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Hot vs Cold

I’ve been thinking a lot about how different media work together and whether there’s a model or a set of theories that can help better make sense of how they interact.

This is what I’ve come up with so far. It’s a mash-up of of Marshall McLuhan’s idea of hot vs cold media, Scott McCloud’s big triangle, and some of my own thoughts:

Different types of media demand different levels of reader participation and concentration. They have different effects on the reader, and you can map this along a continuum from hot to cold.



This list describes the extremes of the continuum. Most works exist much nearer the middle and have both hot and cold properties. There are ‘cold’ films and, likewise, ‘hot’ novels.

But this gives some guidance as to how different media might work well together (or not). Hot-and-hot or cold-and-cold combination might clash, but hot-then-cold might work. This model helps when troubleshooting stories that you feel are not working, but you can’t pin down why.

This model highlights two further points:

Firstly, text fits awkwardly because it is more malleable than other media. Some text can be very ‘hot’ and some can be very ‘cold’. The text here is not the same as the text here. Yet we often speak of text or ‘the story’ as just one thing, which makes no sense.

Secondly, It explains history of the digital transition.

Consider print. Text in a newspaper is a perfect example of text serving both hot and cold functions.

Headlines, the inverse pyramid structure, page layout, etc are all ‘hot’: They grab attention, quickly convey information, and allows the reader to scan.

The article itself, and especially long-form features, are cold: They let readers become absorbed into a story. They convey nuances and explain complex ideas.

What happened when everything moved to the web? (and especially so on mobile) The ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ aspects were separated. Hot went to homepages, and cold to the article page (and neither performed their respective ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ functions very well in the early days). We lost peripheral vision, as the 8-column grid got shrunk to a single (albeit infinitely long) column.

So we spent several years basically turning the news article, which was mostly a ‘cold’ medium in print days, into a ‘hot’ medium: bite-sized content, lists, Q&A etc.

This has led to a backlash, where people try to explore the ‘really cold’ aspects of text (longreads, Medium with its ‘clean’ and ‘stripped-down designs’, links are broken, etc)

Where does this lead? I think towards a recognition, whether by editors or content display platforms, that not all text articles are the same and that ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ articles merit different visual treatments and signposting for readers. I also believe that the greatest opportunity for innovative storytelling lies in the conscious mixing of hot and cold elements — and that we will see a lot more experimentation in that area over the next few years.