A flip-flop and a scroll too far

A few years is a long time on the internet, but it feels like it’s taken about that long for the infinite scroll to become commonplace. It’s that message at the bottom of a web page that tells you more results, tweets, posts, whatever, are loading. And then it’s the way thatonce they load, the bottom of the page jumps out of site. When you find it again, your page is twice as big as it was, and still it’s loading more results, growing bigger with every scroll of your mouse.

Google Image search is doing it; Flickr’s started doing it; Twitter and Facebook have done it forever. The infinite scroll works on social media. We know social media’s finite but it somehow feels too big to think of that way. In practical terms it’s infinite, it washes over you. If you miss something it doesn’t matter, you can just grab the next thing that comes along. There’s not the same need to understand the scale because you know you never will.

It’s when I’m looking for something that my relationship with the infinity changes: I need to understand and navigate the finite.

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I was searching for images recently and found myself lost in the infinite scroll of search results. I got what I needed in the end, but each search made me more aware of how disorientating an every-growing page of search results can be.

On a practical level, each time I viewed an item and then hit back to return to my search results, I was dumped back at the top of the original shortlist of results, not back to where I’d been in the list. It’s true I could have opened each result in a new tab, but that means I – as a user – have to change my behaviour.

It makes me wonder what is it about infinite scroll that web designers and developers think is so useful that it’s worth making users change. But as I say, that’s purely a practical issue. So I get a bit lost and had to re-scroll to reload my results. So what?

It’s the conceptual angle I’m interested in – the feeling of being lost. Where in the list am I? How close to the top and bottom of the list? A result that was near the middle of the page when it first loaded is suddenly proportionally nearer the top once more results load. Where did it go? Where on the scale of top and bottom – and therefore the scale of importance – does each result sit? Those are the questions that occur to me as my page of results grows longer every time I scroll further down the page.

There’s the new take on the old joke about the tree falling with no one to hear it: if your result isn’t on page 1 of a Google search does it really matter? But regardless of which page your result is on, the pagination give you a sense of where in the sea of results your result sits. Pagination gives a sense of chunks of results that I can move through. Google delivers hundreds of thousands of results; sure, the scale is unfathomable (infinite?) but the pagination gives me some structure to work with.

Those million or so results become slightly more understandable once you know they span fifty thousand or so pages of 20 results a page. Apply pagination to a more manageable set of results from your typical cultural collection website, and your few hundred results become navigable and comprehensible: page 1 is relevant, page 5 is related at a stretch, page 20 becomes just bizarrely curious (and worth looking at!). Pagination is our map, leading from the centre to the outlying results and back.

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I’m interested in how this could play out when it starts to be applied to fuller text content – not search results or Facebook posts, but newspaper articles and even longer pieces of written work. What some are now calling pageless web design. Long articles are appearing less with pagination (and the accompanying link to ‘read as a single page’) and going straight to the long single page.

Snow Fall – the Avalanche at Tunnel Creek is a lovely example. It hits a good mixed approach of presenting each lengthy part on a single page. There’s simple navigation fixed to the top of the page and links at the bottom of the page to go forward or back across the parts. Images are placed simply; you can stop and look or pass on. Same with video, which sits unobtrusively in the text. It’s the text that’s the main event and if you’re in the story you’re in the story: that’s where your attention should be.

Also from the New York Times is their recent feature, This Land, a story about Elyria, Ohio (aka, Everyplace). I’m not so sure what’s going on in this piece. From the URL I can see the creators think it’s an ‘interactive’. Compare that with Snow Fall’s URL that puts that feature in their ‘projects’ directory. On this score alone, projects seem deeper and meatier than interactives, until you realise that what This Land is doing is linking to long text articles that appear in a fairly standard Times article template.

Not to be out-done, the Guardian has got in on the interactive act with Firestorm, the story of the Holmes family caught in the Tasmania fires in Dunalley. It’s an intense topic – fear, desperation, survival, human terror – presented in an intense way. Large images, sparse text, pained recordings of survivors.

As a reader/viewer/listener you have less control; audio starts playing as it scrolls into view; video plays in the background, images moving behind text as you read. And although the whole piece is broken down into chapters, once you’re in a chapter the scroll bar in your browser disappears. There’s no longer any sense of how big this thing is.

There comes a point where I start to feel overwhelmed. Both This Land and Firestorm are heavily reliant on interactive content to augment the written material, but it’s reliant to the extent that the text appears as overwhelmed as I am. Is the text still needed, and if it is, has it fallen prey to the excess of what’s possible with digital over what’s desirable?

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I want to avoid the unhelpful (and over-emphasised) dichotomy between analog and digital reading. There are those who’ll never put down printed books and those who’ll never pick one up; and there are vast numbers of us who’ll read printed books, websites, ebooks and whatever else is just around the corner. But some differences are useful to consider.

Printed books remain for many the primary vehicle for long-form reading, whether it’s a novel or a chapter-based non-fiction title. The web on the other hand has taken over the quick reference and short-form content that fills so much of people’s lives: information, news, quiz answers, blog posts. But coming along now, ebooks and web content like Snow Fall et al are trying – with increasing success – to move people into digital long-form reading.

It feels like we’re at an intersection for digital and analog, and in some ways it’s an intersection we’ve been through before: what does digital need to learn from analog and what does digital offer that’s genuinely useful. If we want to provide really useful and engaging long-form reading experiences for people, we need to be aware of what makes long-form reading successful in a printed book.

Printed books have been the primary means of delivering knowledge and information for hundreds of years. Over that time, printers, publishers and designers established clear rules for creating the best reading experiences for readers. White space, clear margins for the eye to navigate to the beginning of the next line, an airy feeling between lines of text (but not so airy as to space text out too far), eight to twelve words per line, and so on.

Rules like these allowed the reader’s eye to scan the line they’re reading as well as the lines above and below. Being able to use all those lines and words in context gives the reader a better understanding of the text. Modern web design has picked up on all these simple rules.

A book also has a physical presence. It’s got weight, heft, texture. Its physical presence tells the reader something else – scale and progress. You can tell the difference between a 200-page and a 1000-page book; you can tell how far through you are; and you have a sense of where in the story arc or writer’s argument you are. It’s true that a digital file on a plastic device will never evoke the tactile feel of a well worn and read paperback, but somehow it needs to emulate the sense of scale and progress through the text.

Ebooks and features like Snow Fall do just that. Whether it’s a simple page and total page count, a slider or scroll bar showing the reader’s progress, or a proportional graphic representation of pages in the device interface, there’s an effort to show the reader where they are in the story.

Similarly, Snow Fall and simple text-based ebooks give a primacy to the written content that’s in keeping with the vast majority of printed books. I don’t see the primacy of text changing. To an extent long-form reading in digital devices has been sidetracked by what’s possible in the digital world, rather than what’s desirable. We can add video, therefore we do; we can play audio, so we do. That’s been at the expense of developing solid long-form digital written content with an appropriate amount of supporting non-textual content.

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Pageless web design, infinite scroll, an overwhelming use of multimedia content. It all feels like we’re forgetting the rules of reading in print again. We’re going the other way and trying to create a new reading experience that fails to build on hundreds of years of publishing and reading. It’s dumping the covenant between writer/producer and reader/consumer. The reader’s place in a text and understanding of that place doesn’t matter in the world of the infinite scroll and pageless design.

As producers it feels like we’ve given up trying to help readers understand where they are in our content. We’re just leaving them to find their own way. But if the web wants to start being a home to long-form reading then we’re going to have to revisit the rules of reading, relearn the lessons of centuries of publishing, and give our readers a greater sense of place in our content.

  1. Is it any wonder that students are sticking with print books – the technology is taking the reading experience – the searching, finding, and vetting experience — in directions that users haven’t gone yet. Doing whizzy fun things online is fun and whizzy – but not especially effective if its trying to push rather than coax users into new behaviors.

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