Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics & Digital Storytelling
Humans have been drawing and writing for awhile. As McCloud references, 17,000 years ago we painted the caves at Lascaux, and early written languages used images, then a combination of words and images. Cartoons, just over a century old, and emoji, only two decades old, both major cultural phenomena, are just modern incarnations of this combination.
In digital media, the early days of the internet established a few basic building blocks for content on the web: text, lists, images, and most interestingly, links. This was hypertext:
Hypertext is text which is not constrained to be linear.
Hypertext is text which contains links to other texts.
Hypertext on the internet allowed for Wikipedia. Even ignoring the other innovative parts of Wikipedia—its crowdsourced, distributed-authorship, & constantly-updating nature—the links make it a wildly better experience for readers than its analog equivalents. Links introduce a superpower for your curiosity, dramatically lowering the barrier to learning more.
This hypertext is not new—it was described in 1945, then created in the 1960s. Nonetheless, it often feels like even with all the companies, publishers, authors, web designers, and developers working so hard right now, our capabilities for storytelling have barely advanced.
Likely due to the enormous input of money and talent required, there have been few truly next-level reader-directed storytelling experiences made in the last decade. One that especially stands out to me is Our Choice, a book written by Al Gore published as an interactive iPad and iPhone app back in 2010.1
More recently, the now-defunct iPhone app Hardbound tried a similar concept, but for smaller stories more in the (now-prevalent) format of Instagram Stories. Unfortunately, neither have lasted more than a few years.
In fact, all the most interesting forms of storytelling have only been distributed via the web, not built on top of it: podcasts, YouTube vlogging, Instagram Stories. Meanwhile on the web, 30% of the web runs on WordPress, and probably half runs on a similar, if not more rudimentary, CMS—pages which largely have not fundamentally moved on from the internet of the late 1990s.2 Pages with text, lists, images, links, maybe occasionally an iframe.
While making publishing on the web easier than ever, CMSs limit the flexibility of authors and encourage boring, templated, wholly stale and uninteresting storytelling. There is an unfortunate paradox here: making websites more interesting typically requires coding skills, limiting their accessibility. In order to raise the bar, we need to use less code, or make the code easier.
With no code, Notion is a commercial alternative to Word or Google Docs, trying to use “content blocks” to turn static text documents into rich pages. On the code side, Markdown is undoubtedly one of the most interesting, lasting improvements on web content authorship, allowing the generation of HTML text formatting through a suit of simple plain text characters. MDX, which seamlessly combines Markdown/HTML with React components, is making it far more flexible, allowing the integration of arbitrary web content and the infinite possibilities of components on npm right alongside simply formatted prose. Meanwhile, Gatsby, a static-site-generator-turned-WordPress-competitor, is trying to dramatically simplify self-coding a content-based website. (This very website is built on MDX + Gatsby.) So we can take the power back, one might say.
If writing existed continuously for a good 10,000 years before the hyperlink existed, I refuse to believe for a second there is not something significant to be gained in storytelling by pushing the medium forward. The work happening at Dynamicland and other studios pushing interaction design forward, though they haven’t yet resulted in widespread commercial products, prove there is absolutely more (absolutely fascinating) work to do here.
Scott McCloud proved in Understanding Comics there is unquestionably value in the simple act of continually combining text with drawings, one that many authors and publishers already devalue. Our Choice, Hardbound, and similar experiments prove there is so much more to explore. Storytelling and building technologies to enhance our abilities are two of humans’ greatest skills, and I can’t wait to see where we push them toward next.
Our Choice will forever hold a special place in my heart. It’s one of my favorite iPad apps ever made, my introduction to the climate crisis, back in third grade (2010), and still influences how I think about digital design. ↩
There’s completely an argument to be made that the evolution of the web in the last decade has been more of a decline. Websites are slower-loading and more ad-filled, more eager than ever to invade our privacy at every turn. ↩