formless and definite content // 04 Mar 2010

Craig Mod has a great post up about Books in the age of the iPad, where he makes a critical distinction between Formless Content (content without well-defined form, obviously) and Definite Content (content with well-defined form). Think "most prose," which would flow just as well between two covers as it would through a Kindle or an Instapaper app v. "designed content" which doesn't pour into any particular vessel.

I loved this example:

You can sure as hell bet that author Mark Z. Danielewski is well aware of the final form of his next novel. His content is so Definite it's actually impossible to digitize and retain all of the original meaning. Only Revolutions, a book loathed by many, forces readers to flip between the stories of two characters. The start of each printed at opposite ends of the book.

Emphasis mine. (NB: if you're a "book person" and you haven't read Only Revolutions, I highly recommend it. It's obviously not available for the Kindle.) Mod's point is that the iPad creates opportunities for not only delivering digitized Formless content (like the Kindle, iPhone and other content consumption devices already do), but creating new ways of telling stories through Definite Content.

I have to take exception, though, with this bit in his post. It might feel like I'm nitpicking, but it's important:

The metaphor of flipping pages already feels boring and forced on the iPhone. I suspect it will feel even more so on the iPad.

Ah. It only feels "boring and forced" if you're forced to page through boring content. I've essentially moved 90% of my long-form reading to my iPhone, and when you're engrossed in great prose (aka "Formless Content") the act of paging feels natural and expected. In fact, the new pagination feature in Instapaper 2.2 makes the app disappear, since you're not worried about where your thumb is, and maintaining a decent scroll position, or finding the line after you've scrolled, or even holding your iPhone in just the right position in order to have the tilt-scroll work correctly.

This is important because it points to a desire to force new modes of interaction just because we have a new form. Sure, it's a screen, and it's scrollable, and I can pinch and tap and zoom and scroll and shake...but sometimes just paging (and paging, and paging) is the best solution.