A Victrola in a Snowstorm: Towards a True Digital Idiom

If quantitative data were the only measure of human behavior, it would seem that the phrase “people don’t read online” (3.570,000,000 results as of 10-27-13) has the certainty of numbers.

Fortunately for our sense of pride as sentient beings, human behavior isn’t neatly quantifiable. Every supposition we make about what people will or won’t do must be assessed on its own merits. That means taking into account the environment in which we expect a particular behavior to occur.

To my continued consternation, the phrase “people don’t read online” is still in the air, despite a critical flaw in its premise: the assumption the now-traditional online environment is the only possible online environment. So to contradict one shallow generalization, I feel empowered to posit another:

People don’t read online because traditional Web design is completely inadequate.

Now, I’m not only referring to graphics, font and color choices, proportions or visual density. I’m also referring to the distribution and format of every type of content. This is, of course, a topic fit for at least one book. But maybe by zooming in on one aspect of the problem we can illuminate the bigger picture.

In the first place, whether you blithely believe the unexamined premise that “people don’t read online”— or blithely believe that most other people believe it, we’ve got trouble.

The premise that a premise is a proof.
I mean, think about it. We have a marketing culture that actually accepts that users ignore its branded content. The most conventional wisdom can offer are cosmetic strategies. Google it up and you can find dozens of articles advocating the use of:

As well-meaning and earnestly pragmatic as these suggestions are, they remind me of the strategies I used as a child to fix broken toys. All I needed were rubber bands, scotch tape and a piece of cardboard to convince myself a car or a robot or my mother’s favorite lamp was good as new.

But as applied to digital messaging strategy, such stopgap measures ignore major systemic defects.

As I see it, if people don’t read online, it’s not a word problem—it’s because standard Web design takes no account of how language works. By habit, the vast majority of Web layouts are incapable of presenting verbal content in a meaningful way—and treat video or animation only slightly better.

In fact, instead of developing methods of content presentation idiomatic to digital space, standard Web design and production continue to rely on design paradigms developed for print and, to a lesser extent, TV.

The promise of a fresh perspective.
If you’re with me so far, you’re already wondering how a more idiomatic presentation model might work. For starters, we need a coherent way to integrate different types of content on a single screen. A recent multimedia article in the online edition of The New York Times suggests we already have the means to do so:

A Game of Shark and Minnow

Here a mix of scrolling text over video, still photography and maps, combined with graceful text pages artfully stages a report about a complex social and political issue.

Instead of a few thousand words crammed into prefab boxes, text and layout form a seamless continuity that suggests an idiomatic and uniquely digital paradigm.

Now, I can already hear my friends on the merchandizing end of the spectrum saying, “All well and good for a brainiac article about whatever, but I need to push product.”

Well, imagine your hairdryer, convection oven, button-down jeans or shoes-to-die-for displayed full screen. Don’t worry, your benny bullets will be well within swiping/tapping/mouseover range.

Then imagine changing color, style or flipping the scene to a sidewalk, a runway or a living room as a narrative scrolls along with you, across a mix of video, animation and stills. Your product, outside the box, would display itself more naturally—in locations rich with emotional resonance for your customers.

Obviously, the solution I seek can’t be improvised in a single blog post. But I do believe the Times article points in the right direction—toward a new kind of Web design more suited to the way human language is structured and how it communicates.

Because no matter how you juggle the pixel width of your layout, bulleted text will never have emotional impact. And, for a country besotted by 3-D Super Imax movie theatres, a tiny video window, stuttering away in a sea of choppy copy, has as much chance of raising our heart rate as a wind-up Victrola in a snowstorm has a shot at “going platinum.”



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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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