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Qwiki, a new type of multimedia reference engine

Recently, I got an invitation to the alpha release of Qwiki.  This multimedia search tool is a bit different from the others.

Here’s a Qwiki profile of John Lennon:

Qwiki – John Lennon from Cédric Bellenger on Vimeo.

The searcher’s query is answered with an interactive Web collage of relevant images, video, a text essay, and a female voice computer narration, what Qwiki calls an automated narrative. Using artificial intelligence the resulting slide show weaves together content from Wikipedia, Google, Fotopedia, and YouTube.  Although I had trouble bringing up the code–it may be that alpha thing–the slideshows appear to be embeddable.  (I grabbed the John Lennon Qwiki from Vimeo.)

TheNextWeb Social Media explains what goes on under the Qwiki hood:

The technology behind the “result,” which should really be called a presentation, was built in-house; basically, Qwiki’s team of developers coded algorithms to crawl the web for unstructured information, which the algorithms then auto-structure and pull together as Qwikis. The algorithms register data like photos, video and text, then format it automatically. The algorithms even format certain text like population and age into infographics.

The site’s blog promises features that will allow for user-generated creations:

Qwiki allows the user to search for an automated narrative about millions of reference topics but will soon enable them to create their own story via content publishing and personalized Qwiki channels. The true beauty of this product and the ironically significant meaning behind our euphemistic t-shirt slogan comes back to Schank’s theory of intelligence in which he argues that knowledge is “experiences and stories, and intelligence is the apt use of experience and the creation and telling of stories”. Qwiki, then, is unique in its ability to create the right stories, to communicate them in a carefully engineered mix of rich media, and to engender the opportunity for millions of personal stories.

Qwiki is likely to become another reasonable go-to site for students as they begin to get their arms around a topic for research.  Clicking on an individual image or video brings up a link to its source–often Wikimedia Commons. It is quite possible to get completely lost in the many related Qwikis displayed.

But, there’s synthesis and there’s synthesis.

As I watched the stories, it became clear to me that algorithms do not do the job of a thoughtful editor (or learner) in determining balance and what might be most important in introducing a topic.  For instance, the Qwiki on Philadelphia offered information on its African American population and its snow storms, but not its rich history.  There are, however, other Qwikis on Philadelphia history.  The Qwiki on Afghanistan focused on geography and scientists and philosophers, but neglected to mention the current war.  The Qwiki on school libraries appears to rely exclusively on Wikipedia content and offers but one image of stacks. The visuals in the Qwiki on Frida Kahlo offered far more focus on tourist shots of her home than images of her work.  (This is likely an issue relating to limited available images with liberal license.)  Images displayed don’t always sync with the meaning of the narrative.

I plan to introduce Qwiki as a starting point for research and in my discussions with students about information fluency, evaluation, depth, artificial intelligence, and how search tools work.)

Qwiki at TechCrunch Disrupt from Qwiki on Vimeo.

To follow the progress of the Qwiki project, you might choose to follow on Twitter @Qwiki or get your own Qwiki invite.

Joyce Valenza About Joyce Valenza

Joyce is an Assistant Professor of Teaching at Rutgers University School of Information and Communication, a technology writer, speaker, blogger and learner. Follow her on Twitter: @joycevalenza


  1. Mary Patterson says:

    As usual another great down and dirty analysis! You answered some questions I had when I used Qwiki today. Loved your examples which illustrate your concerns so beautifully.



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