The journey through Jonathan Harris’s Universe—the website, that is—begins with a single word. Type in that word, and as you mouse over the browser window, a series of constellation-like icons appears in the deep blue sky. Click on one of them and the sky clears, leaving another word orbited by a series of smaller icons. Choose one of these icons and a news snippet appears in the form of a quote, a photo, or another keyword. With each choice, the news of the world is one click away, connected by six degrees of visual (and virtual) separation.
Sound surreal? It’s actually straightforward. “The user is essentially getting a string of simple moments that add up to a complex sequence of experiences,” says Harris, who explains that he strives for a balance of “universal concept, simple execution, and playfulness” in all of his work.
Harris first began experimenting with websites-as-mediums during a 2004 fellowship at Fabrica, Benetton’s design think tank. There he developed 10×10 (Tenbyten.org), a site that displays the world’s top news headlines in a clean grid of 100 words and images. 10×10 struck gold in media exposure and served as a template of sorts for other projects that use layers of variables to create word-image pairings that reveal piercing statements.
His sites serve as filters of the web’s continuous data sources, assimilating bits and pieces of information from news sites, blogs, and social networking sites to project their shared connections. WeFeelFine (Wefeelfine.org), for instance, gathers an average of 7,000 feelings expressed around the globe per day and displays them in a user-selected set of categories; the same content can be read as cultural musings, a statistical dossier, or a candid piece of poetry.
Despite his dexterity with using web technology to create streamlined interactive experiences—not to mention a degree in computer science from Princeton—Harris still views technology as just another tool for telling stories. Indeed, he has kept sketchbooks for years and was an avowed devotee of comic books while growing up in Shelburne, Vermont. His newest projects reveal his interest in moving beyond topical data manipulation and into a realm of creating deeper human narratives and connections. Whale Hunt (Thewhalehunt.org), a project he released last December, marks the beginning of this new frontier.
The Whale Hunt is an interactive documentary composed of thousands of photos Harris took while accompanying a whaling expedition with Inupiat Eskimos off the northernmost tip of Alaska; when action during the hunt accelerated, so did the rate of his picture-taking. For Harris, it was a way to share information about a culture and tradition that’s often misunderstood. “There’s a whole population who aren’t connected and are not part of the conversation—but their stories are just as relevant,” he says.
John Maeda, the current president of RISD and former associate director of research at MIT’s Media Lab, sees Harris’s gift for creation as something unrestrained by any specificity: “Jonathan’s strength is that he’s neither a technologist nor an artist. . . . He thinks out loud in a variety of mediums.” As the media landscape shifts, we can only assume that his voice will soon be resounding.