Reading on the web is associated with a decrease in attention span. As you read this, you are probably thinking about skipping a few paragraphs to see where things will lead. If you can get the gist of an idea by skimming and scanning, that’s maybe all you need. Why not just read the conclusion to swipe the key points and takeaways before attending to the numerous browser tabs or other devices dividing and competing for your attention? What do you gain from focusing entirely, and for a sustained period of time on one passage of text? What if that text also opens out into other content, demanding even more of your attention?
This poses a problem for any ‘long read’ on the web.
Reading is Already Interactive
The web is an interactive (or bi-directional) medium – but I would argue that reading itself is already interactive in a way that listening or watching is not, even if the interaction is between reader and text rather than between ‘writers’. While it takes attention and imaginative thinking to interpret sound and images, it takes the additional mental work (literacy) to understand a sentence and frame the resulting meanings and thoughts appropriately in the mind.
The front-end design of websites is moving away from skeuomorphic control panels to flat and fluid layouts with attractive typography, playing to the strengths of tablets and high-resolution displays. This has created an experience that feels more like a moving magazine. At the same time some earnest designers and developers have attempted to transplant longform writing to the web. Longform gives our attention spans a purifying ‘literate’ fitness regime to purge the sugary tweet, pin or listicle. It feels like a workout because reading and writing longform content is difficult and time-consuming compared to most other activities on the web. Websites such as Longreads curate this type of writing and blogging platforms such as Medium publish it.
Medium is a good example of the trend towards longer writing on the web, acknowledging its perceived effort – the site gives you an estimate of how long any given post will take to read. It seems to me, however, that Medium is mostly transplanting writing to the web, rather than transforming it. There is a good reason for this – transforming writing often leads to disorienting or distracting reading experiences. Let’s imagine the written text as the ‘main track’. The aim is then to create immersive experiences by adding other forms of interconnected media. In this situation, it is easy to end up not with immersive enhancement but with distracting asides which jolt us out of what was already an immersive experience with the ‘main track’.
The London Review of Books (LRB) is steadfastly committed to traditional long reads – the printed edition of this literary review presents four columns of densely-set type within which discursive essays explore subjects from contemporary Middle Eastern politics to the History of Science and the Philosophy of Mind. These are not the terse book reviews you may find in a Sunday broadsheet. The books under review are usually jumping-off points for the reviewer – an authority on the subject in their own right – to explore the subject within their own terms. Sometimes there are no books being reviewed at all. Here we are in ‘essay’ territory – the literary form pioneered by Montaigne and carried through to modern universities and the academic culture that surrounds them, but not much written or read outside of this sphere. LRB essays demand attention spans not associated with web-based reading, so in 2012 – perhaps as an act of provocation – the LRB commissioned a ‘digital essay’ which attempted both to transplant and transform writing on the web.
A web-based arts initiative called The Space, developed by the Arts Council and the BBC, collaborated with the author Will Self, Brunel University and the LRB to produce the digital essay, entitled ‘Kafka’s Wound: a digital literary essay by Will Self’. The main track of ‘Kafka’s Wound’ is a conventional essay by Self, exploring the various connotations of the wound of a terminally ill patient in Kafka’s short story, ‘A Country Doctor’ and the entire short story is accessible from one of the many hyperlinks offset in the margin. The essay is an exercise in associative thinking – the excavation of ideas and construction of new links between them. It is, on the surface at least, an exploration of the visceral immediacy of wounds – however the connotations suggest the opening up and absorption into a problematic and frightening space, involving virulent infection. Self writes more than once that he is guilty of absorption by associative thinking. There are clear connections here not only with the synthesizing preoccupations of an active imagination but also with the compulsive and ‘viral’ hyper-linking of the web.
A series of interconnected nodes, rather like a mind map, float and jostle for position above the text. The nodes are related to notes along the right margin. The node clusters have centralised colour-coded categories for content associated with the core text. The embedded content varies from an hour-long documentary about Will Self’s psychogeographical trip to Prague, to various artist’s responses to the themes of the essay. Are these responses and footnotes to the text of the essay, or part of the essay itself? The documentary is long enough to suggest that the essay could be a response to the film. In this space, the reader of a text necessarily becomes a user of a website – a reader/user hybrid.
In the same year a Pulizer-prize winning digital article called ‘Snow Fall’ appeared on the New York Times website and there was much noise about ‘production values’, throwing into question the likelihood of this type of article becoming the norm. I imagine the expense was not so much in the technology but in paying a team to create the interactive content. This suggests that the ‘opening out’ of content leads to a necessary call and response from and to different content creators. Even though there was a central author writing the ‘main track’ of text, both ‘Snow Fall’ and ‘Kafka’s Wound’ were produced by a team of collaborators. For ‘Kafka’s Wound’, much of the material was sourced from BBC archives or students at Brunel University.
The Long Web: Code and Convention
These languages do not limit the format in a way which the printing press has limited the page – the use of native web technologies provide the layout with a more expansive feel, unencumbered by the confined frames of the previously dominant Flash-based ‘multimedia’ content or the earlier and even more confined CD-Rom. This is an important change from the idea of text embedded in a pre-defined screen-frame, to a formatted, styled document, which can open outwards on a potentially infinite ‘sheet’ or contract to arrange itself on whichever sized glowing rectangle you happen to view it on.
What is interesting about ‘Kafka’s Wound’ is the self-conscious experimentation. The whole project is, like Self, guilty of associative thinking – immersed in a frenzy of hyperlinks. These links both distract the reader and provide further insight. We are somewhere between the terms of post-modern decentralisation and disorientation and a more focused modernist experimentation with form.
Like many other ‘proof-of-concept’ projects on the web the digital essay aims to raise more questions than it answers. Relatively new industries such as e-Learning have been trying to establish paradigms and formalise the new medium, but the open-ended nature of what web technology can achieve means that that such attempts are prone to failure, both in terms of establishing themselves as paradigms and of delivering effective experiences to the user/reader. ‘Kafka’s Wound’, as an experiment, is able to flaunt disorientation in a way that a commercial project would not.
I am writing this in 2015 – ‘Kafka’s Wound’ came out in 2012 and not much has changed since then. I think this is because, while the web has some parallels with video gaming, the developments we are interested in here do not concern advancements in computer graphics hardware and augmented or virtual reality, but the slow development of a mature digital medium – giving a continuity and stability in the creation of form and content, a situation not quite the same as that indicated by retro post-modern ideas about ‘cyberspace’. While there is a common culture in the world of web (and computing in general) to see change as something rapid and often revolutionary, I think that we are in the early stages of figuring out how this more adaptable medium might lead to works of paradigmatic importance captured in novels and films (and also, arguably, video games). The technology itself need not be cutting-edge, but rather established to a point where what is done with it can lead to something comparative to paper-based literature – where a ‘website’ can have the same cultural impact as a novel.
This article is part of a blog series about Storytelling and web design.