Storytelling is the one thing that has not changed, regardless of how many platforms we use to practice our craft. With a good story in hand, the rest becomes easy.
A medium in its infancy, the tablet affords us the opportunity to examine and discover as we create apps. We know users spend considerable time with it and prefer it as an evening companion.
I was struck, when designing my first tablet app, that I was designing for the brain, the eye and the finger — and all at the same time. I pay particular attention to the finger, which I consider both unforgiving and impatient: It wants to touch the screen and immediately get results. It is up to an editor or designer to provide for this finger.
The use of the finger is one of the unique characteristics of the tablet. The tablet is not a newspaper, an online edition or a television. But it can act at times like all of the above. In many ways, the tablet is more exciting than print and more engaging than a website. It creates an interactive relationship with the user, who wants to participate, not just read passively.
In addition, tablets allow people to disconnect, as William Powers wrote in his 2010 book “Hamlet’s BlackBerry.” With a tablet, we disconnect from the hectic, buzzing, constantly updated world the way we do with a good book that we have chosen to read at a special moment when we know we will be relaxing. But the tablet is not purely a device for disconnection. Modern news consumers also want more active experiences along with the passive ones. The tablet is flexible and affords total connectivity as well.
William Powers and I exchange frequent e-mails on everything from the state of storytelling to the eternal qualities of print.
Mario Garcia: Let’s talk about the appealing sense of disconnect that you so often refer to. How do you see paper allowing us to disconnect?
William Powers: I believe that paper allows us to be alone in a way we’re seldom alone anymore. It quiets the mind. And people are hungry for that. True, we all love all these devices, including me and my family. But they’re also driving us crazy.
How do you strike a balance between being connected and disconnected? That is what my book is about.
I look back at seven moments in history when a new technology came along posing a similar challenge to the one we face now. At each moment I focus on one philosopher who had some useful practical ideas about how to deal with this in everyday life. They range from Plato to Shakespeare to Thoreau. And, of course, I mention Gutenberg. While we always talk about the printing press itself as Gutenberg’s ultimate contribution to civilization, I argue his real achievement was allowing all of us to have the inward experience of reading, that delightful moment of being alone with a page.
As we learn more about the habits of tablet users, we see that they spend considerable time with their tablets in the evening. The tablet has become the ultimate lean-back platform. It is mobile telephones and computers during the working hours, followed by print and tablets in the evening. So we know that there is a sense that the tablet, too, like print, allows one to disconnect, to lean back and relax. Do you agree that perhaps the tablet comes the closest to a digital platform that provides some of the disconnection of print?
Powers: Yes, based on the emerging user habits you mention, as well as personal experience, these first-generation tablets have been a giant step forward for digital reading. My thesis is that as digital devices mature, the experience they offer will get closer and closer to the immersive type of engagement print on paper has offered for centuries.
As everyone who grew up reading hard-copy books and newspapers knows, there’s nothing better than connecting with information in a way that feels relatively disconnected — focused, peaceful and calm. This is an experience people will always value highly, so the better tablets are at providing it, the better for news outlets and other providers of digital content seeking to build audiences of faithful readers.
Having said that, I would note that we are still in the early stages of this transition, and these technologies have a long way to go. Some day in the not-so-distant future, the tablets we’re using today will seem laughably primitive. In fact, tablets may be replaced by a more advanced kind of a device we can’t even envision because it hasn’t been invented yet. I wouldn’t be surprised if the tablet, as we know it today, turns out to be the eight-track tape of the digital age.
How do you see the role of long-form reading—as in long narratives—in the future, both for print and tablets? We know from early research that long stories seem to do well on tablets, whereas they rarely did online. Are we going to see a renaissance of long-form journalism, specifically in the tablets?
Powers: I do think we’re going to see a great flowering of long-form journalism in the digital medium. It’s already begun, and I’m certain it will ramp up hugely when the economy revives.
Long-form storytelling wasn’t an accidental development—it’s as old as civilization, because it meets a fundamental human need. We’re not just here to be stimulated and entertained in the short-attention-span ways that have dominated the digital era so far. We’re here to understand our world, the societies we live in and ourselves. Understanding comes from time, attention and thoughtful reflection. It comes from storytelling that goes long and deep.
As we build out the digital world, I’m confident there’s going to be more of that kind of storytelling than ever before. The public’s love affair with tablets is an early glimpse of that future.