One on One

I’m not going to try to name it (ahem), but I do want to highlight its existence while it’s still young: a new web genre in which one person recommends one thing (often for one day). It’s another manifestation of modern web minimalism, akin to what is happening in web design. We are sick of the rococo web: the endless, illustrated, hyperlinked streams of social media, the ornate playlists, the overabundant recommendations in every corner of our screen. Too many things to look at and read.

The solution has occurred to several people at once: vastly reduce the choices for the recommender and the recommendee, the better to focus their attention. (Were I a staff writer for the New Yorker I would insert a pithy reference to¬†Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less here.)

In music, there’s This is My Jam: one person, one song. For writing, The Listserve: one person, one message to a global audience via email. Perhaps most intriguing was the short-lived project Last Great Thing, which asked one person a day to name the most interesting, compelling work they had encountered recently. Recommendations included many websites but also novels, videos, music, and plays. As editors Jake Levine and Justin Van Slembrouck put it:

Last Great Thing was designed to take our mission to its extreme: from the endless stream of great content on the web, how would we go about creating an experience around a single compelling thing?

It’s worth reading their entire justification for the project, and what they learned. I suspect the model could be helpfully extended to other areas. The genre recaptures the advantages of scarcity that print had, in the same way that Readability and Instapaper recapture the advantages of distraction-free legibility for reading.

So, out with the rococo aesthetic, in with the Shaker aesthetic.

6 thoughts on “One on One

  1. Mary Scriver

    All I ask is that you use a font that I can SEE. Distraction is one problem, but not as much as pale blue print in a thin font. Not all of us are spring chickens. Not even glasses help when you’re developing cataracts but not ready for surgery.

    Prairie Mary

  2. Cathy Stanton

    Um… Interesting idea, but a broad trend of many people all recommending a single interesting thing every day still strikes me as being rococo overall. A gazillion Shaker villages may be simpler in some respects, but there’s something about gazillionness that is inherently *not* simple!

  3. Sheila

    The ephemeral quality of Last Great Thing is also what made it unique and that was the quality that interested folks found the most frustrating. For me, Last Great Thing, was like appointment television, or radio shows actually. If you missed it, you missed it. There was no way to save it for later or pass on a copy. It was a shared “mass culture” experience, which is sometimes missed when anyone can save a piece to read later, DVR a favorite show, watch a movie wherever they are in the world. That aspect of one-on-one is very different from a clean Shaker aesthetic.

    I think of a Shaker aesthetic as a product of deliberateness in craftsmanship and simplicity in form, which is not something that is derived quickly. Writing or recommending one or two things that are simple and focused is often more difficult than throwing many unpolished bits into the world.

    Knowing of the craftsmanship required to create simplicity, should we be sure that those focused sites and bytes can be easily saved and then remixed into the other bits in our lives that crowd the simplicity (ie, through our Instapaper pile, a Pinterest board, or Backpack)?
    Or, should we experiment more with ephemeral performance, like the Last Great thing, that the web can facilitate? (I’m also thinking of a post by Mark Sample asking if everything must be permanent: http://www.samplereality.com/2010/01/18/the-archive-or-the-trace-cultural-permanence-and-the-fugitive-text/)

    Could one-on-one help us learn to let go of the feeling that we must read and consume everything within our sight? When it’s over, it’s over, and we move on because we have other things to do and discover.

  4. J. M. Seaver

    I’m not sure this trend is driven by consumer tastes. Isn’t it more the case that recomenders, seeking a new hook to lure readers, have pushed in this direction?

    A recomender seeks attention. To get attention they need a good reputation and a niche. By going minimal, recomenders increase the appearance of expertise: fewer links reduces the risk of dud recomendations. One-per-day posting also lessens the chance of repeating what your competitors are offering. (Don’t you feel a little let down everytime an article your read via The Browser turns up on Longform?)

    And of course, disappearing links create allure. It’s a way to create fun and games. It’s a way to create an illusion of exclusivity, of being “in the know.” It’s “Buy them now, folks, this sale only lasts till Midnight!”

    These are all tricks of salesmen and flirts, rather than considered responses to the frazzled sensbilities of web crawlers seeking good reads.

  5. Dan Cohen Post author

    @J.M.: Those are some very good points. These sites are indeed using marketing psychology, which I hadn’t thought about.

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