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A Case for Web Storytelling

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In our attention to style and technology, we often overlook a vital element in Web design: narrative voice. As Curt Cloninger points out, you can have slick style and meaty content, but without a mature narrative voice, your site will fail.
This article first was published at the Web site A List Apart (
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Much ink has been spilled lately bemoaning the lack of quality content on the Web. "Sure, the site flashes and whizzes and startles, but what does it have to say?" This type of complaint assumes an incomplete, overly stark dichotomy—namely, that sites are made up of "style" and "content." The underlying purpose of style sheets and their widespread use has unintentionally fostered this false and overly simplistic dichotomy. You've got your style, you've got your content, and rarely the twain shall meet.

One article at A List Apart took the bold step of suggesting that maybe style and content aren't so easily separable after all. Bravo. I agree. I'd like to take that point one step further by saying that style is more than various methods of typographical presentation, and content is more than the literal words in a paragraph that some marketing guy wrote. Style is a comprehensive site-wide look and feel that includes graphics, animation, audio, and any number of other media besides just text. And content is an idea, an angle, surely conveyable in text but also conveyable in these other, more rich, media.

In addition to style and content (even understood in their broadened definitions), I propose that there is at least a third element in the Web design mix that is getting overlooked. And I think it's the most important element of all. I'll call this missing element a "narrative voice." You can have your slick style and your meaty content, but without a mature and perspicacious narrative voice, your site will still fail to engage your visitors.

Why So Tech, Beck?

The Web is first and foremost a medium of communication. Never before in the history of mass media has a medium been so overtly dependent on its technology. Never before has a medium's technology been so transparent, so "just below" the surface.

Never before have the participants in a medium been so required to learn arcane, technical incantations before they are allowed to communicate in said medium (which explains the continuing appeal of AOL to the new Internet user). Why is technology so interwoven with the Web?

For one reason, the Web is a many-to-many technology. In older mass media—say, television—few people produced and broadcast their own TV shows. TV is a one-to-many technology.

Not so the Web. Tools such as Blogger have made self-publishing on the Web a no-brainer. Now you have many speaking to many. Before, no one had to be aware of how a TV set actually worked.

Maybe you fiddled with the antenna a bit. If that didn't work, you called a TV repairman. Now, on the Web, many of our visitors are also themselves publishers. If nothing else, they have at least sent email or posted to a bulletin board. This many-to-many communications model has placed a greater technological burden on the Web end user—so much so that we still call our visitors "users," not "viewers" or "movie-goers" or even "explorers." Sometimes we do call them "visitors" or "surfers," but even those two titles imply a fair amount of end-user expertise.

The second reason the Web as a medium is so wrapped up in technology is that it was birthed in the computer lab of a particle physics research center. And we geeks still think that the Web has something to do with computers. But, note, a lone desktop, adrift from the Web, does not constitute a communications medium. A computer is not media. It can read media, it can make media, it can display media, it can broadcast media. But a computer is just a tool. The medium is the Web itself. No one would mistake a satellite dish for a communications medium. A satellite dish is a hardware component used to transfer information from one person to another person. Media aren't the tools. Media are the modes in which we communicate with each other via those tools.

Returning to the style and content dichotomy, now aware of the hyper–techno-centric nature of the Web, it's obvious that we're thinking too small. We think that if we have meaty content and we have competent professional design, then we have a winning Web site. That's not true. First, the design has to somehow be relevant to the content, accurately representing its purposes in the medium. Then the content has to be useful to the site's audience. Even then, we're still missing a huge factor: narrative voice.

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