Interface and content, surface and depth

Online, is content something you can:

Socratic questions

If you see a movie only once, was it content? Was a play that was only ever performed once content?

Does content have to endure to be content?

If you see a movie once and all you remember is a few words of dialogue (insert your own example), then what part of the movie is the content? The dialogue or the whole thing?

In a musical, what’s the content, the book or the lyrics or the score?

If what you remember of a movie are amorphous images (never complete frames – the human mind doesn’t work that way), what content have you remembered? If you can summarize the movie’s plot and point out some scenes you liked, is that the content? What about the rest of the movie?

If you’re a cinéaste and you really get what the director was doing with mise-en-scène, are you seeing more content than a bored moviegoer in search of simple entertainment who watches the same movie and shrugs on the way out, muttering “It was OK”?

If you think Ford Mustangs look ugly but love Mustang convertibles in yellow, what part do you love? The Mustangness, the yellowness, or the convertibleness?

If you think E.R. is an overrated soap opera but you tune in nonetheless because you just love George Clooney and would watch him read the telephone book, what part of E.R. is content for you?

Do you fast-forward through credit sequences and copyright warnings on home videos? Do you fast-forward through commercials on shows you tape off the air? Are you fast-forwarding through content?

If you’re on vacation and what you recall of Niagara Falls isn’t the Falls but the argument you had with your friend at the time, what is the content of your vacation? Going to Niagara Falls or having an argument at Niagara Falls? If someone asked you how your vacation went, and you were being honest, what would you emphasize?

As a Hong Kong resident, the instruction manual for your new DVD player comes in English and Chinese. (And other Latin-alphabet languages; though you’re bilingual, you can’t read those.) Chinese comes first, with English right alongside. The two languages couldn’t look more different. Which one is content? If you’re unilingual, does your answer change?

Television commercials for the Gap look like Gap television commercials. But they’re all different. In fact, they are very different, evolving from a Matrix manqué to a West Side Story manqué. What is the Gappishness of the commercials? What is the content?

Your first child resembles your second child, and they both resemble their mother, though not so much their father. The first child is autistic and it’s been a tremendous struggle to communicate with and educate that child, who is really a separate species from the rest of the family. Is the content or essence of that child the family lineage, the family resemblance? Has the content changed because communication has been so difficult? If your child doesn’t really fit in, what is the familiness of the child?

You’ve got three kids, one of whom was adopted. But they all grew up in your home from youth. You’re white and the adopted child is a Chinese national. Does the adopted child retain Chinese content, or does the child assimilate your family’s content?

You have identical-twin sons. Both play basketball, both go everywhere together, both do well in school. But one’s gay, one isn’t. What is the content of their identicalness? What is the surface, and what is underneath?


What does any of the foregoing have to do with the Web?

We want you to think about surfaces and depths and content and interface.

We object to the idée fixe that content is somehow extractable. There’s content and there’s presentation, ostensibly.

That thesis is insupportable. The online world gave us the word content. We separate content from the vehicle used to communicate the content. We do this because the Internet and computers are so new that we are very aware of the vehicle. That is true in part because the interface is more than audiovisual: Moving a mouse, typing on a keyboard, listening to a modem connect. Further, you have to sit close to the computer (a computer, a special device) to experience the net. It’s an explicitly chosen task.

Reading a newspaper, listening to the radio, watching TV – we’re so accustomed to those experiences that the interface tends to disappear. Old media are comfortable, to adapt the terminology of Bill Stumpf, co-designer of the legendary Æron chair. Comfort is a lack of awareness. You may have been aware of turning on the TV or radio, or of picking up the newspaper (which you may have had to pay to do), but after that point, there is no awareness of what you’re doing. Are you even aware of turning the pages? (Only if there’s a kink, or they fold poorly, or you’re on the subway and have to avoid bumping into whoever’s nearby.)

The net is rather like that, in fact. You’re very aware of pages turning, and kinks, and bumping into things. The Internet is uncomfortable, in this mental model.

Design history

We go back a ways in graphic design. We remember the Russian constructivists, and their reincarnation as the agitprop activist group ACT UP. We remember the graphic-design collective that did ACT UP’s work, Gran Fury (still going strong in various incarnations: Cf. Donald Moffett at Bureau, Inc. in New York). We think of Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer, whose artworks are typographic (and, in Kruger’s case, are allied closely with photographs in an advertising-like way).

We remember the leading asymmetric typographer, Jan Tschichold, later forsaking asymmetric typography as implicitly fascist and becoming the greatest traditional book designer of the 20th century (for Penguin, no less). We remember beautiful books that said nothing, beautiful ads for products we hated.

With this history, you’ll have a hard time convincing us that graphic design isn’t content.

Web sites are all about graphic design. And content. They’re separate, right?

We spend time at design-heavy sites, like Design is Kinky and Kaliber 10000 (to the extent of our browsers’ capabilities). We find ourselves very aware of interface elements. Awareness signifies discomfort, usually. Not in this case. Awareness signifies pleasure. Something that gives pleasure isn’t a nothing. It isn’t icing on the cake, as if there’s anything wrong with icing.

Ever tried to remove a freckle from your arm? It’s not a freckle on your arm. It’s intrinsic. What’s the surface and what’s the depth? Isn’t the freckle part of the content of your arm?

We’ve decided that you cannot always separate content from design, or content from interface. But it is sometimes possible. We surf a lot with Lynx and read Web pages we mail to ourselves. It’s quite possible to extract content.

But are you extracting all the content?

Isn’t part of the pleasure of the Web not merely information (content) or services, but looks and experience?

The Pleasure Principle

We think that, at Web sites, whatever gives the visitor pleasure, or adds value, or informs, or makes the visit worth the time and effort is content.

It can be a photograph or a colour scheme or a searchable corpus of articles. It can be alpha or omega or anything in-between, or it may be something else again. It isn’t just extractable text or an MP3 you download or a GIF you save to disc.

(Why do you think we say this Weblog is about content and all that entails? It’s not a distinguishable entity. Not always.)

This same definition works as a litmus test of sorts. Not all criteria must be satisfied at once. If you like the “content” but hate the “interface,” or like the “interface” but wish there were more “content,” you’re invoking against the Pleasure Principle. We hear complaints like this all the time, actually. They may never go away, because sometimes there is a clear distinction between, say, interface and content.

However, what we want to kill off forever is the concept that an interface or a design cannot in itself be content. It can. Content is the biggest tent of the Internet – it’s such a big tent it is engulfing television and newspapers and radio and music and film. Getting back to family lineages (this does tie in together), content is not an either-or proposition any more than the singularly multi-ethnic Tiger Woods is.

You name it, content is it.

Posted on 2000-08-02