Think!-It's A New Medium

Yes, I’ll admit it — My name is Sean, and I’m a geek.

No sugar coating. No qualifying statements. I’m saying it loud and I’m saying it proud.

And because I tend towards the geek side of things, I read Scientific American religiously.

Usually, SA has a lot of great stories singing the glories of various icky gooey microbe thingies, detailed descriptions of space-based crystal growing, and charts and diagrams of mathematical doohickeys that make my head hurt. Maybe I’m just a masochist, but I love the stuff.

But this month there was a profile on a guy named Ben Shneiderman. And Ben’s life’s work effects us all now, and is sure to effect us all in the future.

Did you ever wonder why hyperlinks are blue? No, it wasn’t some random color that happened to look pretty to someone designing the first Web browser. In fact, it was a result of Shneiderman’s research into how people interact with computers in their quest for information.

Today, Shneiderman’s been concentrating on building interfaces for medical information retrieval and has been leading the charge to get computer interfaces out of what he calls the “mimicry game.”

He’s dead set against the notions that computers should act and think like people. He believes that people want to feel as if they’re mastering their computers, using them to boost creativity and insight by functioning as tools and ways to recognize patterns in data. And while it’s a gross over-generalization to say it, I’ll say it anyway: Shneiderman wants us to re-examine how we use computers and to start looking for new methods that don’t try to mimic old ones in another media.

Theoretically a nifty idea, right? But how in the holy-gol-dern-bejeezuz does this apply to what we’re doing in our Net marketing lives?

Simple — those that are able to look at things in a whole new way, throw out the old paradigms, and re-examine their own assumptions of how we communicate online will be the ones that thrive on the Net. Those that don’t well, there’s always room for one more customer service operator.

Think about when the web first started. Remember that “it’ll be the CB-Radio of the 90’s” comment? Remember the blank stares you got from your friends when you talked about the web? Remember how your boss thought you were a kook because you wanted to sink some dough into an unproven idea? You don’t hear too many of those complaints anymore, do you? With any luck, you’ve fired all the nay-sayers by now.

But we’ve only just begun to make baby-steps. Most of the web is still bogged down in a “it’s just like print only with links” mode. The majority of corporate web sites are little more than online brochures (with a directory thrown in if you’re lucky). Most web advertising doesn’t go beyond the “it’s sorta kinda like direct marketing only you click on it” mentality. And we’re all suffering for it.

The web isn’t print. It isn’t TV, either. Heck, the web’s not even a combination of those things, but a whole new medium that needs to be used in new ways. The people that are succeeding are the ones that have realized this, but the realization is just starting to dawn on a lot of folks.

When creating a new marketing site or ad campaign, sit down and think about the project for a moment and look at the advantages that computer-based media bring to the table. What can you do on the web that isn’t possible in the analog world? Companies like eBay and Amazon and VerticalNet have all hit on business models that create something truly unique, that can’t exist outside of cyberspace.

What can the web do for your customers that you can’t do on the phone or in print? Customizable coupons? Dataspaces that show the relationships between the information they need and various parts of your company? Does your newsletter have to just be a newsletter, or can it serve as a gateway into your products and services? Can your ads actually allow transactions inside of them instead of just hoping that someone’s going to follow their crumb trail to your site? Can we create tools that are ads and ads that are tools?

These are the questions that more of us have got to start asking ourselves. A lot of stuff that seems blindingly obvious now didn’t seem so clear when it was actually happening.

Film was around for decades before visionaries like D.W. Griffith realized that film wasn’t like still photography — you didn’t have to shoot on a tripod but could actually move the camera around the scene. Anyone who’s seen one of those computer industry history shows can figure out that Apple was nuts to go after IBM when the real issue wasn’t the computer, but the software running it created by that little firm called Microsoft. And who would imagine that a computer game could be art until Myst came along?

The future will belong to those like Shneiderman who defy us to think about what’s in front of us in new ways.

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