Let’s do this.
I want to talk about the iPad, but I’m going to start by talking about vlogs.
You know: videoblogs!
Rewind to 2005. Maybe your 2005 was different from mine, but I was working at an internet-centric cable TV network, and the world seemed to be saying one thing really loud: The revolution is here. We’ve got cheap cameras and cheap distribution. The era of the indie “web show” has arrived. Let a thousand videoblogs bloom!
Then they didn’t. Not really. Today the gear is even cheaper—HD Flipcams for like twelve bucks, right?—but we’ve got basically three web shows: Rocketboom, Epic Fu, and The Guild. (That’s cruel shorthand; if you are currently producing and/or starring in some other web show, I’m sorry. My argument demands ruthlessness.)
Well, the web happened. YouTube happened. It turns out we weren’t wrong about the tools; we were wrong about the forms. We didn’t get a crisp catalog of indie web shows; we got a sprawling database of disconnected video clips.
Today on the web, on YouTube, a show just sort of dissolves into that database. To avoid that fate, it needs to be buoyed by big media; it needs to surf on the scarcity of TV time. A show needs a marketing budget to insist on its coherence. (Also, Hulu.)
None of this is a bad thing! I love the web-as-database; I love the wacky YouTube ecosystem. It’s like we grew a rainforest overnight.
But the point is, the web kinda hates bounded, holistic work. The web likes bits and pieces, cross-references and recommendations, fragments and tabs. Oh, and the web loves the fact that you’re reading this post in Google Reader.
Hold that thought.
Back in the day, when I was first getting to know my iPhone, I was surprised at how truly un-web-like it was. On the iPhone, you do one thing at a time and that one thing takes up the whole screen. Like nothing on the web, the iPhone is full-bleed.
You know what my favorite iPhone apps are? No joke: it’s stuff like this. Nobody’s made the multimedia manga or living-text novel of my dreams, so I’ve settled for The Wheels on the Bus. But it turns out that some of the stuff they’re doing with these kids’ apps—the way they’re mashing media and interactions together—is really slick.
And now this new device takes the iPhone’s virtues and scales them up—plus, no text messages while you’re reading. So more than anything else, the iPad looks to me like a focus machine. And it looks, therefore, like such an opportunity for storytelling, and for innovation around storytelling. It looks like an opportunity to make the Myst of 2010. (I don’t mean that literally. I only mean: wow, remember Myst? Remember how it was an utterly new kind of thing?)
Apple is great at inventing new devices, but it bums me out that they seem so content to fill those devices with the same same old stuff: TV shows, movies, music, and books. Books… in ePub format?
Apple: you did not invent a magical and revolutionary device so we could read books in ePub format.
Think about what the iPad really is! It’s the greatest canvas for media ever invented. It’s colorful, tactile, powerful, and programmable. It can display literally anything you can imagine; it can add sound and music; and it can feel you touching it. It’s light and (we are led to believe) comfortable in the hands. The Platonic Form of the Perfect Canvas is out there somewhere—it’s probably flexible… and it probably has a camera—but the iPad is, like, a really amazingly good shadow of that form. And this is just the first one!
So, we’re gonna use the Perfect Canvas to… watch TV shows?
Now, connect the dots. For all its power and flexibility, the web is really bad at presenting bounded, holistic work in a focused, immersive way. This is why web shows never worked. The web is bad at containers. The web is bad at frames.
Jeez, if only we had a frame.
So, to finish up: I think the young Hayao Miyazakis and Mark Z. Danielewskis and Edward Goreys of this world ought to be learning Objective-C—or at least making some new friends. Because this new device gives us the power and flexibility to realize a whole new class of crazy vision—and it puts that vision in a frame.
In five years, the coolest stuff on the iPad shouldn’t be Spider-Man 5, Ke$ha’s third album, or the ePub version of Annabel Scheme. If that’s all we’ve got, it will mean that Apple succeeded at inventing a new class of device… but we failed at inventing a new class of content.
In five years, the coolest stuff on the iPad should be… jeez, you know, I think it should be art.
I’ve been sniffling in bed watching anime all day and now it’s time to write a post about the future of designed content on the web.
A couple of assumptions going in:
- The era of random content shrapnel has gone on long enough. We can do better.
- We’ve suddenly got a pretty bad-ass toolkit! Standards like HTML5 and CSS3; extensions like Typekit and jQuery; browsers like Firefox, Chrome and Safari. (And as an add-on to that last one: the sophistication and homogeneity of Safari on the iPhone and, one presumes, the Imminent Apple Product.)
- We’ve got some starting points, both real and speculative. People are thinking about this stuff. Gannett huddled with IDEO for a whole year and the big idea they emerged with was… designed content.
At the Hacks and Hackers meetup here in SF a few weeks ago, we kept using the words “artisanal” and “bespoke” to talk about designed content. I like these words a lot, but I’m also wary of them:
- I like them because they imply a real care for craft, and they imply that form matches function. They also imply, you know, skill: smart people doing their best work.
- I’m wary of them because they can serve as an excuse: “Oh, yeah, we only post one new story every two months because… it’s artisanal.” Designed content shouldn’t try to compete head-on with Demand Media for page-views and placement in Google results, but it can’t ignore the reality of the web, either. It can’t be all stock and no flow.
So what I’m anxious to see is a synthesis that matches bespoke design to web scale. But what would that look like?
The crew that comes closest right now is the NYT graphics and multimedia team: they work fast, their work is beautiful, and it’s often quite story-specific. But it’s also more “web interactive” than truly “designed content,” and there’s only so much they can do with NYT-style stories. Those are both pretty subtle distinctions; you’ll see what I mean in a moment.
Here’s my pitch for who could hit this synthesis, if they wanted to:
- They’re web-native. They know headlines; they know linkbait; they know SEO. They have trained with the Dark Lords of the Sith. This is the right foundation.
- They’ve got voice. You could flip a switch to turn Gawker blogs into magazines, and they would make perfect sense. That’s not true for any other blog network, and it’s a real achievement. At the moment, those voices are transmitted through text and the occasional spectacle—but voice can drive design, too.
- They’ve got scale. Gawker Media isn’t three guys in a garage scrambling to keep the feed flowing. They’ve got corporate infrastructure, and they could plausibly invest in what I’m about to suggest.
Here’s the plan:
You build a small Gawker Media design desk. It’s just a handful of young, hungry, multi-talented web designers—designers who dig editorial, not user experience or information architecture. Then, every day—maybe once in the morning and once in the afternoon—each blog gets to pitch a handful of ideas to the design desk. There’s a fast, ruthless triage, and they go to work. The goal is to make stuff fast—on the scale of hours, sometimes days. Never weeks.
The idea is not to make interactive apps and draggy-zoomy data viz! That stuff is too complicated. Rather, the design desk’s mandate is simply to present words and images in a way that makes you go: Uh. Wow. Just the way this does, or this does. (Actually, yeah, jeez: Hire Jason Santa Maria to set this up why don’t you?)
And Gawker content is a great match for this—almost perfect, actually—precisely because it’s not NYT content. It’s not, you know, Very Useful Information. It’s punchy, sassy, funny and snarky. It’s chunky, and it should stay chunky. This isn’t about expanding blog posts into magazine article wannabes; it’s about presenting 200–800 words of pure bloggy voice in an original, uh-wow way every time. Actually, no, not every time: instead, only when it really counts. The Gawker Media design desk would develop a sharp, subtle sense for design opportunity.
(It would have been pretty bad-ass to like, design this post in exactly the way I’m proposing, huh? Ohhh well.)
But let me expand on that a little bit more, because it’s important. The idea is not to wrap meaty, thoughtful posts like this io9 insta-classic in fancy design. Those are the posts that need it least! It’s like, “yo, get out of my way, let me read.” Rather, the idea is to come up with a new class of content entirely. Again: design opportunity.
Now, it’s not immediately obvious what this new class of content gets you (besides, you know, approving links from Snarkmarket) because… Google doesn’t index design! I mean, stop and think about that for a minute: Google doesn’t index design. Even though it has informational content of its own, and even though it contributes to clarity and utility: Google doesn’t index design. It doesn’t know how. When I search for “how to tie my shoes,” Demand Media’s semi-literate blob of instructions is probably going to show up above your lovingly-designed diagram. Ugh.
But Gawker Media is already past this. They’re not just playing the Google game anymore; they’re playing the uh-wow game. And that is what this class of content gets you. It gets you more uh-wows and more daily impact. It gets you content that screams to be shared. (Not unimportantly, it probably gets you some interesting advertising opportunities, too.)
Okay—the point of this articulation is not to convince Gawker Media to hire a bunch of designers. Rather, it’s get you to imagine what blogs like those would look like if they bothered with bespoke design every day. I think it’s a super-interesting vision.
And it would be even more interesting if RSS aggregators could preserve that design and display it inline. No more random content shrapnel! Instead, Google Reader starts to look like some crazy scrapbook, with pages pulled from hundreds of different magazines and pasted together into a seamless scroll.
Okay, until Gawker gets wise, go read Pictory. And let me know if this makes any sense. Can you imagine the designed content at Lifehacker and io9 the way I can? Crisp, coherent chunks of rich imagery and clever typography—like rocks in the stream?
Semi-related: trying to understand how people navigate rich, designed content… with graphs!
Update: Google played one of these during the Super Bowl. Nice!
Like Joanne, I noticed the big Google banners on NYTimes.com 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.
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?
I was an economics major in college, and I’ve been grateful ever since for the few key concepts it drilled into me: things like opportunity cost, sunk cost, and marginal cost. I think about this stuff all the time in my everyday life. Sometimes I consider the marginal cost of, like, making myself another sandwich.
But one of the biggest takeaways was the concept of stock and flow.
Do you know about this? Couldn’t be simpler, and really, it’s not even that much of an a-ha. There are two kinds of quantities in the world. Stock is a static value: money in the bank, or trees in the forest. Flow is a rate of change: fifteen dollars an hour, or three thousand toothpicks a day. Easy. Too easy.
But I actually think stock and flow is the master metaphor for media today. Here’s what I mean:
- Flow is the feed. It’s the posts and the tweets. It’s the stream of daily and sub-daily updates that remind people that you exist.
- Stock is the durable stuff. It’s the content you produce that’s as interesting in two months (or two years) as it is today. It’s what people discover via search. It’s what spreads slowly but surely, building fans over time.
I feel like flow is ascendant these days, for obvious reasons—but we neglect stock at our own peril. I mean that both in terms of the health of an audience and, like, the health of a soul. Flow is a treadmill, and you can’t spend all of your time running on the treadmill. Well, you can. But then one day you’ll get off and look around and go: Oh man. I’ve got nothing here.
But I’m not saying you should ignore flow! No: this is no time to hole up and work in isolation, emerging after long months or years with your perfectly-polished opus. Everybody will go: huh? Who are you? And even if they don’t—even if your exquisitely-carved marble statue of Boba Fett is the talk of the tumblrs for two whole days—if you don’t have flow to plug your new fans into, you’re suffering a huge (here it is!) opportunity cost. You’ll have to find them all again next time you emerge from your cave.
Here’s a case study: my pal Alexis Madrigal here in SF has got the stock/flow balance down. On one end of the spectrum, he’s a Twitter natural and a Tumblr adept. Madrigal’s got mad flow; you plug in, and you get a steady stream of interesting stuff every day. But on the other end of the spectrum—and man, this is just so important—he’s working on a deep, nuanced history of green tech in America. He’s working on a book intended to stand the test of time.
You can tell that I want you to stop and think about stock here. I feel like we all got really good at flow, really fast. But flow is ephemeral. Stock sticks around. Stock is capital. Stock is protein.
And the real magic trick in 2010 is to put them both together. To keep the ball bouncing with your flow—to maintain that open channel of communication—while you work on some kick-ass stock in the background. Sacrifice neither. It’s the hybrid strategy.
So, okay, I was thinking about stock and flow while I was doing the dishes just a second ago, and wondered: Wait. There are all these super-successful artists and media people today who don’t really think about flow. Like, Wes Anderson? Come on. He’s all stock. And he seems to do okay.
But I think the secret is that somebody else does his flow for him. I mean, what are PR and advertising? Flow, bought and paid for. Messages metered out over time. But rewind history and put Wes Anderson on his own—alone in the world—and I don’t think you get the same result. His stock is strong stuff: hugely compelling, utterly unique. But how does he tell people about it?
So if you are in the position to have somebody else handle your flow while you tend to your stock: awesome. But that’s true for almost no one, and will (I think?) be true for even fewer over time, so you need to have your own plan for this stuff.
Anyway: this is not a huge insight, I know. Mostly I just wanted to share the lingo, because it’s been echoing in my head since my first microeconomics course. Today, whenever I put my hands on the keyboard, I’m asking myself: Is this stock? Is this flow? How’s my mix? Do I have enough of both?
This is basically a direct follow-up to my Snarkmarket post from the middle of 2009 titled The Post-Orwellian Future of Connected Books and Everything Else: I made a connected book! Well, sort of. In the most minimal way imaginable.
But I got the data, I plotted it, and… hmm. This instrumented reading thing might not be all its cracked up to be.
In all seriousness, it was an important step for me—from long-trumpeted theory to practical implementation. I’m still excited about the idea… but it’s going to take a more sophisticated (or more creative) implementation to actually deliver on, like, the premise.
But, if nothing else: the graphs are pretty!
I love this bit of de-naturalization from Brian Eno:
On the end of an era: “I think records were just a little bubble through time and those who made a living from them for a while were lucky. There is no reason why anyone should have made so much money from selling records except that everything was right for this period of time. I always knew it would run out sooner or later. It couldn’t last, and now it’s running out. I don’t particularly care that it is and like the way things are going. The record age was just a blip. It was a bit like if you had a source of whale blubber in the 1840s and it could be used as fuel. Before gas came along, if you traded in whale blubber, you were the richest man on Earth. Then gas came along and you’d be stuck with your whale blubber. Sorry mate – history’s moving along. Recorded music equals whale blubber. Eventually, something else will replace it.”
(“De-naturalization” is my favorite new term of art; I’ve heard it from several historians lately. If it’s not obvious, it means taking things that seem natural, inevitable, or just like part of the firmament and revealing them for the wacky, lucky historical accidents that they are. Because everything is.)
This year’s EDGE question was: “How has the internet changed the way you think?” As always, the dynamic range of responses is astonishing: from the glib and angstrom-shallow to the super-smart and ultra-deep.
My favorite so far is Kevin Kelly’s—in part because it’s more observational than argumentative. He does such a nice job simply describing what it’s like to use the internet today:
This waking dream we call the Internet also blurs the difference between my serious thoughts and my playful thoughts, or to put it more simply: I no longer can tell when I am working and when I am playing online. For some people the disintegration between these two realms marks all that is wrong with the Internet: It is the high-priced waster of time. It breeds trifles. On the contrary, I cherish a good wasting of time as a necessary precondition for creativity, but more importantly I believe the conflation of play and work, of thinking hard and thinking playfully, is one the greatest things the Internet has done.
And, not to give away the ending or anything, but:
We are developing an intense, sustained conversation with this large thing. The fact that it is made up of a million loosely connected pieces is distracting us. The producers of Websites, and the hordes of commenters online, and the movie moguls reluctantly letting us stream their movies, don’t believe they are mere pixels in a big global show, but they are. It is one thing now, an intermedia with 2 billion screens peering into it. The whole ball of connections—including all its books, all its pages, all its tweets, all its movies, all its games, all its posts, all its streams—is like one vast global book (or movie, etc.), and we are only beginning to learn how to read it.
This seems incontrovertible to me. Hmm. I thought about it some more, and in fact it seems both right and wrong to me. Right because—well, it’s obviously just descriptively correct. But wrong in the sense that I actually find myself searching out, and responding to, holistic works with human intention behind them. That is to say: stuff that’s not made up of a million autonomous parts. Stuff that you can draw a line around—a book, a movie, an argument. Hmm. I think it’s “mere pixels in a big global show” that’s throwing me off, because I’m not sure it really is all part of the same show.
In any case, I still really want to be Kevin Kelly when I grow up. Given the assignment of answering this year’s EDGE question, I wouldn’t have bothered to observe myself so closely; I wouldn’t have crafted such great language to describe what I saw.
Another answer that I liked: Stewart Brand’s. But of course you saw that coming. Hey, guys: I think the Snarkmatrix is a guild.
Man, doesn’t this ring true?
[E]ver-less energy is needed to complete a single transaction, but ever-more effort is needed to agree on what pattern the transaction should follow.
[…] Businesses can expect to devote great intellectual capital on formulating, negotiating, deciding, forecasting, and adhering to emerging standards. The question “Which platform do we back?” will not be confined to PCs. It will be asked in regard to calendars, cars, accounting principles, and even currencies.
That’s Kevin Kelly, New Rules, 1998. Is there a book being written somewhere (anywhere) today that will tell us as much, as accurately, about the ten-years-away world? (Let’s write it!)
To calendars and cars we can of course add: books, movies, journalism—every kind of content. New work needs not only to tell a story, but to create a context for itself; to teach people a new pattern. Yikes!
I do not like dreamy fashion spreads in magazines even a little bit, but I liked this thing—what to call it?—a lot. It has a soundtrack and fun, motion-graphics-y transitions between photos. Both elements are deployed thoughtfully; if the music was wrong, or the transitions too slow, the whole thing would collapse. As it is, I think it’s moody and really, uh, clickable.
I want to view content like this on my unicorn!
Increasingly, I’m convinced that no media is successful or even complete until it’s been transformed or extended. I know this is not super-controversial—it’s sort of the Creative Commons party line—but it turns out things don’t transform themselves! A lot of media gets CC-licensed and then just sits there.
I’m also influenced by Henry Jenkins’ notion that the most successful fictional worlds (Star Wars, Harry Potter, and so on) are not so much straight narrative stories as they are “platforms” for people to build on. You need a central story to get people excited about the platform in the first place, but then you also need lots of hooks for them to extend it, both formally (movies, comics, video games) and informally (fan-fiction, fan films, art). The central story is like the iPhone; the extensions are like the App Store! (And P.S., the platform-worlds aren’t all robots and wizards. Ulysses is a platform, too.)
Okay so, I’m a long way away from building a platform on that scale, but it’s fun to sort of “act it out,” even at this stage. Thus, when patron-guests arrived at the Annabel Scheme launch party, they were presented with a piece of evidence from Scheme’s collection. The evidence was all dated and tagged in ziploc bags; it was all very strange.
The mission: come up with the story behind the evidence. There was a Narrative Evidence Research Database collection station set up, off to one side of the party, to capture these stories. Here’s a taste of what people recorded:
I have to say, it is unreal to see other people saying “banana box” and “Sebastian Dexter” and “Annabel” on camera. It really is the next level. Somebody reads the book, enjoys it, even tweets or blogs about it: awesome. I mean, just really wonderful. But somebody acts it out? Sublime.
There’s more to come on this front—I’ve allocated $1000 from the book’s budget for a remix fund, and next week, I’m going to post a form where people will be able to submit pitches. After that, the book’s patrons will all vote on their favorites, and those projects will get funded. Hey: things don’t transform themselves.