Can a website make you cry?

Over at Crackunit, Ian Tait has recently put a fire under an age-old (read: decade old) debate about whether the web can be an emotional medium. Ian is not convinced that asking ‘Ever Seen a Website That Can Make You Cry?’ is a useful question. He goes on to say that the website is just a container and that it can’t be held responsible for what’s put in it. I think that’s generally true but I I think too often this discussion goes straight to web vs. video. There are plenty of other types of digital experiences that can hit the same parts of your heart and mind as video. Social, typographical, photographic or 3D digital constructs all bring something to the table. Also a collective voice in a site reminds you that other humans are part of it, steering and modding it, whereas a solitary, narrative on-rails puts you in a different place altogether. Interestingly now that computing is increasingly mobile, a given location of access will more and more influence the way digital communications impact you. Take your laptop out into the world – into a cafe, airport lounge, park – and you will notice the different ways you perceive potentially emotional work (You’re crying for a different reason as someone else’s kid pours sugar into your keyboard at a cafe.)

The screen, the hardware, the consumption context, your own comfort levels will all affect the emotional experience. Whether you generally use your computer for work or play might also help determine if you’re susceptible to tears. With spreadsheets, chat windows and tomorrow’s calendar appointments open, you might not find yourself able to get lost in a narrative.

Screens do carry with them characteristics that contribute to the perception and consumption of creative work. Seeing something in a cinema obviously brings up many emotions related to its collective context. People’s reactions to a scene can shape your own, or you might just find yourself wondering what other people are thinking. Similarly, watching something on TV alone is quite different to watching it with the family. Even what room you’re in can alter your perception of a show. A TV is also generally in a more comfortable space than a computer so there’s a tendency to let yourself relax and drift into a program.

One site that comes to mind when thinking about this is High-Res’ Requiem For a Dream promo. It didn’t make me cry but it did make me wince quite a bit. The beauty in that particular piece of work was in evoking gut wrenching recollections of the movie’s more difficult scenes. But part of why the site worked well was that many of the themes of the movie were about loneliness and desolation. So it makes good sense that these could be brought to the surface by a bit of digital work that is experienced alone, on a pc, maybe even at night. Another interesting element to the Requiem site is that it uses web cliches (of their day) like flashing casino banner ads, dodgy animated GIFs and clipart. Although there’s no internet use in the movie, if there was, it would probably feel as destitute as this. As a promotional piece, it’s a great cross-medium import that captures a similar vibe using semiotics relevant to the medium (eg. Netscape’s broken image icon).

The emerging masters of the digital craft will surprise us more and more in these areas. Work from this guy and that guy, this project, this mag and that stuff has already begun to take the binary world into new realms. Throw in a little mobile interactivity, social game play, location-based stuff (bit of Google Latitude) and god only knows what we’ll be feeling as we peer into our browsers tomorrow.