The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

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Two visions alike in dignity

In the comments on a recent post, Tim Maly mentioned that cool Sports Illustrated concept video that’s been making the rounds. And it occurred to me that right now, today, at this moment, we have before us two brand-new visions of the future of content that complement and contrast each other in interesting ways. One is beautiful; the other is both beautiful and the future.

The first is the SI video. To be clear: I think it’s really neat. Some of the ideas—that moving cover!—are sublime and many of the interactions are really clever. As a piece of design work, it’s wonderful.

But it’s not the future. You know, it actually reminds me of Apple’s old Knowledge Navigator video. Both deliver some cool ideas; Apple’s video was influential, and I think the SI video might have a ripple effect, too. But ultimately, both get it wrong because they imagine products that are too neat. There’s no chaos; there’s no life. This is the thing that’s great about the internet, right? The human vitality. This is what makes all of our favorite blogs worth reading; this is what keeps us glued to Twitter.

The SI video shows us how all the latest touchy-swipey interface technology maps to a magazine—beautifully!—but it turns back the clock on the content. The magazine of the future feels a bit too much like the magazine of the past: glossy, static, top-down.

Now contrast that to the just-launched Pictory. The reason I put these two visions together is that Pictory is a new sort of magazine too, in its way—and at a higher level, both the SI video and Pictory seem to be, at least in part, reactions to the general lameness of content design on the web. They both provide an alternative to content shrapnel.

The SI video demonstrates a cool new way to look at big, rich, well-designed content… and so does Pictory! But then Pictory goes a step further, because it’s also alive. It has a striking new look, but it still feels of the web. There are ways to join in. There are, like, links.

And also: Pictory is not just alive but live. As in, you can use it today, not just watch a YouTube video about it. I know that seems unfair to the SI video: “Dude, come on, it’s a D-E-M-O.” But it’s important! Product and process go together, and the process that works on the web is iteration. A live site beats a beautiful mockup, and in the time it takes Time Inc. to actually implement anything approaching the concept they’ve laid out in that video, Pictory will be learning… growing… improving.

And you know what? I think when those dream e-tablets finally do come along, from Apple or whoever, it’s going to be Pictory—and more new sites like Pictory, sites inspired by Pictory—that we’ll be reading on them.

But this actually ended up a bit more prescriptive than I intended. Mostly, I just think it’s interesting to juxtapose these two visions and notice what they have in common and where they part ways.

Update: Tim Maly just pulled a Carmody! His comment is better than my post; check it out.


Don’t know whether to reply there or here, so replying there.

I think that you are right about the value of something being in place and iterating. And I am working on an idea I have for a Pictory so very much excited about that.

But I don’t buy your claim that the trend-line is taking us away from design. I think quite the opposite. I think that the past decade of the web has been the process of reintegrating design knowledge. Remember, we’re starting from lynx and then from black and blue on grey. And we’ve been crawling back toward rich beautiful design since then.

Remember tables? They were not meant to be used for page layout but by god we forced them into it. And text in GIFs? And frames? And WYSIWYG editors that spit out garbage HTML and WYSWNWYG? And PDF? And CSS 1? And Flash-everything?

Of course you remember all of this.

But yes, at the same time, we have the Googles and the Twitters (and the Tumblrs). I feel like this is a kind of retelling of the Bookservatives and the Technofuturists. And we Hilobrow Bookfuturists say “Pictory combines good design and things specific to the medium, kudos on that”.

So the SI demo.

There’s promising stuff in there. I can imagine myself using that thing. I can imagine enjoying a huge full screen (assuming it wasn’t too glowy) multi-column page of text. I still buy magazines and books (but also use gReader, Stanza, and Instapaper).

Which is not to say that all of your criticisms of it aren’t also true. It’s weirdly unimaginative. It’s just a magazine awkwardly reimplemented with random photos that are secretly moving pictures. Whatever it ends up being, it won’t be like that.

But… but…

We gave up SO MUCH to get all this stuff online. Some of what we lost was worth losing (pace Bookservatives). Some of what we lost is worth bringing back (pace Technofuturists).

Here’s an analogy that’s so closely linked that it might just be an example: Maps.

Google Maps sucks. It really does. The tiles take too long to load, the labels are placed in all kinds of weird places, you can’t see enough of the map at once, so you have to zoom in and out which is really, really, really choppy (see tile loading). Trying to navigate using maps when you are the passenger in a car is harrowing. More often that you’d like, you miss turns because the map didn’t load fast enough to show you the terrain you zoomed in on. It’s very hard to compare notes on Google Maps. You can’t really annotate it. The lines drawn are clunky and ugly, only slightly more than programmer placeholder art.

And yet, it is searchable, linkable, usable on anything with a screen and a net connection, comprehensive, free, embeddable, and there are sattelite photos. All of these frankly stunning positives drown out the negatives so thoroughly that I don’t own a single non-fictional map.

But it could and should be better.

P.S. My favourite line in the knowledge navigator video is “give me all the articles I haven’t read yet”. Content artillery strike.

P.P.S. We hate columns on computers because we end up scrolling in too many directions. Imagine if column naviation behaved like Pictory’s photos. You got to the end of one and it gently floated you up to the start of the next. Maybe we wouldn’t hate them so much.

P.P.P.S. The still picture that turns out to be a movie is the same trick that the Lumiere Brothers used to use in exhibitions, when film was brand new. You’d go into a room hung like a gallery of photos, seeming to be slides projected on to frames. And then someone would turn the crank and set one of these pictures into motion.

Tim Carmody says…

I’m going to out-Maly* Maly here: remember when Google Maps came out, how amazingly awesome it was that the interface could pan? Mapquest had to reload the whole thing just to shift its frame a tiny bit at the edge. So everything that made Google Maps awesome and revolutionary, we’ve adjusted to and take as a given — now we just complain about its weird tics and what it doesn’t do. Kinda like everything else Google makes.

*I love the phrase “pulling a Carmody.” I hope it catches on.

I wrote up a little something about this from my perspective:

The snarkmatrix awaits you

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