Content, and its Container

Yesterday Businessweek published a 38,000-word interactive essay.

That’s roughly the same length as Heart of Darkness, and about 10,000 words shy of Slaughterhouse-Five. Needless to say, the thing is long.

If you read it in print, the word count doesn’t feel so daunting. I can imagine myself curling up on the couch, magazine in hand, getting along just fine.

Web, on the other hand? Yikes.

I thought about it, and there’s a few reasons why I rarely read ultra-long articles (or books) in a desktop web browser:

  1. On the web, I normally find things and read them in a single sitting, the moment I find them. If the article is too long, it breaks my routine, and I don’t know what to do.
  2. I keep at least 10 tabs open, many of them with (1)’s and (2)’s piling up, constantly reminding me that there’s new stuff out there. It’s tempting — and trivially easy — to abandon ship.
  3. Honestly, I find it hard to relax with my laptop. I’d rather rest my hands, but every few seconds I need to scroll. For some reason I don’t have this problem on my phone.

Normally this isn’t a big deal. If I want to read a long essay or a book, I just read it on my phone. But in the case of What is code? and many other interactive essays, the mobile web experience is crippled.

If you skip the desktop web edition of this essay, you’re missing out on photos, videos, a robot that yells at you if you scroll too fast, graphics, sidebars, animations, tooltip-style footnotes, interactive tree diagrams, a cool table of contents, annotated code samples, and a letter from the editor — lots!

I want a future where we can have amazing interactive essays and books, but I don’t think we currently have a good container for that type of content. Furthermore, until we do have a better container, I don’t think it’ll be possible for the medium to truly flourish.

Why? Because of the Kinetoscope.

That’s right, this thing:

This machine was once used to show motion pictures. Not movies as we know them today, but literally motion pictures, like this one:

And this one:

And this one, a crowd favorite, of a man sneezing:

It might seem crazy, but in the 1890’s people would travel to a building and pay 5¢ — not cheap, about the same price as a ticket to Coney Island — to view a two-minute sequence of these proto-gifs.

Here’s how one historian described it:

Early spectators in Kinetoscope parlors were amazed by even the most mundane moving images in very short films (between 30 and 60 seconds) — an approaching train or a parade, women dancing, dogs terrorizing rats, and twisting contortionists. Soon, peep show Kinetoscope parlors quickly opened across the country, set up in penny arcades, hotel lobbies, and phonograph parlors in major cities across the US.

Interactive essays like “What is code?” are 2015’s version of Kinetoscope movies: a rough, early prototype of a new medium that is going to become incredibly important.

The way I feel when I’m playing around with one of the interactive bits is probably very similar to the way people felt when looking into one of those pinewood boxes. It’s hard to get over the sheer novelty of it.

The Kinetoscope had serious limitations. Film strips couldn’t go longer than 60 seconds. You had to stand there, hunched over. The novelty of simple moving images wears off. There’s no words or sound.

Likewise, I think there are serious practical limitations that stand in the way of interactive content becoming more than an experiment. Enjoying a 38,000-word essay in a desktop web browser is not easy. Some of the interactions feel bolted-on to the content, rather than woven into it. The economics of ad-supported pageviews are doubtful.

Eventually, this thing called a projector was invented, which let people sit down and comfortably watch longer films.

The first projectors were set up in tents, but eventually someone had the idea to rent out a storefront and set up a permanent projector inside. People would pay 5¢ to watch a series of 10-minute film clips, each disconnected from the others. It wasn’t exactly Avatar, but it was a huge improvement on the Kinetoscope.

These theaters were called Nickelodeons (because a ticket cost 5¢).

As audiences began flocking to Nickelodeon theaters, production companies formed to satisfy their demand. They competed with each other for scarce distribution contracts, and began to create longer, better movies.

These were called “feature” films:

Once Nickelodeons and other types of cinemas were established, the industry entered a new stage with the emergence of the feature film. Before 1915, cinemagoers saw a succession of many different films, each between one and fifteen minutes, of varying genres such as cartoons, newsreels, comedies, travelogues, sports films, ‘gymnastics’ pictures and dramas. After the mid-1910s, going to the cinema meant watching a feature film, a heavily promoted dramatic film with a length that came closer to that of a theater play, based on a famous story and featuring famous stars. Shorts remained only as side dishes.

When the first Nickelodeon was created, there wasn’t an existing supply of high quality films. But once it was born, it paved the way for movies as we know them today, simply by providing a good container.

What can the history of cinema teach us about the future of interactive essays and books? A lot, I think. Here’s my main take-away:

Before we can develop truly compelling interactive content, we need a better container. We’ve currently got a Kinetoscope, and we need a Nickelodeon.

I think it should work like this:

  1. Focus on the phone. Everyone in the world will have one, and it’s a much more comfortable (and distraction-free) reading environment than a laptop.
  2. The web won’t do, at least anytime soon. On mobile devices, web pages are useless for even simple things like background videos and animating elements.
  3. The interactions need to be woven into the story seamlessly. We need to develop a new storytelling grammar, the interactive equivalent of cinematography.

That last point is subtle, but I believe it’s the most important one.

There’s a huge gap between early motion pictures and cinema as we know it today. The first filmmakers couldn’t imagine the incredible diversity of styles and stories that would eventually emerge. Quality, the thing that ultimately made movies a global phenomenon, is a feature that requires enormous time, money, and craftsmanship.

Just as it was hard for them to look up from their Kinetoscopes and predict The Godfather, it’s difficult for us to imagine anything significantly different and better than Snowfall and What is code?

Still, I believe that we’re at the very beginning of a new art form, and we have a long way to go. That’s why I left my job a couple weeks ago and am working on it full-time.

I want to be a part of it.

PS — If this sounds interesting to you, and you want to be a part of it too, then let’s definitely stay in touch. I have a mailing list that I send early prototypes to, and you can also follow me on twitter.

PPS — I’m curious to hear what you think about all this. Do you prefer longform on your phone or on a laptop? Is the “film” metaphor useful, or misleading? Write a response on Medium. I’m looking forward to reading it.



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