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What is Sight?

April 27, 1996
Elsewhere, I've talked about how I decided to make Sight a magazine. Previously, the concept had been that photographers would pay to post their portfolios, much like a printed source book. I've explained how I didn't really want to try to make money from photographers, and that, as a journalist, the idea of running a publication about photography made me much more comfortable.

It is the sign of an immature medium, however, that I'm using metaphors from more established media in an attempt to get a handle on what I am doing. I'm not alone in this, of course. For example, while most Web sites will never be output to paper, we refer to "pages," to give our minds a way to grasp the concept of going from one set of information to another. In many places, you will see people using "buttons," a metaphor from mechanical devices, because it is somehow comfortable to know that when we "push down" on an area and something happens, that there is a physical explanation.

There is a psuedofact - it's since been proven myth - that the Eskimos have 12 different words for snow, and thus can recognize differences that would be too subtle for people without this vocabulary. Even if this particular story isn't true, I think we do need words in order to form mental pictures. We must not forget that the Web is less than 7 years old, and has experienced perhaps 3 years of real activity - not enough time to develop a full language of its own.

Consider, too, the case of photography. In the first 50 years or so of this medium, photographers essentially used painterly styles. This has often been explained as I have done above, that photographers had to think in terms of another medium, because they did not yet have the vocabulary for photography. However, there is another aspect. The tools and techniques of photography made the process deliberate: films were slow, cameras were cumbersome. In the few times that I have experimented with larger format photography, I've noticed a difference in the way I see. Because the process is slower, composition becomes that focus, rather than the moment. It is human nature to experiment; if early photographs looked like paintings, I think it is in part because of the constraints of the medium at that time.

Let's carry this thought back to the Web. The Web won't be mature until the constraint of bandwidth is gone. It is natural to present information a "page" at a time, because of the slow, deliberate pace things happen now. When we have an unlimited pipeline, a screen will not necessarily be a static place. Pieces of digital information - text, video, sound, photos - will be able to flow at you instantly on command. Going to a Web site will be less like calling up a document with pages and more like experiencing a fully interactive environment. What words and metaphors will we use to describe sites such as these?

Why call Sight a magazine, then? What constraints have I assumed by borrowing this metaphor from the world of printed publications? (I think "e-zine" is a surface and clumsy attempt to differentiate online-only publications). Conceivably, an informational or entertainment-oriented Web site could be constantly evolving and changing The idea of "publishing" is that a body of information is presented as an edition, that comes out on a certain date, and is unchanging until the next publication date.

In fact, mostly for my own sanity rather than a deeply-held philosophy, I have made changes to Sight incrementally as I've had time, rather than having one big end-of-the-month deadline. The only element I change regularly is the dateline, which says the month. I do this mostly to justify my calling Sight a magazine. Assuming I push to constantly to keep putting fresh material in Sight, then from my perspective as the grunt production worker, there's no reason to approach things differently.

However, as the publisher, I need to think about readers. My high-fallutin' ideas aren't worth much unless the readers will go along with the concepts. People are creatures of habit, and want to know that they are getting something new when they invest the time to come back. Publication dates could establish higher rates of regular return visitors. I think this is offset somewhat by the somewhat regular newsletters letting people know what's new. Another high-tech alternative I've seen is at Hotwired, where registered users can automatically find out what has changed since their last visit.

It will be fascinating to see what words evolve to describe this medium, and to see which ones stick. Language is constantly evolving and changing, of course - much like a good Web site.

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