Alessandra Villaamil

Portraying online news articles as living organisms, ephemeron is a visualization of how an article is born, grows and eventually dies.


When articles are published, they are born into an ecosystem that is The New York Times homepage. Each article's life span is tracked and visualized as an organic life form called ephemeron. Fed by article metadata, ephemera grow and evolve based on the number of page views, comments, and share data from Twitter, Facebook, and email. This experiment allows readers to witness and actively participate in the life and death of an individual ephemeron either by augmenting or limiting the article's life sustaining factors. Over time, ephemera grow and evolve into organisms with unique traits and patterns, only to die after losing their newsworthiness.

In the words of Melanie Sill, "these would be wonderful times for journalism if they weren’t so terrible." We're living in an incredible marketplace of information. Digital technology has revolutionized the way we consume information, but newsrooms have always adapted slowly to change, still functioning like product driven factories. In order to grow, newsrooms should adopt open platforms to redefine and build new systems of dissemination and consumption. That's where my idea for thesis began. I wanted to rethink the way journalists and consumers of media think about content, so I planned to create an artistic tool that reimagines the consumption of that media.

NYTimes readers and primordial microorganisms.

User Scenario
My audience is comprised of New York Times readers - both active members of the NYT community, and the occasional visitor to the site. After accessing a link to download the ephemeron plugin, readers will proceed to nytimes.com for browsing and news reading. At this point, they can activate the plugin on their article of choice, showing them a visualization of that article as an ephemeron, a living entity. Readers can browse the ephemeron's previous state to see its growth and navigate the ephemeron to browse comments. If compelled, a reader can share the ephemeron through the social media links and adopt one or more ephemera to keep track of their growth and enable notifications. This experience would give them a better understanding of the lifespan of an article and how reader engagement with them influences the trajectory of their life.

I decided to use Processing as the software medium of my thesis for its simple language and visual context, and New York Times APIs to gather data (specifically, The Most Popular API and The Community API). The program gathers metadata from articles in the most popular section and stores the information in a database. When an article that is no longer found in the most popular section, I label it as dead (or archived). A dead ephemeron becomes fossilized and an obituary is generated to remember how it was being read and shared online. Drawing functions visualize what each ephemeron should look like based on the raw values in the database. Eventually, each ephemeron will manifest itself on The New York Times article page itself, activated by a chrome plugin.

Ephemera are sensational animals. They are at the mercy of us users, and our engagement with them dictates their vitality and their form. They give us a sense of how we're reading, talking about and sharing the news. Ephemeron reimagines news articles programmatically, allowing readers to "adopt," or track articles they are invested in or curious about. The system makes it possible to track an ephemeron's growth and evolution and by extension, gives the reader the power to influence the progression of its life. Like climate proxies, the evolution of an ephemeron can tell us how the world was responding to particular stories of the time, emphasizing the cultural and digital shift in journalism - a richer two-way form of communication.