Web dev at the end of the world, from Hveragerði, Iceland

Lessons in Interactivity, 2021 redux

The following is a rewrite of a post I wrote nine years ago. I’ve updated it to reflect the past decade, changed it where I was wrong, and clarified where I was unclear.

Believing in the Traditional Media Orthodoxy

The medium is the message. This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium - that is, of any extension of ourselves - result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology. (Marshall McLuhan)

I haven’t always been a McLuhanite—a “the medium is the message” kind of guy. I started my career with the idea that interactive media was a kind of ‘Borg medium: one whose good qualities came mostly from adopting the characteristics of other, more traditional, modes of expression.

Of course, I wasn’t blind to the sheer wealth of interactive media works that filled the interactive media ‘canon’ so to speak, but this was twenty years ago. a couple of years after the dot-com crash, and the only immersive interactive media that had been broadly accepted as a mass medium were games.

Websites were a lot simpler and the web less capable as a platform.

Flash was used for a lot of interesting experiments, even the occasional useful app, but it hadn’t yet become the rich programming platform it is today.

Director was the only platform that seemed to offer the capabilities the medium would need, but CD-ROMs were too expensive to manufacture and distribute, and the massive files Director generated were largely unsuitable for internet distribution.

Calling Director ‘temperamental’ was being charitable. It was very powerful and ahead of its time, but all that power came wrapped up in a package that tended to misbehave. To the point where the same Lingo code with the same assets would not behave in the same way for reasons that were often extremely hard to discover.

(One of my early paid interactive media jobs was making multimedia CD-ROM catalogues in Director for shipping and insurance companies. It was even less fun than it sounds.)

This belief of mine, that rich interactive ebooks would evolve out of the book as a medium, retaining all of the qualities of a book but growing to include all of the functional, structural, and contextual benefits of the traditional book felt like a minority opinion at the time.

I don’t know if it was because of the books and papers I was reading or the conferences I went to, but most people I spoke to, read, and listened to, seemed to believe that interactive media was a revolutionary – not evolutionary – new form that, any day now, would soar like a giant eagle to become a major new medium of expression.

Never mind the dot-com crash or the CD-ROM crash. Those were just trial runs, the technology wasn’t ready to do the medium justice. Some day it would be and then it would be glorious.

To say that I was sceptical would be another understatement.

—Books are familiar, a known medium. People will appreciate, even love, how they can grow and develop in a new, more open, digital context.

Uh, no. I was wrong about that.

We’ve spent the past decade living in a media landscape where interactive media is a mass medium. People buy all sorts of playful apps, regularly visit rich, dynamic, websites, and spend some of their money on interactive media. They spend less than they do on coffee, and the various platforms take a big chunk of it, but it’s an actual economy (or, ‘economies’ plural).

Interactive media is a medium in its own right. The interactive ebooks that publishers have pushed over the years are a failed experiment: they were an upstart, a competing invader that is priced higher and produced by amateurs on a more limited – less capable – platform.

The Failure of Interactive Ebooks

That the interactive ebook phenomenon—ebooks dumped into apps, with trappings that mimicked the print form, and wrapped with a layer of disposable toys and playthings—have faded so completely from our collective psyche is evidence of just how utterly misguided they were.

It was a vision of a world that could not and will not exist: that all readers want from ‘digital’ was to experience their favourite books with the author’s annotations and video commentary tracks; that they would be willing to pay a premium for the pleasure.

Interactive ebooks were competing directly with interactive media and games. They were produced and published by publishing companies that had an often awkward and uncomfortable relationship to technology – often incapable of even putting together a tolerable website.

Interactive ebooks were an unproven upstart with an attitude that was completely unwarranted and unearned.

The Audience that isn’t Publishing

‘Such a nice dog.’ The old lady scratched the dog behind its ears. It looked tough enough to chew nails for breakfast and mean enough to enjoy it.

Walking up East Street in Bedminster, ten years ago, one of the first things I saw was a man wearing jeans, a dirty wife-beater, and a cheap trilby hat bought from a stall nearby, who was showing off his dog to a couple of old ladies. (Henceforth to be known as the Dog Man.)

He was a lanky man with the scrunched up and pulled-out facial features that so many English suffer from—some people’s noses seem to just keep on growing—and spoke with an accent that marks him as coming from a long line of Bristolians.

The ladies were a part of Bedminster’s daily procession of retirees. On a good, sunny, day, they slowly made their way up East Street, sat on every bench and talked to anybody with a smile and time on their hands, making their way to ASDA or whatever store they’re aiming for. Then they make their way back—same sit down, chat, stand up—just in time for dinner.

Needless to say, not one of those three were ever likely to ever buy an ebook, but there is a good chance that the Dog Man had a cheap smartphone, with a couple of games and maybe a toy app or two.

Bedminster had an odd reputation. A teenage mom, pushing a pram with one hand and holding a can of Stella in the other didn’t look out of place. Nor did a scruffy man in a trilby and a wife-beater, showing off his dog to a couple of old ladies. But, as a neighbourhood, it grew on you. Maybe it’s because locals treated other locals differently.

I rather liked living in a place where single moms felt free to sit out in the sun with their kids and other moms and drink beer than in a place where they didn’t.

Becoming a Traditional Media Apostate

The first academic conference I went to was Bob Hughes’s Dust or Magic held in Oxford in, I think, both 2002 and 2003.

Probably due to Bob’s strong political opinions and activism, the conference had a unique mixture of idealists and craftsmen with precious little useless academic twaddle (most of what twaddle was there was supplied by me, I’m afraid).

These people presented a collection of works that were beautiful and immersive. Most of them were ‘just’ toys, true, but many were toys that could spur people into action in ways that non-interactive media can’t.

At the time I was rather resentful of the playful nature of interactive media – an attitude that looks remarkably dense in hindsight – hoping for richer, deeper, and more immersive narrative work.

But, interactive media is playful, more so than any of the more traditional media. That’s the one thing that separates it from the pack and makes it interesting. They don’t have to be games, but they do have to be “play”.

That’s what it does. That’s what it’s for. An interactive media project that isn’t built around some sort of play is going to have a hard time getting any attention or traction.

I can even pinpoint the time when I changed my mind on this: when I first read John Dewey. His point: ‘we learn what we do’.

School, under this model (we learn what we do), only teaches us to sit down, shut up, and do whatever an authority figure tells us to do. Meaning comes from what you do and how you do it.

Interactive media, under this model, has the potential to deliver deeper learning and deeper meaning than any other medium that preceded it.

Where McLuhan applied his pithy yet vague aphorism “the medium is the message”, John Dewey, in Art as Experience (1934), was a bit wordier and so quite a bit clearer about what it actually means:

Because objects of art are expressive, they are a language. Rather they are many languages. For each art has its own medium and that medium is especially fitted for one kind of communication. Each medium says something that cannot be uttered as well or as completely in any other tongue. The needs of daily life have given superior practical importance to one mode of communication, that of speech. This fact has unfortunately given rise to a popular impression that the meanings expressed in architecture, sculpture, painting and music can be translated into words with little if any loss. In fact, each art speaks an idiom that conveys what cannot be said in another language and yet remains the same.

Language exists only when it is listened to as well as spoken. The hearer is an indispensable partner. The work of art is complete only as it works in the experience of others than the one who created it. Thus language involves what logicians call a triadic relation There is the speaker, the thing said, and the one spoken to.

The book has ceased to have a physical presence for the general public

‘Is it your day off?’ The woman making the pancake was in a good mood, a disposition as sunny as the bright day outside. Her cafe was a nice one. Small, but it looked like a place that got regular traffic. Despite this, it was closed and gone the next year.

The customers seemed to be of a type, judging by the toys and children’s playthings that filled the cafe.

‘No, not really. I decided to take a break from work to enjoy the sun.’

The pancake was fantastic, sprinkled with dark chocolate. It isn’t slathered with the cheap chocolate you get in some places, but nice, just bitter enough, chocolate, in exactly the right amount to provide the pancake with a counterpoint.

Unusually, for me, I ate the strawberry as well. I’m not too fond of sweet fruits like strawberries, tomatoes, or grapes, but it did go so well with the chocolate.

I’m pretty sure that it used to be a place that sold Italian ice cream, but I don’t remember when.

I lived in Bristol for so long that reality became layered with memory upon memory. It’s filled with places whose roles and purposes have changed and changed and changed. It’s not just ice cream parlours turned cafes or pubs that change ownership every year.

—Over there used to be a nice comic book store. It was pretty small but had a nice selection. My sister used to buy manga there. It’s now a shoe shop.

—That used to be a Waterstones, two storeys. I think I bought my copy of Juhani Pallasma’s The Eyes of the Skin there, but can’t be sure.

—That Blackwells is little more than a stationery store now. It used to be five storeys and have a magnificent selection of books.

Once, I, my mom, and her then-husband spent hours in that Blackwells, just browsing, finding new books, thoughtful books, probably marking us as life-long pseudo-intellectuals in the process. Most of what used to be the Blackwells store is now a restaurant.

—We had Borders over there. I’m afraid to even think about the amount of money I spent there during the lifetime of the store. Bought most of my Georgette Heyer collection and so so many sci-fi novels there.

On the day before I graduated, me with my PhD and my sister with her MA, we spent a large part of the afternoon there with our dad, talking about life, history, philosophy and books. It was later a Wilkinson, selling household goods. Then a Sainsbury’s, I think? I haven’t been back in five years.

I remember when Forbidden Planet was in the centre, in one of the buildings later demolished to make way for Cabot Circus (which is a fine example of a modern-day temple to consumerism).

A new Foyles store, and a dingy looking comics store on Bond Street, never made up for all of these losses.

The book has ceased to have a physical presence for the general public in so many ways.

What one can study are the meanings readers assign to literary works. What people call ’literature” does not exist on paper. The only thing you will ever find on paper are black marks.

Teaching As a Subversive Activity -- Neil Postman

That Brief Period When Interactive Documentaries Had Promise

—So, what do you think of iBooks, Kindle, and the like?

One of the benefits of having spent such a long time in UK academia (there aren’t many, but this is one) is that whenever there was an academic conference in the city you lived in, there’s a decent chance you could wrangle a free ticket.

Less of a benefit today, now that I’m living in Iceland, but it was back when I was still UK-based.

Mid-March 2012 I went to the i-docs conference at the Watershed, a hullabaloo on interactive documentaries, web docs, etc. It covered all forms of interactive non-fiction.

I generally find conference panels and talks to be boring at best and infuriating twaddle at worst, and these certainly didn’t rise above the crowd.

There’s nothing a conference talk can deliver that wouldn’t be better served by a good blog post, suitably ignored by the masses.

This is probably why the i-docs conference site at the time was full of blog posts, videos, and discussions.

But, I digress.

The true worth of a conference is in the attendees and the true value you get is from discussions and conversations in between the sessions. And based on what I heard in those conversations, the future of interactive non-fiction wasn’t going to have ‘book’ anywhere in its name.

‘Too little. Too late. They completely missed the boat.’

When I asked what they thought of ebooks as a platform, the responses ranged from a polite disinterest to a complete and unequivocal dismissal.

Instead, the focus was on the web and apps.

People from Mozilla were in attendance, showing off what Firefox could do at the time. This was before Mozilla’s present cadaverous immobility. Accessible and rich web development tools were demonstrated.

It’s easy to understand why those two platforms had such great mindshare among documentarists and interactive media developers at the time.

On the one hand, we had the web, a platform that is perfectly aligned with the one true goal of most non-fiction projects: to spur action. Documentarists are often ideologists and activists. They don’t make documentaries to make a living. They want to change the world. The web is natively a community platform, so it directly complemented those interactive documentaries in ways that an isolated interactive ebook could not.

On the other hand, we had apps, a platform that wasn’t as limited as the web and could take advantage of the capabilities of modern hardware and mobile technologies to a much greater extent. It was a platform for experimentation, for new things. And, if your project was interesting and playful enough, it dangled in front of you the possibility of generating enough sales to pay for the development and bootstrap your next project.

Interactive media was in full bloom. It had capable platforms, a massive audience, and revenue.

Some of that revenue came from direct sales. Some of it was based on volunteer work and donations. Some relied on indirect revenue: using interactive media to sell something else; an interactive documentary to sell a DVD documentary and the like. One of the attendees was making an interactive documentary for a condom manufacturer on how condoms were manufactured.

Most of these people had no interest in interactive ebooks.

And now, when they don’t

The interactive documentary revolution never happened. The interactive media revolution never happened. Almost every unique affordance, convention, stylistic flair, and narrative mechanic that was developed for interactive media in the 90s and 00s has now been hijacked by a single, narrow, sub-genre of the form: social media.

Transitions and effects are used in ‘stories’. Links are a mechanism for driving outrage and arguments. Embedded video is short, so short, and primarily social.

Meanwhile, the revolution in ‘meaty’ media production has come about entirely through the internet’s ability to simplify, atomise, and then aggregate the distribution of traditional media.

Youtube is the free or cheap public tier of broadcasting. Netflix and its ilk replace or directly compete with premium cable. Ebooks turned out to be a sustaining, not disruptive, innovation for publishing, replacing mass-market paperbacks with a cheaper, more easily distributed alternative.

Beyond the occasional Black Mirror: Bandersnatch experiment, the McLuhanite idea of the interactive media succeeding by providing interactive experiences that are uniquely interactive hasn’t come to pass.

Interactive media is now social media. That is the form.

Interactive video is now regular video, just more widely distributed and with no schedule limitations. That is the form.

Games persevere and have expanded. Art games and storytelling experiments are more common. It’s big enough to encompass a dizzying array of genres, conventions, traditions, and tropes. The economics are a bit shit but that applies to pretty much every other creative medium today, anyway. At least, if you’re looking at it from the perspective of a creator.

Interactive text is now web media—a broad mix of paid subscription sites, weblogs, newsletters, and ad-supported media—which is just a form of lightweight hypertext with a drizzle of links for credibility. It’s best categorised as a hybrid between the forms of social media and the essay—a mix that, like the epistolary novel, bootstraps a new form of writing by repurposing many contemporary social media conventions.

That is the form of interactive media that remains. The new essay.

Outmoded Metaphors Bind Our Thinking

In 2012, I went to a talk held by my friend Tom Abba. He was outlining some of the lessons he’d learned from a project of his where he mailed a bunch of really gorgeous art prints to a bunch of really smart people, with the hope of drawing them into an involved interactive narrative experience.

It inspired a legendary blog post by John Scalzi, which I will never stop teasing Tom about.

It was hard for me to judge his project accurately, having helped out at several stages and followed it for a longer time than seems possible, but one of the things he said stuck with me.

I’m paraphrasing now, but it was something along these lines: The first thing we need to do for the interactive narrative to grow is to give up on the name ‘book’.

Like ‘horseless carriage’ it binds us to an outmoded way of thinking. By using another name, we shed our expectations and can more accurately explore the capabilities of the medium.

He was correct. In the intervening decade, as ebooks continued to be delegated to the publishing industry and publishing’s ‘indie’ satellites, web media has grown up and developed its dedicated forms. Social media may not be the interactive documentary revolution some were hoping for but has evolved into a unique kind of monstrosity that dominates our culture. Web media may look unimportant and trivial but much of it only works on the web and needs reinterpretation when it’s remediated into print. It’s the narrative and rhetorical backbone of social media.

Ebooks are the modern-day iteration of the paperback. That is the form—the service they provide to the media landscape.

Losing the book metaphor

If “art” denoted objects, if it were genuinely a noun, art objects could be marked off into different classes. Art would then be divided into genera and these subdivided into species. This sort of division was applied to animals as long as they were believed to be things fixed in themselves. But the system of classification had to change when they were discovered to be differentiation in a stream of vital activity. Classifications became genetic, designating as accurately as may be the special place of particular forms in the continuity of life on earth. If art is an intrinsic quality of activity, we cannot divide and subdivide it. We can only follow the differentiation of the activity into different modes as it impinges on different materials and employs different media.

Art As Experience – John Dewey

Ebooks didn’t have a place in the future of interactive media. Video and interactive non-fiction grew to encompass the markets that used to be served by print non-fiction. Very little of it looks anything like a book.

Reference books and cookbooks were pushed out by reference websites, recipe blogs, and YouTube channels. In a few more years, non-fiction as a genre will be completely dominated by apps, social media, and websites (subscription- or ad-supported), the exceptions being the very few fields that legitimately require long-form text to deliver their message properly.

No such field comes to mind, but I’m sure they exist. Law, maybe?

Publishing was at a crossroads a decade ago. It wasn’t just a question of how the ebook form was going to develop but also who they wanted as an audience. As books continue to lose their real-world presence, do we want to just cater to a minority of voracious expert readers? Really?

Pretending you aren’t just one ephemeral medium—a “differentiation in a stream of vital activity”—competing with other ephemeral media on price, accessibility, and value, is a surefire way to kill off long-form reading.

Where comics went, books will follow

Twenty years ago I went to the San Diego Comic-Con gathering interviews for a series of radio documentaries I was making for the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service.

Comic-Con was a different beast in those days, more of a pure comics thing. Beyond a few animation looping in DC’s stall, TV and film had a relatively low-key presence.

Comics have always been an interesting medium. Even when the output of the comics industry wasn’t interesting, its role in society and western culture was.

They used to be everywhere. Even in Iceland, when I was a kid, most bookstores had racks and racks of comics to buy and leaf through. The Icelandic book industry churned out translations of American, French, and Nordic comics every year.

Most of these translations are now unavailable and out of print.

Comics sales when I was a kid and teenager had fallen from their once glorious peak, but they were always there, filling your mind with wonders, full of crazy ideas.

As the direct market boomed, catering to the comics connoisseur, comics ceased to have a physical presence in most people’s lives. As a medium, it became isolated and insular.

The Comic-Con I went to was the result of that inbred culture. Various instances of the Comic Book Guy were out in full force and pretty much the only one advocating the idea that comics should have the genre wealth and diversity of novels was Gary Groth.

Sales of traditional English language comics pamphlets have only gone down since then. The digital transition, for a while, looked like the medium’s last chance to break out of their cultural isolation.

The direct market took over because distribution was easier, stock was non-returnable, and publishers got paid more while the price remained the same.

The temptation to focus on expert, high volume, readers was irresistible and no thought was given on how to renew that readership in the future.

In the past few years, this decline has slowly turned into what you could call a transition. If you’re feeling optimistic. Pamphlets continue their steady decline but graphic novels have steadily been increasing their share of the book market. Sales are increasing and there has even been a bit of a renaissance in comics translations here in Iceland.

The medium that had isolated itself from broad readership has become the publishing industry’s brightest hope for mass accessibility.

Comics sales are still only a fraction of what they were thirty years ago, which in turn was only a fraction of the sales sixty years ago, which, finally, was also only a fraction of the sales 95 years ago. Comics have gone from tens of millions, to millions, to hundreds of thousands, to tens of thousands.

But book publishing is now right down there with the rest of comics so, yay? It looks like maybe the decline has stopped, we’ve reached a temporary equilibrium where books have found their level in the competitive media landscape. Until the decline of libraries, the disappearance of bookstores, and the removal of books from the public psyche starts to kick in and the lack of renewal of our number of expert readers begins to kick in.

Maybe graphic novels will be that pathway for new readers? Comics have an advantage online as they have unique advantages both on social and web media.

But it feels likely that the long term future of the book will be in speciality stores far off Main Street, in a speciality section on Amazon.com, or at the back of the gift shops only called ‘bookstores’ for historical reasons.

Mainstreaming comics within book publishing will benefit both. The industry is (probably unconsciously) making a bet that the unique suitability that comics have to both web and print media is going to become the big recruitment path for new readers. A path that goes from digital comics, to graphic novels, to prose books. The problem with that idea is that comics are a unique medium in their own right that just happen to share some distribution and formal aspects with prose books.

So, unless prose books, novels, and similar book forms come up with strategies for steadily recruiting new readers, graphic novels may over time come to eclipse novels in the publishing industry.

Or maybe not. The novel is a hardy form, even though it is younger than most people assume (18th century as an English form, 19th century as an industry). It’s also uniquely suited as a cultural form for minorities and smaller languages. Small countries can have a thriving culture for novel-writing with very little investment, which can’t be said of cinema, TV, or even comics to some extent.

Either way, we’re going to need libraries to keep all of this going.

Where are we now?

The abiding struggle of art is thus to convert materials that are stammering or dumb in ordinary experience into eloquent media. Remembering that art itself denotes a quality of action and of things done, every authentic new work of art is in some degree itself the birth of a new art.

Art As Experience – John Dewey

First of all, ebooks as they are today suck. They have never been and never will be a platform for interactive media, thoughtful or shallow. They look like arse and still lock up the reader’s annotations and highlights as if they belonged to the publisher, not the reader. Their visual design capabilities are non-existent and, for the most part, those limitations are still by design. Ebooks are a sustaining innovation for the publishing industry and not a medium in their own right.

Books aren’t a special little snowflake. They are just a medium among many. Interactive media authors and web developers have already gone where their creative and practical goals are best served.

—Which is where, exactly?

That’s the thing. It isn’t one thing. It wasn’t ever going to be one thing. Just because the web is (for the most part) a single platform it didn’t follow that that would result in a single new interactive medium.

What we have is social media, which everybody has to live with, even if you aren’t using it, as the consequences of their design have transformed our cultures and societies.

We have web media, which complements, frames and is framed by, buts up to, and integrates with social media. It’s both independent and integrated in a way only possible with hypertext.

We have games, which is probably the biggest one of the lot. It’s to interactive media what cinema is to time-based media (video, audio, drama).

Apps as interactive media in their own right are less of a thing these days. They’re mostly a platform for games, social media, and productivity apps. The interactive media app went the way of the interactive ebook app.

And we have new ways of distributing more traditional media like video, audio and, yeah, books.

If you want to experiment with interactive media, specifically, you go into games. It’s a shit industry that will burn you out but, hey, so are all of the other creative industries.

A lot of people became accidental web media artists when news media and magazines migrated online. It’s become more of a venue for interactive media expression than I ever expected. But you don’t go into web media to create interactive forms. You go into web media either as a web developer or designer or writer or editor and then it just turns out that interactive media is one of the things you have to do.

The documentarists have almost exclusively ended up on Youtube. With surprisingly high production values in some cases.

Social media is something everybody participates in, even when you try to avoid it. The experience is a bit prefabricated. The formal conventions have settled quite a bit and experimentation is now mostly within set boundaries. It’s a medium. It’s new. It’s kind of hard to gauge where it’s going to go in the long run. In the short run, it’s one of the many things that are burning down our political and social landscape.

What are the options for an interactive media creator?

What to do? What to do? What to do?

The media landscape as a whole looks different from what most of us expected. Traditional media has both a bigger and smaller role to play. Books have been mostly sidelined but in a way that seems survivable. Still do okay in many non-English languages. Comics seem set for a slow recovery.

There are a few paths today for somebody specifically interested in creating interactive media, stories or narratives that leverage the structural and formal possibilities that digital represents:

  1. Create traditional media, videos, podcasts, ebooks, but experiment with their digital context and how they are interlinked. Interactive media becomes the binding tissue between them. This is the job web media is doing today.
  2. Work as a web developer to expand what web media can do.
  3. Go into games, either wholesale or as a hobbyist.
  4. Be a software developer that builds tools that help readers, listeners, and watchers apply the unique qualities of digital media to traditional media. Reading tools. Annotations. Note-taking. Snipping and re-contextualisation.
  5. Build educational websites and apps.

That last one took me a bit by surprise but online courses and textbooks are evolving into an interactive medium of their own with set conventions, traditions and affordances.

And, as you can see from the incessant shilling on social media, it has become a burgeoning industry in its own right. Almost every field has a bunch of people hawking webbooks or courses that are supposed to solve this problem or that. Save you money or learn you some knowledge.

I’ve dabbled a bit in most of these, excepting games. They feel complementary in many ways. Traditional media is the building block that most of the rest is built on. Web media is what draws people in. The educational content has so many shills because it has the potential to deliver the most value.

There’s a sense that interactive media has a future. It’s still being shaped. There’s less dynamism about than there was ten years ago and many of the sub-genres at least seem to be settling.

But it’s starting to look like it might even become the basis of a career of some kind.

You can also find me on Mastodon and Bluesky