Sunday, June 13, 2010

WIRED Magazine App as High Art / Craft

This past Thursday I heard Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief at WIRED magazine, give a talk called "Tablets and the Future of Media" at the Future of Reading symposium at RIT. I deeply enjoyed his talk.

I'm a fan of Chris Anderson's because he has some pretty radical theories about how new technologies and new social behaviors will disrupt traditional markets. (He didn't really go into them with this talk but you can check them out in his books: The Long Tail and FREE). In this talk he wore the hat of a magazine editor with a lot of creativity, failed experiments, and insights under his belt. He spoke artfully about his periodical and his plan for maintaining its relevance in a digital media revolution.

His approach to maintaining that relevance was to look deeply into what it means to be a monthly magazine. Anderson dove in to the temporal element of a monthly magazine and claimed that a monthly periodical wasn't really suited for the web. The web is really good for a daily continuous, link-filled news feed but that WIRED, a monthly periodical, is something else.

A month is a weighty amount of time to wait for content, and thus a lot of planning goes in to making it worth the wait. The staff plans each issue six months in advance. They maintain secrecy about its content so as to deliver a Christmas morning experience with each issue. And his research shows that when people read it, they spend close to an hour with it not the three minutes or so that you spend reading a web news page.

They tried web experiments with WIRED, but the experiments failed. So Anderson went kind of retro with the approach to the iPad app. It's not cuttable, it's not pastable, it's not linkable, it's not sharable. It's not any of those things that we expect from digital media. What it is is a highly curated, highly crafted monthly magazine in digital form.

Douglass Rushkoff's book about innovation, called Get Back in the Box, argues that firms often put too much emphasis on "thinking outside of the box" when faced with disruptive technologies in the marketplace. Instead, he suggests that what firms really need to do to stay relevant in a disruptive environment is to return full throttle to their core mission. To figure out what they do best and go even deeper. This is what Anderson is doing with the WIRED app.

Of course it's not the first time that people working in a seemingly fading technology sector dove deeper into their craft in order to survive a technological revolution. If we look at the technological revolutions that have come before, we see a similar pattern.

SCRIBES AND THE PRINT REVOLUTION. Before the print revolution, scribes owned the words-on-paper market. When movable type came around, sure, they could have been out of a job. But instead, they dove deeper in to their craft and crafted pages that were so ornate that no press could reproduce them. They employed what type designer Kris Holmes refers to as The Radical Hand. Would these ornate pages ever compete with the distribution capacity of pages off the press? Of course not. The best scribes survived the print revolution by making something that was deeply expressive and beautiful (and thus expensive).

CRAFTPERSONS AND THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION. Industrialization brought mass-produced goods into many people's homes. Just like the printing press did, modern machinery reproduced stuff, this time objects, that common folks did not previously have access to. There were the luddites, of course, who monkey-wrenched the works to protest being replaced by machines. But there was also an incredible emergence of craft. These people made furnishings, for example, that were so intricate that they could never be replicated by the machine. And that made them pricey. Again, was craft furniture available to the masses? No. Did its quality and beauty keep the best artisans in business in a machine made world? It did.

MONTHLY PERIODICALS AND THE DIGITAL REVOLUTION. It's funny for some to think of monthly magazines in the context of craft or high art but as a trained graphic designer, the interplay of luscious images with type is as high as art can be. Anderson showed us an example of the WIRED app. The team had clearly dove deep into what it means to be a monthly digital publication. The app is incredibly rich and thoughtful and well crafted. Is the WIRED app cuttable, pastable, linkable, or sharable? No. Will it reach as many people as the bits of WIRED that they will inevitably release for free online? Of course not. Will it keep an artful monthly magazine alive through a digital revolution? Probably. Anderson is leaps and bounds ahead of his fellow crafters in the magazine business.

For more on the Future of Reading symposium, click here

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