The face of the internet today has been shaped by a surprisingly small number of incredibly influential websites. Some are from the early days of the Internet evolution and may be unknown to you, but each has profoundly changed the interactive web experience as we know it. From the very start, websites were unique from traditional media in that users could interact with the content, whether it was merely in clicking on hyperlinks or filling out mail-forms. Like a primordial single-cell life-form, that earliest potential for user interaction was only the start of an evolutionary process. The DNA of all interactive websites today can be traced to specific mutations and adaptations that forever changed the future of the Internet. No longer does mere "site navigation" serve our expectations. Visitors to websites expect to be entertained, engaged, and immersed in the "experience" of the website.
Most websites are by definition "interactive". But a good user-experience is not defined by wild mouse clicks alone. A truly amazing interactive website is defined by its ability to engage the user in an immersive experience that delivers satisfaction. The internet is literally flooded with websites desperately seeking this most holy of holy grails -- a web site with the ability to pull users deeper and deeper into a rabbit hole of possibilities. But success doesn't rely on an over-use of flash or graphics. There are many expertly designed interactive websites with astronomical budgets that fall far short of hitting their mark in spite of huge Search Engine Optimization budgets and advertising campaigns.
The best of the interactive websites usually begin as whispers in a storm of informational white noise. Larger advertisers spend millions trying to copy and emulate such sites. But as the best interactive websites are by definition the ones discovered and shared by an excited audience. The best websites achieve their almost-mythic status not by spending money on huge ad campaigns, but through their viral success with their audience.
For your consideration, I humbly submit my choices for the best interactive websites. Some are from the early days of the Internet and a few may be unknown to you, but each of these have profoundly changed the Internet forever.
Unfortunately some on my list are no longer available online. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the influence and success of such web experiences as Spielberg's A.I. - related "The Beast" or Trent Reznor's Year Zero, but for the sake of this article I've attempted to limit myself to currently available examples.
My Top 10 interactive website experiences
Here's my list, which you can also view in a Gallery format. What are your top interactive website concepts/designs? Share them in the Discussion below.
While not the first "interactive" website, the Burger King promotion definitely exceeded all expectations when it went viral.
#2 Donnie Darko
The interactive "web experience" for the film Donnie Darko possibly enjoyed a larger audience than the film during its first release. This website perfectly reflected the film while presenting an intensely intriguing mystery all on its own. Like the old computer game Myst, the Donnie Darko game gave no clues or easy solutions. Yet it exploded in a viral popularity to rival the cult status of the film.
This innovative site invites users to alter photos of the Man in Black and submit them to an ever-growing online compilation of user-generated artistic renderings.
This interactive viral marketing campaign for the Showtime series Dexter not only went viral but actually caused a panic in the UK as unsuspecting recipients of the "killer" videos mistook them for real threats. You can't get much more immersive than that.
This website for the film Broken Embraces presents an excellent interactive experience and has been copied by many others. This stands more as an example of this type of interactivity than as a primary source of the design movement.
#6 Café Press
One of the primary innovators in interactive design, Cafe Press literally set the standard for commercial websites where users can interact with and customize selected merchandise.
#7 DELIVER ME TO HELL - REAL ZOMBIES ATTACK (YouTube interactive zombie movie adventure)
Not only did YouTube create an interactive medium for sharing videos but the full potential of creating "interactive" experiences with the videos has just begun to take root. An amazing example of this is the interactive zombie adventure video "Deliver Me To Hell" wherein the user gets to make choices inside the video and thereby affect its outcome. In effect, YouTube has not only defined the online video community, it has secretly laid the roots for a new interactive game engine.
Not all corporate giants started as giants. EBay is among the top success stories who started as small start-ups and grew to literally define the online user-interaction experience in selling and buying online.
Literally the "face" of social networking. Whether it will be replaced by next year's networking flavor or not, Face book has irrevocably changed how people perceive social networks.
As much as I hate listing giant evil corporations in this list, Google must be included and indeed, given the top slot. They may not have started as a giant evil corporation, but their impact on the web is nearly unsurpassed by any other. Even if one were to discount their search engine, blogger, and multitude of other offerings, Google Maps alone would merit being at the top of my list. I dare say there are many people who couldn't imagine life now without Google or Google Maps.
Todd Fluhr is a freelance writer and multimedia designer. A self-described "Shockwave Rider" of technology, culture, and creativity, he has been involved in the interactive entertainment industry since the early 90's. He hopes to find time to sleep some day.