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IQ News: Notes from Digital Lit

Can online literary ‘zines get surfers to read?
Technology, it’s been argued, is destroying our minds and lowering our attention span for reading. But don’t tell that to the editors of the online political ‘zine Slate, or the documentary-oriented Word, the literary site Salon, or the cultural criti-site Feed. They may not be Tolstoy, but these constantly adapting, continually redesigning online literary magazines are determined to invent a new intellectual experience. Now, as they head into their second and third years online, they face an even greater challenge: inventing a way to survive in the electronic marketplace.
“To be competitive they need to align themselves with bigger online properties to get an audience who doesn’t know about them,” says Darleen Scherer, a media buyer at i-traffic. “They might align themselves with service providers or search engines as shared content. Even though content and design can’t be neglected, they need strategic alliances to survive and get other advertisers on their site.”
So far, few of these independent-minded publications have sought out this type of partnership. But Feed, which launched in 1995 and is one of the older publications online, has been making some bottom-line moves of late. The site raised a round of financing last fall; it has also recently hired San Francisco-based rep firm Cyber Reps to help sell ads.
“I read Feed,” offers Ken Locker, executive producer of online programming at MGM Interactive, adding that the ‘zine takes advantage of the medium. “Feed has dealt well with interface issues through threaded conversations.”
The magazine places readers’ comments in the margins of its articles, implying the commentary is as important as the articles. This technique is not just posturing, according to Steven Johnson, co-founder of Feed. “The amount of text that people will read on screen is proportionate to the accessibility of a feedback area,” he says. “That’s why instead of sending readers off we reprint the best-of quotes in the margins.”
Of course, whether people read online at all is still debatable, according to Jakob Nielsen, who has researched online reading habits at Sun Microsystems. Almost 80 percent of people tested at Sun’s lab scan Web pages as opposed to read them. “No matter what you show them, people don’t read online,” Nielsen says.
While Nielsen argues for breaking up text, he says design can only go so far. Sun’s user feedback indicated that people don’t want to be lost in Web designs where they don’t know where a site is taking them next. “Elaborate environments might eventually be the right choice,” Neilsen says. “But in the short term they’re confusing.”
This might not be good news for the three-year-old Word site, where every story is created as its own environment and incorporated into an “ambiance.” Some Word content-such as Virtual Paradise, a selection of geographically diverse Web pages accompanied by different music-has been designed as purely non-textual. Sometimes, says Marisa Bowe, editor-in-chief of Word, people just want something to stare at.
Not all Web users have been entranced by Word’s visual orientation. “When Word first came out it had an interesting design,” Locker says. “But it got stale quickly. Technology is a means and not an end. Design for design’s sake is pretty insubstantial.”
That type of reader response has kept digital editors on their toes. Nearly all of the ‘zines, for example, now offer some sort of daily update.
“When we started we saw it as fine if we didn’t do something for two weeks, a biweekly pacing,” says Johnson. “The Web was an academic research tool as much as a mass medium thing. When Suck came out the idea of daily posting was new. We rolled out daily early last year in response to that.”
Word also chose a daily format. “Navigation and scheduling has changed a lot” since the early days, says Bowe. “We’ve built a schedule that has a consistent thing every day of the week so there’s a reason to come back every day.” Bowe adds that all the sites are struggling with interface design so that users can see what’s on the site without being overwhelmed: “We had major arguments about whether to have a table of contents.”
These destinations are all also figuring out what to do to create “community,” though Nielsen says the word community is “highly overrated.” He prefers “user contributed content.”
Feed’s method-integrating feedback into its site rather than relegating the community to a different area-is viewed by Nielsen as an extremely successful model. Nerve, a new site devoted to high-brow but titillating writing and photography on sex, is creating a community area with New York-based online community Echo, which will cost subscribers $3.95 a month.
Another trend among the digital lit crowd is the emergence of projects that are more data than narrative-driven. Word is working on a giant conspiracy theory project called The Paranoid Family Tree. Nerve will launch Nerve Link, an index of sex-related sites, with San Francisco-based Access Softek. And Slate says one of its most popular areas is Today’s Papers, a daily media round-up.
Perhaps even the Web’s cognoscenti really want the Internet to be a big database after all. “The greatest design element of Slate is a button that says ‘print here,’ so you can take it home and read it,” Locker observes. It seems Anna Karenina isn’t quite in danger of extinction yet.