Gestures Above the Fold

Back when wombats roamed the earth web pages were lengthy. Content flowed freely from top to abyssal bottom, tremendous grey trunks of text broken but rarely by an image or block. This was when “hypertext” was still the paradigm, when every term and notion merited a bit of blue underline guiding the patient reader to wider reaches of raw, seething information.

Then the class of User Analysts arrived, and convinced the Clients that everything important needed to be Above the Fold. Thus began the dual age of the Splash Page and of the Ridiculously Dense Landing Page – competing theories of attention-retention that both derived from the mandate that scrolling is bad, that the user needs to see everything  now, and that she would rather click her way through to More, than to grab that scrollbar and actually navigate the browser.

In effect, this was a gestural mandate at least as much as a visual one. Consider that Mac mice didn’t (and still mostly don’t) have scrollwheels, so rather than simply folding an index finger one is required to manipulate wrist and arm to browse a window. If Macs had scrollwheels, would The Fold have become as essential, bearing  as it does the borrowed context of newsprint?

In any case, larger screens and resolutions and better design finally loosened the tyranny of The Fold, and clients became less squeamish about using all that lovely real estate afforded by modern digital media. Sure, the top splash carousel became de rigueur, but no longer was it assumed that anything more than 400 pixels from the top of the screen would vanish utterly from the user’s eye.

And then came the Pad. And here we are again.

By now, you’ve probably seen Gawker Media’s new layout. It is very much a design of the Pad era. The fold is back with a bang, and the sidebar is a gestural scrolling runway. At a stroke, Apple’s technologies have (again) both constrained and leapfrogged convention, and its metaphors are going to determine how we think about web architecture.

The medium is the technology. The technology determines the shape of information and the range of one’s interactions with it. You flip a book’s page. You click an e-reader’s pager. You scroll a mouse. You flick a pad. Each means of presentation determines information esthetics, shapes editorial decisions, adds to or subtracts from the semiotic experience… each, therefore, affects what that information means.

We’re on a cusp, I think. There seems to be an uneasy conversation between the Pad Web and the Screen Web and the Mobile Web, each elbowing  the other for consideration in the plans of digital architects. I think that in the long run more convergence is likely, rather than less, and that there will emerge a new dominant metaphor for the next decade’s information.

And then of course, it will all change again.