Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Improvisational Content

While attending the Raleigh-Durham Web Design Meetup last night, I had a flash of inspiration. Not insight, mind you, but inspiration: we have a habit as Web designers of viewing pages as static entities. Even when we build-in things like AJAX-based navigation, data feeds and animations, the end result is really a snapshot of some static model stored between a database and file system. So what it that were not so?

OK, let me illustrate with a simile: we go to every once in a while for entertainment. They are an improv group, and play silly little skits to make us -- the paying audience -- laugh. One of the skits involves the rehearsal of a sort of made-up theatrical play using ideas obtained by a quick survey of the audience. As the players act out their parts, the ringing of a whistle signifies an instant-do-over: the speaking player must stop, and provide some new piece of improvised dialog instead of what they had just said. Improvisational Content takes that idea, and applies it to the paragraphs, sentences, and search terms used within a page.

Improvisational Content is not new. We already see this done at the level of images, particularly advertising content. What I'm suggesting that could be different, is that we could treat the main content in the same way as other dynamic page elements. The control triggers for introducing alternative content could be the time of day a page is loaded, the season, the locale of the viewer, etc.

Now, if you think the whole idea is crazy and should never be done, you're already too late: marketers are already finding ways to "personalize" and provide situational, contextualized responses. So it isn't a question of whether it should be done, but how it impacts the expectations and implied social contracts made by a Web site.

As a simple example, reload this page a few times and look at the link above. It should flip between the name of the venue and a generic description of the type of venue, with a 50% probability. A robot searching the page will either see a script or one of those two possible strings. People and robots browsing at different times will see slightly different content, which, however, means basically the same thing.

I suppose improvisational content would probably be considered a black-hat kind of trick by Google and other search engine operators. On the other hand, if it were implemented by server-side technology and not executed at a time granularity finer than, say, a few hours, it might take quite a while to detect. Indeed, if done right it would look much like any other minor content update, and serve much the same purpose from the user's perspective -- removing contextually-irrelevant data and varying the reading so as to keep it more current.

One can also envision entire pages made this way, constructed as fragments of machine-improvised content. Given enough context from a human author, such fragments might actually appear cohesive. This is topical minimalism taken to an extreme.

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