It only took me, like, three years, but I’ve got the @infinite_words account running again.
The previous iteration of my Infinite Jest word-a-day bot survived for a year and a half, until changes to the Twitter API killed it. I still received cron notifications in my inbox with the day’s word and an error message, nagging me every day at 12:10 p.m. to update it.
On this rainy Sunday, using a quick-and-dirty tool by Zach Whalen, I finally did.
Some half-cooked thoughts, not yet popped:
Issues make little sense online. Obviously, they’re necessary for print, but web readers — especially of a less news-driven publication — don’t think that way.
Some content is inexorably tied to a certain date. News and blog posts, in particular. (There’s context again.) But so much is timeless. Why force that content into an artificial issue framework on the web? The web is alive, constantly growing and changing. Does a web reader really care when, say, a great recipe was published?
Don’t think of the website as a repository for magazine stories and the stuff you had to cut from print. And certainly don’t think of the website as a “brand extension” and marketing tool to sell subscriptions. Your site is its own, complementary product. And, yes, you can make money online.
Consider a digital-first approach. Never stop producing stories for the web, and instead pull (and rework for print) the very best for a monthly magazine. Then add to the mag some new, context-appropriate content and you’ve got the kind of durable, evergreen product that magazine people love to hoard. Encourage your magazine readers to visit your website for more great stories, all month long. Macworld is a great example of this model.
Context is king.
That holds true everywhere we publish, analog or digital. Anyone can sling content — and on the web, everyone will — but an article out of context is no more useful than a printed book chock full of typed-out URLs, which would be screwy, intrusive, frustrating and a distraction from the reading I’d want to do. Context can elevate content, but the wrong frame can tear it down just as easily.
But what does context mean on the web? There’s no single answer, and that’s the very crux of the internet: The web is whatever we need it to be, just as water changes shape when poured into a new glass. The web is more than a medium for publishing or communications or commerce — it’s a customer service medium, and websites and services sprout to fill every possible need.
I’m going to limit the scope here to magazines, simply because, well, that and the web are what I know.
Let’s consider a printed magazine, maybe a small regional publication about a certain lifestyle, history and culture. You know the type, I’m sure.
Then flip to a section like, say, travel reviews, punchy little things with an overview and maybe a recommendation. Is a reader of this section looking for a new place to visit? Quite possibly. Sure, many folks read travel stories like fiction, as a way to mentally get away. But a lot of people clip out the intriguing destinations or save whole magazines for future reference. It’s a casual, mostly passive act: That sounds interesting, I’ll have to try it sometime.
So now this magazine’s next issue is going to press, and the web editors have a whole book full of stories to parcel out on the website. (This works in reverse, too, in a digital-first workflow, where the print editors must put web content onto a different platform with a different context.) The simple solution — and, sadly, the one I see way too often — is the cut-and-paste: InCopy to CMS to website to social media. Repeat. But what about context?
Let’s consider the travel section again, this time on the magazine’s website.
Don’t call me a reader or user, no, here I’m a hunter of information. I’m planning a trip and I’ve come to your website to do it. I know what I want: Someplace family-friendly, and outdoors, in a three-state radius; it’s only a long-weekend trip, plus the kids’ll kill each other if they’re in the car together for too long. Alright, I’ll click on the travel section and see what matches… What? A long list of travel-related magazine stories?
A magazine reader is not the same as a web user; it’s a casual vs. mission-driven act. On the web, I want those travel reviews sliced and diced, sorted and tagged; I want the facts; I want the metadata. And, without the space restrictions of print, why limit the review to a few paragraphs, a link and a photo? Tell me a story about the experience, relate to people, and encourage your community of readers to do the same. That’s how you build a useful web resource — and best serve your customers.
But enough about travel sections. What do you do with a feature? The default response these days — especially in magazines’ tablet editions — is, “Add multimedia!” And I’m not fundamentally opposed; why shouldn’t we take advantage of all the different ways to tell a story on the web? But it has to make sense. A video produced just to have a video doesn’t serve anybody. Multimedia have to add a new dimension to the storytelling.
I love the work of Jonathan Harris. In other hands, his latest project, Balloons of Bhutan, could have been a drab, text- and statistics-heavy story of a tiny nation. But by giving faces and voices to the men and women of Bhutan, he’s created something powerfully human, something printed words can never match. And that’s the best way to use multimedia on the web.
How about the feature itself? Often, the text of a good magazine story transcends the medium. You can (and should) add links, restore photos cut for space, spin off sidebars into full-bodied articles of their own, or even embed a YouTube video instead of describing it, but a compelling story — the core of the article — is no less compelling whether in print or on the web.
What’s so often left behind, though, is the design of the feature. Print designers don’t lay out stories just for fun. Great editorial design is as much a part of the story as the text: It sets the mood, elevates the drama, and inserts critical elements like photographs precisely when and where they’re needed. In short, the design adds context. When you funnel a story through a CMS into the same template as a 200-word blog post, you’ve lost all of that.
At the Chronicle, I’ve tried to champion, and web-ify, that ethos. In print magazines, I love the full-bleed photos, the careful typography, the feeling you get when you open up a gorgeous spread.
Why can’t I feel that way when I read a web feature, too?
Long live context. Long live the king.
It starts with a lengthy text file of words and definitions — based on a list from this IJ help packet — and a PHP script. Every day, the script sends a new word to Twitter, after which a modified installation of Tweet Nest sucks it up and drops it into an archive. (I’ll eventually add sorting by letter to that archive, but my PHP-fu is only at the yellow-belt level, roughly, and I’m mostly flailing around and punching myself in the face at this point.)
So, follow @infinite_words on Twitter, and soon you too can elicit baffled looks from family and friends by dropping the day’s word into casual conversation.
Jeff Sonderman, for Poynter, on the latest Facebook privacy brouhaha:
New Facebook-based apps like Washington Post Social Reader, and similar ones from The Guardian and The Daily encourage Facebook users to read their stories and pump all that reading activity out to their friends. […]
This so-called “frictionless sharing” has big problems.
One problem is that the “friction” — the act of choosing what to share, with whom, and how — is what makes sharing meaningful. […]
The fact that my friend read an article is not useful without knowing more. Did he like it? Did he think I would like it? Did it make him laugh, cry, gasp or sigh? Did he read it because his boss or his teacher told him to, or because he was genuinely interested?
Sonderman’s right: on the level of the individual, frictionless sharing is totally creepy. I don’t want all of my Facebook friends reading over my shoulder, and I don’t know anyone who would.
But what about an anonymized aggregate of that information? Imagine a section on the site where your friends’ consumed media are collected and weighted, stripped of the stifling personal information. Now that’d be interesting — and much more useful, too.
Frictionless sharing, so implemented, won’t replace active sharing. They’ll simply exist on two different planes.
So you’re out for a countryside stroll, basking in the warm sun and fresh air. You stop to pick a few flowers for the new vase in the kitchen. You spot a small daisy, perfectly shaped and white as cream, which you know would look lovely tucked behind your wife’s ear. And as you bend down to pluck it from the earth, a two-foot-tall, 40-pound rat leaps from the nearby bushes and chews a large hole in your face.
You chase the thing away and spend the next month shuttling between the hospital and the plastic surgeon, who tells you matter-of-factly that a nose isn’t really necessary anyway. Still haunted by the attack, you acquire a fearsome companion — a young fire-breathing dragon — and, on doctor’s orders, head to the coast to convalesce. You string up a fishing pole and park your chair on the dock, cold beverage in hand and little dragon at your side. The rising sun only sweetens your bliss, until something terribly strong takes your bait and yanks the pole from your hands. You see something streak through the water toward you, and then you’re in the water, debris all around, the dock shattered and gone, a monstrous serpent towering 20 feet above. You pass out, to wake hours later on the shore, beside the half-eaten and fly-covered carcass of your fiery little pal. For once you’re thankful you no longer have a nose.
Six years later. You’ve barricaded yourself and your family in an underground lab, where you work to create the ultimate fighting monster. With such a creature under your control, you’ll never be afraid or threatened again. Inspired by The Fly, you merge flesh with machine and create tortured beasts which even Dr. Moreau would have called twisted. Predictably, they turn on you, and you flee, leaving your wife and children to their gruesome fates.
You return to your old home, in your old town. It’s where you were happiest. The house is empty now, full of dust and dead dreams. The vase still sits barren on the kitchen table. In it you leave a small white daisy, and then you walk deep into the countryside to a welcome death.
Write a lead-actor-heavy script, allotting plenty of time for said actor to glower and bluster and generally dominate every frame he’s in. Must run at least two hours long; close to three is best.
Set the story in a long-ago era and photogenic locale, with ample opportunities to make period sets and charming costumes.
Hire a top-notch, bombastic lead actor and a well-respected director.
And you will have a movie, hailed by critics as a masterpiece, that’s interesting for maybe an hour before you start checking the clock, wondering where this is going and when the main character — every character, really — will start acting like a real-life human instead of Oscar-bait, and now it’s two hours in and you’re trading one-liners with the others on the couch and laughing at how seriously the director is taking these preposterous scenes before there’s a flash of violence and the end of There Will Be Blood finally, finally comes.
Found while organizing old files: an audio piece from a few winters ago on Mr. Ash, owner of a charming little magic shop in Chicago. Recorded serviceably on a Belkin iPod mic.