The ephemerality of digital experience


In b flat is a site I’ve returned to several times in the few weeks since I discovered it.

Which is something I recently realised is pretty unusual. I almost never revisit digital content. I consume it and move on. Off to the next thing, perhaps pausing briefly to add it to Delicious, or more likely these days Tweet about it. And so it goes on. An endless round of ephemeral experience. I may greatly enjoy something, but I almost never return to repeat the experience. Of course there are communities, social networks, etc, that I return to again and again, but that’s different, I go there to find and discuss new things, not to look at things I’ve seen before. Indeed, in many communities posting content that’s been posted before, or that was posted yesterday on Reddit, Digg or Boing Boing is a bit of a faux pas.

Ephemeral media is nothing new. In many ways TV is more ephemeral – only a small fraction of it ends up on DVD, lots simply streams past and then disappears. There’s often a whole subsection in Booksellers’ catalogues dedicated to ephemera – the disposable media of past generations, from chromos and watchpapers back to the chapbooks and penny dreadfuls from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

In some ways digital content is much less ephemeral than print media, in the sense that it is more readily accessible over time. And if a site goes down, then there’s always the Wayback machine. Yet still I almost never return to digital content. (Perhaps the very fact that it is accessible paradoxically removes the timely imperative to return – after all it’s still going to be there in a couple of weeks or years, then I can always revisit it a little later.)

And even though the fact that I work in the digital industry makes me a bit of an outlier, my experience seems to mirror that of the general population. And this isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. Indeed, it reminds me a great deal of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project in which he used the 19th century Parisian arcades (shops) as a framework or metaphor for the cultural exegesis he started in the 1920s:

For Benjamin, the arcades launch an exemplary environment in which the tenets of a modern perception and experience are elaborated: a mode of perceiving and a quality of experience that is both forged by and appropriate to the modern age. It is disorienting, dreamy, chock-a-block with stimuli. His Arcades Project records facets of a commodity society with its continual flow of goods, impressions, forms. Modern experience, he characterizes through his swift shifts of focus, as a string of Momentaufnahmen – records of the moment, snapshots. And what is snapped, snapped up, snapped onto, is product, commodities. These commodities are short-lived; their life spans reveal the tempo of capitalism. Their existences are correlated to fashion’s caprices. Benjamin reviews the facets of the commodity on display, where it becomes a dream-infested body of meaning.

Replace ‘commodity’ with ‘content’ and the argument seems equally plausible.

I don’t really want to get into a debate about whether ephemeral culture is a good or bad thing (it’s probably a bit of both). What interests me more is how this influences the more practical way in which we design digital experiences, because too many of the digital projects I’ve been involved in have been tied to a model based around careful planning, large scale deployments and a central notion of permanence. A model which butters fewer and fewer parsnips in a world where real-time communication platforms like Twitter deliver digital experiences like #uksnow which are built and deployed in a matter of hours or days, and designed to last little longer than the phenomena they document.

Of course, people continue to want carefully planned media experiences, however, perhaps it’s time to take greater account of the ephemeral nature of much digital media, build teams and structures to deal with and fullt utilise this evanescence, without being burdened by the problem of longevity, of planning, sign-off and the dozen other things that make many organisations unable to capitalise fully on the benefits of digital media. I’m aware that’s not easy, but then if it were then ‘everyone would be doing it’ as my old nan used to say as she waited for the lottery numbers after the Strictly results show.

Ironically, I think it’s because In B Flat embraces emphemerality that I keep returning to it. It’s different every time. I can’t record, store or save what happens. I don’t experience it in the same way as you will.

Maybe more of our digital projects should be like this. But then perhaps creating brilliant, emphemeral, user-generated, crowdsourced, creative experiences like In B Flat is no easier than reading to the end of an overlong post about the diminishment of attention and the ephemerality of digital experience.

3 comments about “The ephemerality of digital experience

  1. Charlotte says:

    This raises an interesting point – planned campaigns can only go so far in engaging people and beyond the planning lies human behaviour and chance. We can never predict how people are going to react and what they will respond to.

    Ephemerality of digital experience is something that can and does influence Agile development. Only on an Agile project can the team incorporate what they know from users’ interaction in the wild to inform the next release.

  2. john says:

    I definitely see Agile as a response to this issue. Perhaps it might be an idea to try and develop a methodology that allows for the one day or one week build, call it Agile ++ or Super Agile, or something like that.

  3. […] agree with most of this. Indeed, I’ve blogged about several of Tom’s examples in the past. 0 […]

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