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In the future, as depicted in the 2002 film Minority
Report, our periodicals will create interactive, hybrid
reading/viewing experiences—with built-in sound and motion-based
commercials rather than static advertisements, incorporating news
footage with pages that dissolve and re-form to reflect breaking
stories. Despite minute gestures in that direction, such as the
Amazon Kindle and G24, The
Guardian's PDF newspaper that's updated throughout the day,
that vision of media—if there's really a market for it—is a long
way off. Finding a clear signal for a humble cell phone call in a
crowded city or subway car (or one of many other places people
expect to read their daily paper) can be challenging enough.
Terabytes of streaming media in real time over the ether still seem
a distant possibility at best.
A Monkey issue “cover.”
Nevertheless, something very much like that Minority
Report newspaper—in form, if not content—is now available
weekly from Dennis Publishing, the company that gave the world
The Week, Maxim and several other British “lad
magazines” as well as launched their American spin-offs. Monkey is
proportioned like a glossy, has an interface that mimics the
turning of pages and even has a magazine-like layout: margins, a
basic two-column grid, images combined with text and print-like
pacing. The difference is that Monkey's text sparkles
(literally, if not figuratively), dances and slides onto the page.
Many of the photos will turn into movies or slideshows (some rather
naughty) when clicked, and on some spreads users can shuffle page
elements, substituting one image for another. The format also
changes to serve its content. A small mini-magazine with short
reviews is digitally “stitched” into the “middle” of each issue.
Additionally, most advertisements come alive, thanks either to
Flash, streaming video or some combination, showing previews of
movies or commercials for products framed by the equivalent of a
To be sure, Monkey does nothing that isn't done on
other websites, and it has formal predecessors for its page
interface—the arty This Is a Magazine, for one, and the webified
versions of print glossies from Zinio for another. But unlike the
wider web—which has evolved its own vocabulary and conventions for
storytelling—and other web magazine predecessors—for which the
turn-the-page interface seems a formal conceit—Monkey
truly blends old and new media design conventions in a way that is
both appalling and appealing.
A front-of-book spread from Monkey featuring ad content on the
left, editorial on the right.
It isn't surprising that this hybrid came from Dennis rather
than another publisher. Dennis has always built magazines—even the
news-oriented The Week—around the conviction that less
text is more good. The Week's longest stories—including
the cover feature—are less than a page of text; most are only 50 or
60 words. Maxim and its sibling men's magazines function
like book-length briefs sections. While the lad mags include
articles that resemble long-form feature stories, these spread 300
or so words of text over a five-page pictorial (usually a profile
of a comely minor actress).
Monkey's viral content.
Predictably, the first casualty in Monkey is the body
(although heds, deks and captions remain), giving the publication
the look of a frenetic First for Women. But, what
Monkey does do successfully is use magazine conventions to
gracefully manage the overload of information that is distracting
at best, upsetting at worst, on many interactive websites. It does
this by following and thoughtfully extending the rules all
publication designers depend on, such as consistent placement of
ads on the left-hand page and editorial content on the right. While
some ads “start” automatically, all can be halted by the user
(unlike many Flash-based banner ads), giving the reader reassuring
control and the advertiser ample space for a static message that
frames each movie. More importantly, the reinforcement of ingrained
expectations for the magazine-reading experience—in which the
reader is in the driver's seat—is much more comfortable than
websites that use annoying blinking ads, pop-ups and other excesses
The danger in creating something like Monkey is that it
can be as overwhelming as a walk through Times Square at night, in
which dozens of video screens of various shapes and sizes along
with news feeds and other animated and static ads compete for
attention. Monkey's pages are carefully staged, however.
Flash ads clearly conform to strict rules; they may assemble before
the reader's eyes upon “turning the page” or run once but do not
become a continuing annoyance.
It's a sheep, it's pig, it's a...nother busy Monkey page,
peppered with chimp heads.
None of this is to suggest that Monkey
doesn't have a learning curve. It takes a while to learn how to
turn a page, how to zoom in on content and what clicking on the
animated chimp heads that pepper every page does and does not
accomplish. The magazine has not formalized all of its conventions
yet. Sometimes the page itself animates, other times you're whisked
off-site. Too often the brief captions don't do enough to
contextualize the multimedia elements. But these are minor
annoyances that will likely diminish over time. In the most
important ways, Monkey seems familiar and comfortable.
Games entice readers into contests and promos.
While Monkey balances the needs of reader and
advertiser more gracefully than many sites, the potential of the
format for visual storytelling cannot be overstated. A conventional
magazine's columnar structure makes the complex juxtaposition of
ideas and images possible. A print designer can juggle multiple
components on a spread—several images and a variety of words at
various sizes and in different typefaces and arrangements. This is
ingrained for print designers, but it shouldn't be taken for
granted. The bandwidth of a spread in a print magazine is larger
than a web page by orders of magnitude.
Most web pages (like the one you're currently reading) conform
to a linear presentation style in which a single column of text
with images interspersed can be followed through scrolling down the
screen. This approach, necessary when you measure pages in hundreds
of kilobytes rather than tens or hundreds of megabytes, may be
practical but the visual poetry that a good designer can achieve
through layering elements is almost always a casualty in web
design. Most websites are also part machine—the mechanics of
navigation place limitations on design. Monkey's soft-core
content is hardly poetic—and bandwidth is a challenge, as it is for
any webzine. Pictures are often crude and videos sometimes jam up,
but page flipping is quick and seamless. The essential act of
mainstream magazine consumption is grazing, and here
Monkey works as well as its print counterparts. While
sharper pictures would be a benefit, one can see the potential of
the hybrid vocabulary Dennis has pioneered.
The Monkey approach could be applicable to a wide range
of non-puerile content—with a few caveats. Watching may be an
inherently shallower experience than reading, but much translates
effectively to video, even the small, embedded screens of streaming
video that make up much of Monkey's content. However, the
question of whether serious long-form journalism could be
integrated into this model is less certain and isn't one
Monkey's publisher is likely to answer.
A spread with video from the “Motors” department.
The conventional magazine, like the book, is remarkable for,
among other things, the neutrality of the format. There can be
satisfying publications on topics as diverse as Medieval French
literature, cooking, fashion and news analysis. The modern
XHTML/CSS-driven website is also a tabula rasa, but television is
much less so. The linearity and comparatively slow pace of
time-based media makes it inappropriate for many kinds of
information-rich experiences. It would be absurd to attempt either
The Economist or the Yellow Pages as a television program
or YouTube video, but either could be and are text or PHP-based
I would guess that while an Economist with a
Monkey on its back is possible, it could not be done
elegantly. Multimedia content would disrupt and trivialize the
deliberative process of reading truly serious content. On the other
hand, the Monkey method would lend itself beautifully to a
variety of other topics: say, a multimedia-cooking magazine that
incorporated steps and demonstrations into recipes. Women's and
men's magazines do not always vary greatly in the kinds of stories
they tell (if you don't believe me, compare the cover images and
teasers on Cosmo and Maxim sometime). A
Monkey-like Glamour or O seems an
obvious possibility—with the same sorts of interactive quizzes and
pictorials that Monkey uses, but centered around “women's”
interests. Travel, science, even literature—in which book excerpts
are combined with live interviews—might be effective. Inevitably,
someone will try these tricks and more. After all, Monkey
incorporates products, entertainment, sports, sex and humor—the
glut of mass-market magazine content. It will be interesting to see
who apes this formula next.
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