One of my favorite ideas on interactivity comes from something of an unexpected source. In his 1995 diary turned book: A Year With Swollen Appendices, arty soundsmith Brian Eno suggests that the term ‘interactive’ is really just a hyped-up tech term for ‘unfinished’. Coming from 1995, the year that Microsoft Windows took over the computer world, Eno envisioned a future where music would be left unassembled, still in pieces, waiting for the listener to finish the song as they see fit. Since then, we’ve seen the technology emerge for anyone with an Internet connection to do just that. Becoming much more than an underground music trend, “Remix Culture” has caught on big time with some of our biggest companies; What started with drum loops being lifted from old LPs has expanded into a web best-practice.
For example, the biggest content websites in the world: Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, each offer up remote access to their content through APIs — little snippets of code that allow websites to pull and push content to and from other sites — so that anyone can replicate key points of functionality from anywhere on the web. These APIs are the reason you can see your friends’ favorite articles on the New York Times site, update Twitter from your iPhone, or watch music videos on some kid’s Tumblr blog. In essence, what these sites have realized is that it isn’t necessarily best to keep tight control over how and where people view your content. In fact, people are sometimes much more engaged with content if they feel some sense of authorship over it. In the age of the Internet, people have come to expect their participation in media (and many other things) to come on their own terms.
I was reminded of this idea recently by two different encounters with culture I’ve had here in New York over the past year. The first was the subway advertisements that appeared to announce the arrival of the fifth season of Mad Men. The posters were little more than a stark white space with a familiar suited figure falling through it. They were striking ads on their own, but the coolest thing is what passers-by did with them. All over the city, these ads were treated as canvases, unfinished dots to be abstractly connected into a new pictures. As anyone in NYC can tell you, subway ads have long been defaced as interactive canvases, these ads just left a little more to the imagination. I’m not sure if this was a foreseen feature of these ads, but it was very fun nevertheless.
More recently, artist Rutherford Chang has taken over the Recess space in SoHo (at 41 Grand Street) with an installation titled ‘We Buy White Albums’. Chang has filled the gallery with a bank of record players and bins upon bins filled with his extensive collection of first-printings of The Beatles so-called ‘White Album’. Going through the collection, you’ll find that some of the most interesting specimens have been decorated and filled-in by their former owners, endowing the objects with much more power than their more pristine brethren. (These images were lifted from Dust & Grooves, which offers a great interview with the artist.)
Philosophically, the idea of decentralizing authorial control over meaning is nothing new. The academic grad-schoolers among you will recognize the notion that an audiences’ interpretation may, in fact, represent the true meaning in any work of art. Browse some of the post-structuralist musings of Jacques Derrida from way back in the 60′s and you will find that some creative philosophies actually give the audience more credence than the author. Maybe this is what the Beatles were acknowledging when they put this record out in 1968… or maybe they were just trying to clear their minds after their extended hang with the Maharishi.
In any case, whenever I make something — especially when I’m designing a platform that will be populated with user content — I try to leave room for this idea of the unfinished. I believe that some of the most engaging experiences (and business models) are those that leave room for a little serendipitous audience manipulation. Why try to build a world all by yourself, wall it in, and declare it finished, when your audience would be thrilled to offer up their own energy to help build alongside you.