The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

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Telling stories with interfaces

Update: Google played one of these during the Super Bowl. Nice!

Like Joanne, I noticed the big Google banners on and, er, totally clicked one. (Isn’t that funny? The one product in the universe that I absolutely don’t need to learn more about is the one that got my click-through.)

The ads lead you to Google’s new Search Stories videos, which are really shockingly clever and watchable. Major props to the team that conceived and executed them. (Check one out, even for just a couple of seconds, so you’ll understand the rest of this.)

These videos are the newest examples of a distinct and important genre, and I think we can take it even further. But first, a quick tour.

Start with something super-minimal like Humble Pied, which totally celebrates its video-chat origins. The nod to the iChat interface is what makes it work for me; compare/contrast to something like Bloggingheads, which is much more, you know, faces-in-abstract-rectangles.

Next. Did you ever see The Monitor circa 2008? I don’t think they produce it anymore. I won’t bend over backwards trying to explain it; you should just click over and take a peek. Basically they use the Mac OS X desktop as a stage, pulling familiar objects on and off—web pages, sticky notes, video clips in little brushed-steel Quicktime frames. The fact that the view is so familiar makes it all instantly understandable. The fact that the view is so familiar also makes it pretty spectacular—you realize just what a trick it is to coordinate that kind of screen choreography.

(More on The Monitor from Virginia Heffernan and from John Pavlus, the show’s creator.)

Michael Wesch’s sublime The Machine is Us/ing Us isn’t quite in this genre, but it uses a lot of the same techniques to great effect.

It all begins, of course, with the screencast. You might have seen this screencast of a producer assembling a Prodigy song in Ableton Live; here’s another one that’s a little more straightforward. It’s kinda amazing how watchable they are. Turns out a rich interface being used in real-time is pretty interesting to watch. (And the music doesn’t hurt.)

This genre makes absolutely no sense on TV. I love things that make absolutely no sense on TV.

So I actually think Google has vaulted to the front of the field with these videos. For one thing, their use of sound is subtle and brilliant; it lights up your brain. They also just really deliver on the fundamentals: they are 100% faithful to the interface (no exceptions!) but they present it in a super-dynamic way. And finally, they’ve invented a brand-new narrative technique: autocomplete suspense. (Seriously: it’s their secret weapon. G-E-N-I-U-S.)

But where does it go from here? Is this really just a micro-genre best suited to ads for internet companies? Or does the fact that we spend so much time on this stage ourselves mean that it really can be the venue for more (and more kinds of) storytelling?

Mash this up with fantasy UI. Is there a great science fiction story waiting to be told with UI not at the periphery—not on Tom Cruise’s touchscreen—but at the core?


Robin, Thanks for your props to my show “The Monitor” in the context of this genre. The show didn’t in fact die, but rather metamorphosed into a newer/better version called “Grand Unified Weekly” that had an acclaimed 11-episode run in late ’08/early ’09, distributed by Then it died. (Screen choreography is hella labor intensive/expensive, and the economics of original online video were um, not conducive…) I’ve done some other one-offs in that style for the NYTimes Magazine, and NPR since then… trying to keep the flame alive.

Anyway, anyone who likes/ed The Monitor might be curious to check out GUW, which lives on at

Fantasy UI & screencasting! I just published a story at hilobrow that badly wants to be in this format. Makes me wish I had the chops to do the remix!

Hey Robin, just wanted to drop a line and say thanks for referencing Humble Pied. It’s been a fun experience in the making. Really enjoying Snarkmarket, too. Cheers!

Priya says…


Just wanted to say I enjoyed this article and ask if you’d ever watched the web series ‘You Suck at Photoshop’, which appears as seen as web tutorials of Photoshop using screen capture with a voice-over but then also has a separate narrative as well?

If not you can see it here.

Paul Harrison says…

I’ve seen some interesting examples of this genre recently. Take a look at Church Machine by Matt Storus – it’s a critique of an architectural technique called parametricism, which you may already be familiar with. The video was recently highlighted on the always excellent mammoth.

Ooh! I hadn’t seen Church Machine *or* mammoth—good tips both. Thanks.

The first example I’d seen of the form is this fan video for a Bird & The Bee song. Still my favorite, I think.

The thing that immediately popped to mind for when you mentioned storytelling with fantasy UI was Bruce Branit’s short film World Builder from about a year ago.

Yes! Classic!

Don’t forget about The Website is Down!

this is a show about a bunch of movie pirates, told entirely through a capture of the main characters desktop. I seem to recall that the style deviated from this formula later in the series.

Seems to me Pomplamoose is a close cousin to this type of storytelling. I realize you’re talking a little more specifically about screen-based interfaces being used to tell stories, but they do break down the process and use their interface to help provide insight into their music. Certainly related, I would say.

There are some really great links here… thanks for putting this together Robin. I second the nomination for the Church Machine, it is one of the smarter critiques of contemporary architectural production that I’ve seen for a while.

There are no games on your list? It might be a bit straightforward but games can REALLY investigate interface as a means for storytelling – that is if they actually go beyond going through the motions and build one specific to their narrative. A great example is the recent revised version of “The Secret of Monkey Island” which embeds the older version of the interface (and game) in the remake. [briefly described here]. While playing the user can shift back and forth between the older and newer version of the game – I’ve never really experienced anything like this before.

Here’s another music video. It makes use of a computer’s command line.

I also remember watching a short film on Vimeo in which the story is told by flicking through photos stored on a digital camera.

Has anyone come across examples using a mobile phone interface?

The snarkmatrix awaits you

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