The new gravity
Q: What's the opposite of gravity? A: Levity.
In the new physics of the Web, this line from Firesign Theatre is no joke. If gravity is that which attracts bodies, what draws people to sites on the Web is their interest. If I have an interest in, say, the habits of nuns in the 13th century, I will find www.nunshabits.com/13th_century.html inherently fascinating. But, suppose I have no such interest. What would it take to give that site the gravity-producing mass of Jupiter or even of a collapsed star? Maybe if the site were giving away a million dollars, or if the site presented an interactive mystery, or if there were a really funny Habit of the Day joke, or if to get the information I had to slap a moving monkey, or if the nun's habits were being modeled by a certain Sister Pamela Anderson.
Entertainment, you see, is not the opposite of information. Entertainment is information that stimulates interest in itself. Entertainment bends the information space so that bodies head toward it. For example, if 10 years ago you'd asked me to rate my interest in the Scottish leader nicknamed "Braveheart" (actually, Lenny the Bruce), I'd have given him roughly a zero out of 10. But, then came the vastly entertaining movie based on his exploits ("Road Trip") and suddenly I find him fascinating. The movie created an interest where there wasn't any before. [Note: Please send your comments about the movie to me at firstname.lastname@example.org Thank you.]
The vastness of the Web gives advantage to those sites that are not just informative but also entertaining. This is because of the law of nature that says: We find interesting things interesting. Pages that present information in straightforward (= boring) ways that once would have been acceptable, we now find unacceptable. There's got to be at least some nice formatting, maybe a joke or two, and preferably a logo-ed character who can show up in the Macy's Parade holding a sharp object right behind Jeeves. This ratcheting up of entertainment value may be invisible to us, but just compare any informational page today with how it would have looked on the Web six years ago: gray background, Times Roman font, and no graphics ("Gifs waste bandwidth, dude").
Is this mere pandering? Consider a certain large oil company that found its offshore platform operators were over-specifying the amount of ultra-expensive drying chemicals because the manuals were too boring to read. So the company "jazzed up" the manuals with some "fun" graphics and cut the amount of chemical used by over two-thirds, saving millions of dollars. Sure, if the entertainment value gets in the way of the information, there may be an issue. But if it brings people to your site, if it gets them to read the information you've posted there, you're only acknowledging what every civilization has come to realize: we are not information machines. We actually enjoy enjoying ourselves. Go figure.
David Weinberger is editor of The Journal of Hyperlinked Organizations.