Database as a genre of new media

We’re not the most theoretical bunch here at We enjoy experimentation, but all that navel-gazing tends to bring to one’s attention is lint.

We do, however, appreciate an article by Lev Manovich, Database as a Genre of New Media. English is clearly not Manovich’s first language, and, while we don’t care what actually is, we certainly do enjoy the erudite flavour and tone his multilingualism produces, reminiscent of Umberto Eco. His observations ring particularly true for the Weblog format, an example of which, if an unusual one, you are reading now.

Many new media objects do not tell stories; they don’t have beginning or end; in fact, they don’t have any development, thematically, formally or otherwise, which would organize their elements into a sequence. Instead, they are collections of individual items, where every item has the same significance as any other.

This seems to ring a bell. Didn’t Kirk McElhearn say something similar about links the other day – you see a list of links and you think it amounts to content, though you don’t know where those links will lead and, in any event, following them would simply waste time rather than offer enlightenment?

Maybe there’s a trend afoot here. If any individual item is interchangeable with other individual items, what value does each of them have?

We figure the answer is “That’s relative.” (Tautological, shurely?!) And we mean “relative to other sites.” Feature parity is simply expected on service-oriented sites. With content sites, though, you have to be distinctive or you end up as another item in a database.

And your distinctiveness can come from an editorial or authorial voice. Selection of links, along with commentary, can establish an ongoing story.

Back with Manovich:

[A] Web page is a sequential list of separate elements: text blocks, images, digital video clips, and links to other pages. It is always possible to add a new element to the list.... As a result, most Web pages are collections of separate elements: texts, images, links to other pages or sites.[...]

Web sites never have to be complete, and they rarely are. [...] All this further contributes to the anti-narrative logic of the Web. If new elements are being added over time, the result is a collection, not a story. Indeed, how can one keep a coherent narrative or any other development trajectory through the material if it keeps changing?

We would answer this question with “Style, topic, and voice, that’s how.”

Editorship and authorship

Manovich is half-right and half-wrong. Web sites can meander or they can remain quite focused. You see this disparity in Weblogs, some of which occupy a lot of space and have little to say, acting as a salve for the author’s loneliness (Paul Ford: “Many people who create personal Web sites believe that by becoming famous, they will become less lonely”), while others remain tightly on-topic. But even in the former case, in diaristic sites, it’s possible to develop an interest. You read the unfolding narrative of the author’s life and become involved.

In that case, it’s exactly equivalent to documentary films that record the mundanity of day-to-day life. Editors and directors impose order, post facto, on the mass of raw data, to use Manovich’s terminology. The fact that it is possible to win an award for best writing in a documentary that has no narration shows that adding order to existing corpora of information is an act of volition that turns facts into story. Or can, in capable hands.

A river of content → a story

Is narrative any more necessary in content sites than in a newspaper or general-interest magazine?

One could advance the claim that special-interest sites, or vertical-market magazines, are more tightly engaged in narrative. The story is the topic they cover. You can find parallels in potboiler fiction – romance novels, military crime-romances of the kind Lucian K. Truscott IV churns out, and the endless sequence of spin-off books derived from science fiction. Each individual book may comprise a free-standing story (a “narrative” in dramatic terms), but what you’re really doing is setting a foot in a free-flowing river called Romance Novel or Military Potboiler or Star Trek Tie-In. The narrative is at once grand (larger than the book itself) and limited (to a certain topic or genre).

(We’re being slightly hypocritical here, having criticized a writer’s claim that “When someone takes a job online, they shouldn’t think of it merely as a job with a particular dot-com; instead, it’s like taking a job with a huge company called the Internet.” His claim and ours would seem to be cognate. But you know how it is. You rebel against new ideas, then come to accept them.)

Drama and resolution are not the goals of typical Web content sites. Staying on-topic, i.e., relevant, is. That way you keep river’s waters flowin’.

But for news-related sites that track ongoing events whose outcomes are not known – FijiLive of recent memory, for example, or one of our faves, – as more and more facts come into play, your pseudo-objective content coalesces into a storyline. Rumour sites (which fuel the Macintosh obsession – Cf. AppleInsider, Mac OS Rumors) work the lower end of the evolutionary scale.


Another example of a database form is a multimedia genre which does not has an equivalent in traditional media – CD-ROMs devoted to a single cultural figure such as a famous architect, film director or writer.

We’ve surpassed the quaint CD-ROM medium in this regard. With, for example, the Weblog format, it is now possible to follow a specific issue with tight, ongoing focus that, like all editorial decisions, can evolve into a point of view or style. Editing is authorship.

The open nature of the Web as medium (Web pages are computer files which can always be edited) means that the Web sites never have to be complete, and they rarely are. [...] All this further contributes to the anti-narrative logic of the Web. If new elements are being added over time, the result is a collection, not a story. Indeed, how can one keep a coherent narrative or any other development trajectory through the material if it keeps changing?

Ever heard of soap operas, Mr. Manovich?

A book has a last page, a film a final frame, a videocassette the end of its tape. You know up front that there’s an end to the story. In a soap opera or a Weblog, you know up front that there is no end, or no specific end, but in both cases you’re dealing with ongoing stories, albeit of very different kinds.

Historically, the artist made a unique work within a particular medium. Therefore the interface and the work were the same; in other words, the level of an interface did not exist. With new media, the content of the work and the interface become separate. It is therefore possible to create different interfaces to the same material.

An excellent elucidation of how the word content, which bugs even us sometimes, has come to fill a semantic need.

Elsewhere in his essay, Manovich conclusively disproves the claims of apologists for video games and jazzed-up TV services that they’re producing “interactive narrative.” A limited range of options to traverse from point A to point B in a preordained story does not quite cut the mustard as narrative. While there is indeed an editorial or authorial voice involved in selecting and creating the paths from A to B, the result fails as traditional narrative and amounts to an amalgam of database and algorithm, as Manovich explains.

Manovich’s observation that “It is therefore possible to create different interfaces to the same material,” while intended to refer to computer games, actually epitomizes the Weblog format.

Think about how Weblogs work. All those articles are out there, uncategorized, or simply unknown and ignored. You use your Weblogger’s editorial impulses to categorize, order, and explain the articles. While in one sense you have merely created a new interface to someone else’s content (a Jakob Nielsen favourite), over time, if you stick to a given topic, you will cultivate a form of authorial voice.

You will have produced a sequence of links and commentary that build up the story of the topic you cover, rather like a documentarist. (We keep thinking of Scott McCloud’s definition of comics, in fact, though it’s not quite close enough of a fit to do more than name-drop it.)

As a cultural form, database represents the world as a list of items and it refuses to order this list. In contrast, a narrative creates a cause-and-effect trajectory of seemingly unordered items (events). Therefore, database and narrative are natural enemies. Competing for the same territory of human culture, each claims an exclusive right to make meaning out of the world.

As we see from this definition itself, the Weblog fits many of the criteria of traditional narrative. A blog does not “refuse to order the list”; it exists to order the list. A topic-specific blog “creates a cause-and-effect trajectory of seemingly unordered items (events).” This form of database isn’t the enemy of narrative. Rather, it is a mildly novel variant thereof.

Posted on 2000-07-24