Editor’s note: This story has been updated with the latest audience numbers from SB Nation.
It starts with a long paragraph containing only one sentence — “Something is terribly wrong.” — and by the time you finish reading it, you’re more confused than when you started. But that’s the point of SB Nation’s latest subversive experiment.
The project, titled “17776” (that’s nearly 16,000 years in the future), takes readers from a seemingly innocent landing page about the future of football and rockets them through a surreal, science fiction-like trip. The piece is immersive, force-filling the reader’s screen with text and manually loading each new element as they progress through the jarring narrative, which is just that — a narrative.
The entire epic, which started being released in installments last week, is complete with space probes, 1990s-esque motion graphics and aptly titled YouTube videos. It’s confusing, it’s uncomfortable and it’s really cool — truly a thing you have to see to understand.
So why would a Vox Media-owned sports news site publish a provocative web experience about robots and football?
“The goal as conceived was to give the reader a good time,” said Jon Bois, creator of the project and contributor to SB Nation, in an email to Poynter. “That was literally the whole point.”
And for the most part, it seems like Bois accomplished that goal. Journalists from all different kinds of publishers lauded the radical piece of fiction on Twitter, saying that it’s strangely beautiful and definitely not would you’d expect from SB Nation.
I’m not sure how or why this speculative fiction story is on sports site but what a pleasant surprise https://t.co/wY0L1RjBp4
— Laura Hudson (@laura_hudson) July 6, 2017
Two things that make “17776” so immersive and engaging are its infinite scroll and dynamic loading aspects. Each installment of the storyline is contained on one web page, with new graphics, videos and GIFs loading in real-time as you scroll, à la “Snow Fall” by The New York Times.
“They’re not being shoved down the well, they’re crawling down it,” Bois said. “By scrolling they’re doing work by having to access it. In a way they own it. I hope with that ownership that people are convinced to keep on going.”
The idea for the futuristic, “anti-sci fi” project dates back to winter 2016, when Bois started to write it as a possible sequel to an earlier project, “The Tim Tebow CFL Chronicles.”
“I chose a time so far away that nobody ever thinks about it,” he said “The ideas were cool, the visuals were cool but it didn’t pop. It wouldn’t have connected with the reader so I just shelved it and came back to it later.”
Talks of a serial about football games in a future in which humans are immortal picked up speed in May 2016 and, one year later, gained traction around the publication of SB Nation’s “The Future of Football” package.
While Bois created the story and illustrations for “17776,” SB Nation design and development lead Graham MacAree did most of the work on the back end. He told Poynter in an email that, in order to give Bois the creative room to release the story in parts and to accommodate its massive weight on the website, he used a Vox Media tool that allows publishers to create custom packages from standard article sets. But it wasn’t easy.
“I got asked to make a standard Chorus page melt, and I made it melt,” he said. “The internet offered little guidance into how to create a fake website and melt it into the actual destination, which was upsetting.”
As of Monday, “17776” had massive reader engagement. Fay Sliger, communications director at Vox Media, said in an email that the project has had more than 2.3 million pageviews since its publication and an average engagement time of more than 9 minutes. About 43 percent of readers — of which more than half are viewing the piece on mobile devices — had finished each installment of the series as of Friday.
“I’ve seen a lot of people comment that it’s making really good use of the medium and that’s what I really like about it,” MacAree said.
And for those that think the project is radically different from the kind of work that SB Nation is doing, think again.
“If you think that this is not of a part with SB Nation’s voice then you haven’t been paying attention,” said Elena Bergeron, editor in chief of SB Nation, in an email. “This is very much in line with that.”