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March 25, 2009 / gus3

New Wine in Old Wineskins

Clay Shirky has posted a fantastic essay about Old Media’s backwards march into the future. I agree with his conclusions, but I think there’s more to it. A lot of what’s wrong with Old Media on the ‘net, is that it so obviously shows its Old Media ways.

There is a vast difference between a Moog synthesizer and MIDI, and the performance techniques for each require different thinking.(*) So also the old ways of media become a dry, stale, academic exercise when transferred to the Web.

On the home page of an Ohio newspaper’s website, I have seen animated GIF’s for advertisements, three main stories that rotate at a 5-second interval, and black text on a white background with dark grey gutters on either side. Fortunately, they haven’t overridden my font choice.

So what’s wrong with all this? Well, the pages are designed by print-oriented people, the advertisements are designed by ad people who think they’re putting a commercial on TV, and these two mentalities clash. When Salon.com put up Flash ads for non-members, they took care to separate them from the articles–a very smart move. Having constant movement in such close proximity to stationary text detracts from both. I don’t mind Web commercials too much, as long as I have the option to turn them off, just like a “Mute” button for the TV.

The content columns don’t expand or shrink, just like a newspaper doesn’t expand or shrink. But browser windows do! More print-media thinking imposed on a Web site. (Thank you, LXer, for getting this one right.)

Worse, the client-side scripting betrays design by a Web programmer who has zero experience in interface usability. Who else would replace the teaser THAT I WAS READING with another story that I’m not interested in? At least they provide a button to lock on a single story and stop making my eyes cross while I’m reading the lede.

Finally, all the articles exist in isolation. There is not a single link for more information, related stories, or even relevant Google searches or Wikipedia articles. The story content is just as dry as if it were printed on paper.

There are probably more examples of Old Media thinking; with more time I could verbalize them.

A big part of the reason New Media is crushing Old Media, is because New Media knows what makes something pleasant to read/watch on a computer monitor. A news blog I read frequently sometimes has embedded YouTube videos in its articles, but the videos don’t play automatically. The reader must take specific action to play the stream. The blog designer knows that, just because he can put dancing monkeys on his page, that doesn’t mean he has to, and even if he does, he lets his readers choose whether to watch them or not.

He organizes and links his articles coherently, so that readers who wish to research the reference material, or look at a time-line, may do so with a click.

His animated GIF count: zero.

His text columns don’t expand or shrink, but the side margins around them do; he also keeps the main content column at about 565 pixels, narrow enough to fit on the narrowest VGA monitor.

In short, his site design is far better than that of the Ohio newspaper above. He has approached the Web as a medium in its own right, not merely a re-work of an older system. Yes, that’s the whole point of Mr. Shirky’s essay, but there’s more to it than just the business model. The Old Publishers look at the Web and see one more outlet. The New Publishers are looking at the Web and see possibilities for having fun.

(*) If you want to know what MIDI expertise sounds like, find George Pollen‘s transcriptions at the Classical MIDI Connection. Nothing cheesy in his tracks, nosiree.

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