The global news cycle can be overwhelming. So many cultures, regions, and conflicts around the world intersect to form a new mass of headlines each day, that it can be nearly impossible to keep up. Even for those of us who track current events religiously, contextualizing the pieces at play—really understanding the sociopolitical nuances of the conflict in Gaza, say—can be a struggle.
Fold, a news platform being developed by MIT Media Lab’s Alexis Hope and Kevin Hu, has been designed to provide context at its very core. Whereas most news sites (including Fast Company) use links to provide background on who is doing what where and why, Fold is a news site that incorporates background information directly into the articles, including definitions, maps, and other assets.
“Our goal is to allow stories to be more like conversations," the team tells Co.Design. “We believe contextual tools can help all readers confidently engage with complex material, and also provide avenues for more invested readers to explore further."
Fold’s UI is broken down into a cross. The vertical bar is dedicated to the story itself—maybe a report of the most recent city sacked by ISIS. This narrative is chunked into white blocks rather than paragraphs, but it's otherwise your typical, narrative news story.
The horizontal bar is the context stream, crashing itself into the story, and providing background to various points. (It might include an image tracking ISIS's march across the Middle East, for instance, or an infographic charting ISIS's relationship with the greater Muslim faith.) What's neat is that authors can build these “context blocks” themselves, or they can rely on an algorithm to scour the web and fill in context for them. Additionally, Fold’s authors will be able to share context blocks, meaning they won’t be forced to rewrite the history on ISIS that other reliable sources have already written.
The philosophy behind Fold is certainly on trend. As Nieman Journalism Lab points out, the influential, digital-native publishing company Vox has adopted a somewhat similar system of explainers called “card stacks” (though card stacks don’t follow readers around articles in the same way). Google, too, now condenses searches into bite-sized card explainers, summarizing Wikipedia while saving you a click.
The Fold team believes that context is so intrinsic to understanding information that their platform can span beyond news and work for how-to articles, recipes, academic papers, and more.
And maybe it can. But if the media strategies of Vox and Google are right, and readers want better context than what backlinks can provide, I’m not certain that Fold needs to be its own news platform. Why can’t Fold be a web plugin, for instance, that could follow you to any major news site you visit, defining terms and pulling up maps along the way? Why does Fold need to take on the lofty goal of convincing users to create content on its platform to provide context? The team tells me that they saw Fold as a "testbed," a place where a dedicated group of users can help iterate the idea. After that, they're open to "explore other reading and authoring options for Fold."
Hopefully, Fold can move forward even if it fails to woo content creators. Because Fold is full of great ideas and some promising technology. It would be a shame to see this potential lost because it’s intent on being its own product first.