October 16, 2012

A return to the scroll


Venerable web magazine Salon announced yesterday  that they’d instituted a small change in the way readers would see much of their content. Rather than a “continue reading” button, the entirety of an article will load when visitors scroll down the page. On the face of it an inconsequential change on one site, I wonder if this isn’t indicative of a larger movement.

Salon has long been famous for playing games with clicks. Like many sites, most notably other magazines and newspapers but also linkfarms and listicle purveyors, they were known in the past for dividing their longer essays into many separate pages, giving them a greater number of clicks from each reader, numbers which they could then bring to advertisers to negotiate greater rates. More recently, they’ve had the aforementioned “continue reading” button, which would display the entirety of an article after one click. Now they’ve done away with even that necessary interaction. Their site, once a reader gets off of the more newspaper-like front page layout, functions much like a scroll, rolling down through past blog posts —- not forever, but for a considerable length.

This has become more common in many site designs. Tumblr has featured “endless scrolling” on users’ dashboards for a year or more now. BoingBoing has also instituted it. In both cases one often needs to click through to individual items to read full articles, but the hypnotic reel of content functions much like Salon.

Contrast this to books, and now e-readers. Though one reads the page incrementally (unless speed-reading, which involves a more gestalt view of text on the page), there is a moment when eyes can quickly blink, a word is held in the mouth for safekeeping, when a page must be turned with all the tension or relief that entails. Even breathless books by Enard, Kraznahorkai, Albahari or Fanny Howe are betrayed and made what they are by the pause of a page-turn. The endless scrolling on sites recalls literal scrolls, of course, where a reader cannot get to any portion of a text without making her way through all that came before, where the linear is the order of the day and what is hidden is hidden well. But looking less distantly, scrolling recalls an earlier era of the internet: not the mid noughts, when endless page-clicks ruled, but the turn of the millenium and before when many online sights felt like bottomless exercises in scrolling. It is not scrolls themselves that sites like BoingBoing and Tumblr are invoking, but an earlier looser time on the internet, an era of wild enthusiasms and hard-earned discoveries and text files for miles.

What such a return to lengthy scrolling, if it were to grow would do to longform reading habits is hard to predict. Such site design would seem to ally itself readily with the gestural language of touch tablets. For me, at least, the possibility of something else just over the horizon of the browser window means I am more likely to skip ahead and then perhaps roll back up to read what I’ve just skipped. If it’s a dysfuntional way to read, it’s perhaps no more so than having a text divided cruelly in the middle of a sentence, merely because that’s where a sheet of wood pulp happens to have ended.



Dustin Kurtz is former marketing manager of Melville House.