "chase" which was tracked in a variety of places online from Facebook to Twitter to the Vanish blog
on Wired, which dropped clues and tied together some of the findings.
On Tuesday, however, Ratliff was caught
, down in New Orleans, by the operator of a pizza shop, who had been alerted to the whole thing just a day before by someone who had been very closely tracking Ratliff, and used some rather creative means to track him down -- including befriending some people who were alerted to Evan's whereabouts without even realizing it. You can read the full explanation from Jeff Reifman
as to how he tracked down Ratliff, or Wired's shorter summary of the story
. In the end, Ratliff left a lot of clues, but he did so purposely, to help illustrate typical mistakes made by those who do try to "vanish" for real.
However, what struck me, was just how involved the community got in this story. It reminded me of the revelation of learning statistics by teaching it -- and has me thinking more about "experiential" reporting on "reporting by game" to better involve a community in various projects. I am not
suggesting that "this is the future of journalism." But I am saying it may be one
potentially useful way that some
stories could be told. For many people involved in this project, I'll bet they learned a hell of a lot more about this issue than they ever expected. And even those of use who were "casual observers" picked up a ton of interesting knowledge about how people try to vanish -- and (perhaps much more interesting) how others track them down. If I were looking to make journalism more interesting, I'd start looking at ways to more creatively involve a community, and Wired's Vanish experiment is one to keep in mind as an example.