Stairwell Philosophy – Teenagers on the internet

Netflix recently delivered unto me a neat motion comic by the name of Broken Saints, and watching it again really takes me back. Way back in 2001, we’d only finally gotten internet in our house a few years prior and the hot new thing was Macromedia Flash. Like with any new toy a lot of folks were just sort of throwing it against the wall to see what sort of funny sounds it makes. This being the early years of the internet, it was also a bit of a pain to load up a webpage on your 56k modem when there were whole megabytes of wacky animations vomited all over the page. Remember when a meg was a long download?

Anywho, a friend of mine introduced me (or maybe I introduced him, I forget which) to an at the time fledgeling art project called Broken Saints. It was something new and different that I’d never seen before. A bonus feature on the second disc of this set has one of the creators talking about how he decided upon the format of the story, and looking back it was definitely a very interesting idea.

As he says in his presentation, when a new art medium first starts out a lot of people use it to try to mimic established mediums, but these are rarely the most effective applications; an art medium works best when it finds an application best suited to its own unique strengths. A book can stretch time out to give the reader a detailed description of every bit of sensory input happening in a scene. A film can make sweeping landscapes and motion come to life before the viewer. Traditional art and graphic novels can capture snapshots of a scene in extensive detail. Gaming gives the viwer interactive control, with a direct role in making the story progress and reaping the rewards and consequences of their actions.

Something on the internet is recieved in a different way than you’d recieve a movie or book. Back in the day it was something that you had to sit in a chair and look at on a relatively small screen, ans since it was probably tying up the phone line you couldn’t be sitting there looking at it all day. It could take a few minutes for it to load up depending on your connection, so you couldn’t just jump in any old time. Further, you couldn’t pause a flash animation. Once you settle in and click play, you’re in for the duration. If you look away or get up to do something else you’ll miss something and have to start over.

So that was us in 2001. We’d wait for the episode to load fully, then click play at the same time so as to share the experience. Generally it was late at night so we wouldn’t have to worry about phone calls, headphones on to keep it quiet, watching dim monitors in dark rooms. Even now it doesn’t quite feel right unless I watch it after dark with the lights dimmed. The content was also noteworthy if you happened to be still living with your parents at the time. Plenty of foul language, occasional partial nudity, and generally really trippy stuff happening that there’s really no explanation that would make what’s happening on-screen seem normal.

All of this combined to make an especially memorable experience, not just a story but a journey. It was something for which we had to set aside time, something to which we had to commit fully in order to get the full experience in one sitting. Plus with the aforementioned mature content it had that forbidden fruit angle, seeing something maybe we weren’t supposed to see.

The internet is perhaps the greatest boon to the sharing of information since the invention of the printing press, but its tremendous ability to distribute information may be hampered by its limited ability to impart an experience. Or perhaps I should say, its underutilized ability. If you’ve ever lost sleep because you just wanted to click a few more links on Wikipedia or TV Tropes, you know that the search for information can take you on a long and winding road. Yet most times it is devoid of context. Pure information, independant of an experience.

Though I’d never say we should hoard information away from people, there’s a subtle value in putting at least a little hurdle in the path. It’s proven that people learn more when the topic is something they want to learn about, and having a little challenge to overcome makes the knowledge earned feel more valuable. Likewise, an artist can have a greater impact upon the audience by making a more complete experience. Smell-o-vision has come and gone, and with modern smartphones it’s a good deal more difficult to control when and where people recieve internet content, but you’ve still got sight and sound at your disposal. As goes the old writing axiom, don’t tell, show.

You the reader can also use the modern wireless world to your advantage. Don’t always use the internet in the same place. It may be comfortable in your command center, but it can make things stale after awhile. Go outside, go out back, go to the library. Go somewhere to make your experience just a little bit different and stamp one moment as distinct from the last and the next.

There’s an early episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (always keep a look out for wisdom from strange places) wherein two characters are debating whether or not books continue to have value as the usefulness of the internet continues to expand. The pro-book fellow makes the statement that there’s something books have that a webpage doesn’t; books are smelly. More specifically, when you read something from a book it has a smell, a shape and a texture, something concrete that you hold and posess. An old book has the smell and the wear of each of its past owners, connecting you in some small way to the history of people you may not have even met. Keep it in a safe place when it’s not in use and it could go on to exist for generations, preserving a snapshot of the past. It’s an experience deeper than just text on a page.

So to you artists, seek every strength of your chosen mediums and use them to their fullest potential to give not just information, but an experience. You readers and viewers and gamers, find a new place to read, go see a movie with friends, try games outside your usual fare (especially if you own more than three Halo and/or Madden games), go have an experience.


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