The Case for the Slow Internet

Curator's Note

On April 1st of this year, NPR aired this spoof story about the latest online trend: the Slow Internet. While the feature pokes fun at an improbable hipster movement complete with a song from OK Go sampled from dial-up days, it touches on the oft-criticized nature of the web as a source of attention deficit, poor multitasking, and bite-sized media consumption.

Recent online works – especially long-form interactive documentaries – challenge this approach to Internet use. Rather than a sub-three-minute, one-stop experience, these projects demand time – repeated visits that enable a gradual unfolding of the narrative. They ask us to seek unexpected connections and to allow our own curiosity to serve as a guiding principle. These works are less like an article to be read in a sitting, and more like a book that is picked up and set down over days or even months.

Viewers are accustomed to such extended consumption with serial narratives on TV; certainly shows like The Wire function as a kind of single-channel branching narrative. And video games employ long-term, goal-oriented narrative immersion. A trickle of long-form literary platforms is emerging. But users seldom approach online video experiences in this way.

The Slow Food movement describes its philosophy as one that is about reclaiming the pleasure of growing, cooking, and eating in a world dominated by speed. It’s about rethinking our ethical relationship to food in accordance with local interests and community enjoyment. It asks us to rethink our relationship to what we consume in a way that demands distraction-free attention.

A Slow Internet can similarly reframe users’ internet consumption habits. We need to think about using the web for storytelling in a way that encourages long-term attention as a means for developing a relationship with people and issues that are important to us, and that does so in a way that embraces the positive dynamics of video gameplay and TV narrative without sacrificing the pleasures of the slow.

With many thanks to the great discussions at the Database | Narrative | Archive Symposium at Concordia University in Montreal this past spring, especially Adrian Miles, Will Luers, and Brigid Maher. 


Thank you, Jennifer, for a great post to open this week's theme.  What I find refreshing about NPR’s spoof is that it avoids the sententious laments that so often come with those “how the web ruins our ability to pay attention / think / remember” arguments.  (Another spry example is Tracy Seeley’s launch of the Slow Book Movement.)  These digital-age Jeremiahs usually overlook the fact that the way a medium is currently being used—or misused—isn’t exhaustive of all the possible ways in which it could be used.  Why not embrace a Slow Internet experience, in which users might linger in meditation or recursively interact with a site, before wringing our analogue hands?  Take, for example, Jonathan Harris’s and Sep Kamvar’s site, We Feel Fine, which culls from weblogs statements that include the phrase “I feel.”  The site presents users with a database, growing by 15,000 – 20,000 feelings per day, with which they can interact, exploring how we articulate our feelings on the web.  The site is fascinating.  Each click offers a glimpse into a human existence.  It strikes me as the sort of web experience we’d want to take in slowly and with a smile.

When I hear the phrase, “Slow Internet,” what comes to mind is the sound of a 56.6k modem connecting to some bulletin board serving text and the occasional image from a neighbor’s basement. Slow was less a cognitive stance in relation to material, or an acknowledgment of the proper pace of an object’s consumption, as the patience required by the limits of transmission as images appeared, often line by line, and text was retrieved through the computational version of work in the mines, i.e., the command line and the AT command set. Interactivity was, per force, intentional, and therefore, slow.  Interactivity with computational media was at a pace not dissimilar to other media because navigation, and therefore interactivity, was synched to intention. What intrigues me about the Slow Food movement, and its digital counterparts, is that it describes an intentional stance – a conscious adaptation relative to technical capabilities. An insistence on a focused pace of consumption and reflection.  My question is whether Slow, as a style of engagement, necessarily requires Long, as a period of engagement. In other words, can a game or a film or pieces of text that only take a few minutes to play or watch or read engender the type of prolonged and deep intentional concentration perceived to be threatened by [insert computational-bogeyman here or here or here or here].


What I like about the comparison of the slow food movement to interactive documentaries is the idea of getting closer to the source. Slow food means becoming more aware of where your food comes from and what has been done to it before you consume it. The less artifice applied to the food or at least, the more we know about that artifice, the more pure of an eating experience we have. It is hard to adjust one’s taste buds to less additives and takes work, but ultimately leaves one more satisfied and aware of our relationship to the food and to the world. When an interactive documentary gives the viewer/user access to more of the raw footage (access to the same database that an editor/director would use to create a linear doc), they are getting closer to the source.

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