The Difference One Site Can Make

Only a year ago, I was against infinite scroll. In design meetings, I’d point out the way it breaks various aspects of the scroll bar. (You can’t tell how far through the full data-set you are; dragging the “thumb” down causes it to suddenly change place, etc.)

But now, I almost expect it when I’m scrolling through certain types of web pages. It’s slightly disorienting to me when I bump into the bottom of a page and have to manually click “next” or whatever.

What happened? In a word: New Twitter.

Okay, it’s not really “new” Twitter any more (it was rolled out from September through October of 2010 — less than a year ago, but those 9 months are an eternity in Internet time). But still, that roll-out was the impetus for my change in opinion. Twitter, a site I use every day, changed its UI and started doing infinite scroll. And now that interaction is a part of my daily life, and somewhere along the way, I got used to it. And now I expect it, at least in certain cases.

And it’s because one site changed its interface. And because that one site is one I use many times every day.

Logically speaking, there’s no reason why I should expect, for example, Google’s search results or my Dreamwidth reading page or TechCrunch’s front page to behave like Twitter does. One site’s UI shouldn’t — and doesn’t — have a damn thing to do with any other site. But the things we use frequently shape our habits, and that includes habits of thought.

As a side effect of my having gotten used to Twitter’s infinite scroll, I’ve gotten far less inclined to check the position of the scroll-bar “thumb” to see how far through the page I am… except on the kinds of pages that I expect to not have infinite scroll. For example, an article or story has a natural end, and it just makes sense for a calendar to be paginated.

But blogs? Or search results? Or anything that doesn’t have a natural break-point in it? There’s no reason why these things should require me to find the “load more” link. And there’s really no reason why that link should load stuff in a whole new page. Dynamic pagination with URL parameters like “?skip=40” was always a kind of awkward idea; it’s just that there didn’t used to be anything better. But now there is.

Right? I mean, that really is the case, isn’t it? I don’t just think so because one of the sites I use every day has retrained the way I think… right?

2 Comments

  1. Lun Esex
    Posted Wednesday, June 29th, 2011 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

    An additional problem with “infinite scroll” web pages is that they have no “bottom frame” area, so links one expects to find there like “About,” “Contact,” “Jobs,” “Privacy Policy,” “Terms of Service,” “Report Abuse,” “Advertise With Us,” etc. then have to be put… somewhere else.

    If you’re browsing on a device that has either a bandwidth cap (mobile devices), expensive roaming data (mobile devices outside of your coverage area), or intermittent connections (mobile devices while in motion, going through tunnels, etc.) you may not want data to be auto-loaded simply by scrolling to the bottom of the page.

    There are times when you want to save or send a link to a particular “page” within the total content of a site, and this becomes impossible if the site only operates via infinite scroll. For example, how do you cite a Wikipedia reference to a particular full page worth of content when the site you’re citing has no “pages”? Yes, there are probably permalinks to individual entries, but there are still valid reasons for wanting to reference a single page with multiple entries on it.

    Finally, infinite scroll in a sense “destroys history.” It says that the only really important information is that which is most recent, at the top. Anything past scrolling down and loading one or two more pages worth simply isn’t worth accessing, because it gets increasingly difficult/tedious to get to (plus your web browser will use up more and more system resources as it keeps loading more content into a single page). And as you’re going through content on an infinite scroll page there’s no “back” button functionality, so if you remember something you saw earlier that you want to pull up again, you can’t just go “back” a few pages to get to an approximate page of the site you saw it on. In a similar way you can’t check your browser history the next day or a few days later to hope to get back to a particular page where you saw something on an infinite scroll website.

  2. Posted Thursday, June 30th, 2011 at 7:46 am | Permalink

    @Lun: You make a good case that I was right to listen to my doubts in that final paragraph. 🙂

    And really, that was part of my point: Just because I’ve been trained to expect and even like infinite scroll, that still doesn’t mean that it’s the best or most proper option for a lot of things.

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