Earlier this week Justin sent this email out to one of the (altogether too many) listservs I’m on:

Subject: anti-rss?

A co-worker showed me this discovery recently: it’s a service that allows you to purchase newspapers (from a list of 150+) at newstand prices for viewing on your computer in as good as or better than PDF format.

You have to download their proprietary “newsreader” client, but then you can search and print the actual periodicals that you buy.


Now, this seems to me to be a use of new technology to actually take a step backwards instead of forwards. One of the things that Diffusion of Innovations theory tells us is that when faced with a new technology, people tend to use it to replicate old behavior. But in the online environment we’ve moved pretty well beyond the look and feel of the printed page. Justin’s subject line is apt, though RSS is simply the latest move to divorce content from presentation in the online environment. So what’s the appeal of reproducing the look and feel of the printed page on the screen? Actually, thinking about it, this is what Acrobat is all about. And to be honest, I’ve never really understood the appeal of Acrobat, except as a format that allows for a nicely printed page. So in Acrobat you have a format of electronic document whose entire raison d’etre is to be converted to paper? This is weird: imagine the inverse, a format of print document whose entire raison d’etre is to be converted to electronic. Is there such a creature? Anyway, I didn’t mean for this to become a discussion of Acrobat, but of newsstand.com. What we have here is an atavism: a situation where we’ve moved up on the old Diffusion of Innovations S-curve, but we’re deliberately returning to a less-evolved use of the technology. This seems strange to me, since after all the printed page and computer monitors are oriented along different axes, and the former doesn’t display well on the latter. Unless of course you have one of those portrait-orientation monitors. Though I suppose that newspapers are landscape mode when they’re folded. (But only real newspapers, not those Rupert Murdoch rags like the Boston Herald… and then there’s USA Today, which is landscape mode…) Ok, so this isn’t quite as clear-cut as I thought when I started writing this. But let’s just blithely ignore all that. The point here is, why the fascination with reproducing paper on the screen? Is it just that it’s familiar? Do people really just want to print what’s on the screen? Is it that the paper format has some affordances that translate to the screen environment? Anyway, personally I’m holding out for electronic paper.