A rather finite canvas

Scott McCloud coined the term “the infinite canvas” in 2000, a hopeful vision of what the internet could become. I have waited ten years for it to come to life, and it’s only occurred to me that Google Maps has done just that. Maybe, just maybe, others will follow.

The infinite canvas is based on a basic idea – your computer screen is not a PAGE, it’s a WINDOW. Linking is a basic building block of the internet, but too often websites split an article over several ‘PAGES’, when it’s possible, even easier, to let an article run as long as you can possibly want.

It’s not just articles, of course. The net is a digital world. The infinite canvas can be anything. À la recherché du temps perdu can run completely uninterrupted. Andy Warhols 24 Hour Movie can be one file. There are no limits. Except the limits we create.

And it’s interesting how many limits we create for ourselves. For all the noise made by certain musicians about how their albums should be heard in order, they don’t supply their albums as one 40+ minute sound file. There is no reason they couldn’t – but right now, the online world is still replicating the CD.

Most interesting is print. The idea of flicking pages seems to go against what digital technology is about. Yet there’s not an eBook reader in the world that doesn’t tout it’s ‘page-turn’ functions. For me, it seems a bit like my iPad having an image of a vinyl album spinning, and I have to place the needle on record at the right point to play a song.

Magazines are the worst. The Branson owned iPad only magazine The Project is an awful hybrid of the worse of print and digital. It was far too easy to get lost in the magazine, as every page had it’s own links that lead to videos, pop-ups and other madness. Suddenly you found yourself three clicks down, on page 8, and no way to get to page 9. It was like Inception.

It’s as if the people behind The Project took a magazine and made anything that could be annoying into something very annoying. The cover flashes and buzzes – for no reason. Other than it looks cool. There are also full page ads in these new magazines. It has completely lost sight of getting a consumer to be wow-ed by the content – the articles, the photos etc.

(It will be very interesting to see if the second iPad only publication, Murdoch’s The Daily, is any better, or if they are still tied to the physical page)

It’s a 600 year old fascination with flicking pages that needs to be lost. But there are things standing in our way.

One of the reasons sites make you click through several pages for one article (something Rolling Stone Magazine online [link] loves) is because of their page view numbers. Those figures lead directly to their advertising rate-card. And money talks.

Also, we are not used to it. Long, long blocks of text seem scary. But we have been inventing ways of making text more readable for centuries. Type-setting. Margins. I personally use bold text mixed in with little breakers (“—“) to try and break up the eye.

Another is computing power. Loading a 7 volume, 1.5 million word Proust collection is still going to dampen your computer’s resources. But computing power is not slowing down any time soon. The same goes for internet connection speeds – another obstacle that will be defeated in time.

I still argue that the problem is our cultural memory. I look at digital booklets for albums and I see multi page pdfs that replicate a booklet. When I could have one big graphic that looks like the back of an album cover. I wont have to flick through and get lost.

We forget that pages were a compromise, not an advantage.

Which brings me to Google Maps. It is the purest form of the infinite canvas.

Think about it! It didn’t try to recreate a street directory with pages. It doesn’t ask you click on the left to go left. Or to flick an imaginary page. You simply SCROLL. You use your screen like a WINDOW (or magnifying glass), and you naturally scroll up to go up, down to go down.

As anyone with a smartphone can tell you, maps are super cool on mobile. They are so easy to use, no pages involved. And everyone I know uses them with ease.

And maybe Mobile is a key. It’s annoying to drift through 6 pages to read one Rolling Stone article on a mobile. The advertising model needs to be recreated anyway.

More importantly, with both computers and mobiles providing different experiences of the same site, hopefully content will become more powerful than form. And we can finally exterminate every bit of Flash on the internet.

Google Maps is an infinite canvas. Utilising and embracing the limitless, barrierless landscape online, they have created the best mapping experience humanity has ever, ever had.

Now it’s time for everyone else to embrace that limitless-ness. Imagine books, music, movies without our own artificial breaks. Less clicking around, more scrolling around. It is my hope for the web going forward. Literally – a world without end.

Scott McCloud is a pioneering technology thinker and a comic book writer and artist. His website is: – http://scottmccloud.com/

Rolling Stone Magazine – a style of web formatting that needs to die off: http://www.rollingstone.com/

The truly awful The Project, but really needs to be seen on an iPad – http://www.projectmag.com/

If you need a link to Google Maps, the  you probably never came across this article in the first place.

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