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What I Learned at SXSW

I had a simple epiphany at a conference in Austin this weekend, in this session on Sunday morning: After Magazines: Wired’s Digital Rebirth.

The epiphany was this: that the tablet device, in particular the iPad, may be the first good digital device for storytelling (yeah, I hate that word too — but I’m not sure there is a better one for my purposes here).

Thea talk was by the Creative Director of Wired, Scott Dadich, who focuses mainly on their print magazine. And it was about their development of a digital version of the magazine for tablet devices including the iPad. You can see a sneak peek of what they’re building in this video:

more about “Adobe & Wired Create a Digital Magazine“, posted with vodpod

What struck me about Dadich’s talk was his complete enthusiasm for the tablet, and his total disdain for the web. He proudly noted that a hallway divides the Wired print and interactive teams (the “Hall of China” he called it); showed example after example of beautiful print designs contrasted with ugly interactive counterparts from their website; and noted their were over a dozen people on the design and art stuff of the magazine and just two for the website.

Dadich’s attitude is illustrative of a larger if demoralizing truth: that many creative people do not feel the Web is a particularly friendly place for stories and narrative, and that we’ve seen few (maybe no?) truly compelling and engrossing narrative works built for the Web.

So the enthusiasm of a old media print designer like Dadich was telling. He and his team at Wired can now make a digital version of their magazine that stays true to the artistry, layout, and narrative flow of their print product. One that still affords interactivity for the consumer — simple “flipping” of pages with the swipe of a finger — but that allows the creative maker to stay in control of the narrative, and to some extent the experience.

And this is the key. Whether making of art, or writing, or film, people are drawn those creative acts by the compulsion to tell a story. To be an author, to hold the attention of an audience, and to move them or affect them in some way. Looking at the Wired demo, and hearing Dadich speak, it’s not hard to imagine a whole class of creative people turning their energies towards making something for the iPad or tablets more generally.

Indeed, I found my own creative interests and instincts being aroused by dreams of the iPad. Fifteen years ago I was making CD-ROM based documentaries that were all about a blend of storytelling and interactivity. They were critically acclaimed, but sold pitifully few copies and the experience just didn’t provide what people wanted from their computer. What they wanted, it turns out, was the web.

Perhaps — perhaps — what people will want from the tablet are the kinds of stories and experiences we were trying to provide with those old CD-ROMs, or what Wired is trying to do with their digital magazine. My pal Om Malik suggested something like this — that the tablet is about consumption:

When I walked out of the Apple event, in an on-camera interview, I told David Carr, media critic for The New York Times, that this device is first and foremost about media consumption. Our world, as I have outlined in many previous writings, is overrun with information. For the past 15 years we have perfected tools for creating information (or content). From camera phones to cheap laptops to open-source blogging platforms, the world of the web has been about creating a tidal wave of media/information/data. What we have used to consume this information is a 30-year-old technology, the personal computer and lately, the cell phone.

While the PC was created for personal computing, it never really became personal enough. The mobile phones weren’t quite cut out to consume content beyond phone calls, some text messages and maybe emails. Today’s smart phones are proving that when done right, they can become great tools for consuming information — from little tweets to Yelp reviews to blog posts to Tom Friedman’s latest rant. The explosive and unstoppable growth of mobile data traffic only reinforces the fact that if you give people a better way to consume information, they will use it!

With that as context, you start to see the implications of the iPad and get excited.

I intially didn’t get Om’s point — or more precisely, I disagreed with it –because he talked about the the “consumption of information.” I think the PC is a perfectly fine — and perhaps ideal — device for that.

But the tablet as a device for consumption of narratives — well, then I think Om’s argument is dead-on. It’s possible to imagine sitting on a couch or comfy chair or your bed consuming a great story, whether told with pictures, words, or video. The creative class is coming, without a doubt, to the device in a big way. The open question at this point is whether the audience will follow.

One last, tangential note about SXSW this year. I really abhor conferences. And I usually don’t go to them.

And though much, much bigger than the last time I went (and arguably too big now) SXSW was actually more useful than I expected.  Good sessions on topics like iPhone development and design, a fine talk by Tom Conrad of Pandora about their work on mobile platforms, some nice HTML5 workshops. And, as always, the serendipitous meetings in hallways, or at the start of a session.

The focus on partying is a little off-putting, though, to a stodgy old guy like me. It’s fine to play and all, but I found myself wishing people took their work a little more seriously, and their play a little less.

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One thought on “What I Learned at SXSW

  1. Pingback: As Revolutionary as the DeLorean « MHALLVILLE

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