Random musings on interactivity

Wolf made his usual excellent charts about the steep decline of movie theaters. Number of tickets peaked in 2002, then gradually fell off until the “virus” holocaust. Why 2002? That’s when the web became mature and fast for most people.

Most types of information had theatrical versions and private versions for many centuries. The web is a new private version, not a new theatrical version.

School has lectures and textbooks, and now online textbooks and courseware.

Fiction has theater and books, and now online books, which don’t include any equivalent of courseware.

Music has live performances and sheet music and records, and now streaming live performances. No courseware.

Live theater was a weak medium, basically replaced 80 years ago by movies.

Books have NEVER declined in a meaningful way. Kindle and other e-readers were briefly popular around 2010, but then faded.

What’s the key to survival?

Interactivity and control.

Live theater used to be interactive. Actors constantly reshaped their performance in response to the audience. Switch routines, switch jokes. After the vaudevillians moved into radio, live theater became more like movies, with each play running unchanged for years and years. It died.

I’ve discussed interactivity in radio before. The best programs found various ways to invite responses. Contests, quizzes, ‘workbooks’ or logs where you could follow along and make notes.

Magazines were also interactive in the same ways as radio. Some offered question-answering services for subscribers, and most had contests and premiums.

Books are interactive in an indirect way. You can make notes, skip sections, reread sections, refer back to a page for more info. You aren’t talking with the author, but you have CONTROL of the book itself. Online books lost the CONTROL. You don’t own the content, so you can’t make notes. [A few smart authors like Kirn and Batya are using online media to let you talk with the author, which obviously wouldn’t work with Shakespeare or Steinbeck.]

Movies were never interactive or controllable. You had to watch the entire thing from start to finish. Leaving early was conspicuous and socially punished. Streaming adds the element of CONTROL. You can start and stop at any point, and you can go back to an earlier scene for clarification. More like books.

Movie theaters realized a long time ago that their medium had no advantage, so they focused on the theater itself. Beautiful architecture, air conditioning in summer, snacks that you couldn’t get at the grocery store. As they moved into malls, the beauty was lost. As most people got AC, the comfort was lost. Finally only the snacks remained, and those weren’t enough to maintain a high price.

= = = = =

Later puzzle on an odd missing point in the graph. Music changed from mostly paper to mostly analog audio in 1920. Why didn’t books do the same? The technology was identical, and the studio and talent would have been much cheaper. Reading a chapter of a book each day would have been especially efficient for local radio stations with time to fill and expert announcers on staff. Only a few stations tried it, and didn’t stick with it. Audiobooks were limited to the blind market until EXTREMELY recently, like 5 years ago. Now you can find synthetic or live podcasts of book chapters easily. The explanation is likely to be CONTROL again, but still doesn’t explain the EXTREME recency. Synthetic speech hasn’t improved much since 1980. Synthetic podcasts would have been practical in the earliest incarnations of the web via Compuserve, and easy by 2000.