(An Unintentional Treatise)
I’ve been working on a few new projects this month which have brought me back into the web world. From time to time I get burnt out on web design, but lately I’ve been enjoying being a code monkey.
In both cases, I’m completely redesigning websites that have suffered from benign neglect. In some ways, it’s like cleaning a dirty house – there is a certain amount of satisfaction one gets from seeing everything put in its place. The text gets dusted off and freshened up, the broken links get swept away like cobwebs.
What’s changed from when I first started designing websites is that now there is such an increased emphasis on integrating social media and distribution channels. Not that Facebook or YouTube even existed when I first started coding HTML, but back in the day, adding links to IMDB for films was a perk, an extra. Today it seems almost mandatory, and I’m thinking that it is not so much that the technology has changed, but rather that the public’s expectations have.
Social media is one of the ways in which users can make sense of the internet’s vast overwhelmingness. Years ago, Wired magazine put out a poster which mapped out most of the websites that existed on the internet. It was about the size of a movie poster when unfolded, and there were actually spaces in between all the listings.
Today, if an editor proposed mapping the web, it would lead to uncontrollable laughter or hysterical tears. There is just too much information out there, which is why search engines have become such an important battleground for tech companies.
Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, and widget-based platforms allow users to tag, categorize and customize information and have it delivered to them in a method of their choosing. E-mail alerts, news feeds, and sharing links are not new, but they way that they have been integrated into web-based platforms have increased their prominence.
I used to work in a movie theater, and we had regulars, like most places. With certain people, I knew what they were going to order before they had finished buying their ticket. If they arrived late, I could have a cup of coffee with cream and a small popcorn ready by the time they got inside the lobby. I might be able to tell them about an upcoming film because I had a sense of what kind of movies they liked to see.
Social media at its best can operate in the same way, by anticipating our needs or alerting us to new things that we may want to know about based on our past preferences. It’s not only a time saver, but it gives us a sense of familiarity, of home on the web.
Of course, sometimes social media is poorly understood by its creators, too heavy handed in its execution, and ends up seeming Big Brotherish to the end user. It’s basically the difference between offering the user a bite to eat and force feeding them a sandwich.
So far, I’ve written about ways in which technology allows us to customize what is essentially a passive experience. However, I’m much more interested in the ways in which blogs, news feeds and technologies like Twitter have added an active dimension to web surfing.
When I was in grad school, I was very interested in the dynamics of media distribution. (I know, I’m a hopeless geek.) TV and radio, I learned, were a one-to-many model, with viewers getting their information from a centralized source. According to theorists at the time, the internet was supposed to be a game changer, allowing consumers to “talk back” to their media in a whole new way.
This was hardly my idea of a utopian media environment. I didn’t want the ability to tell the TV networks their programming sucked, I wanted to create my own network and distribute my own content. Unfortunately, having a web page in a sea of web pages is like trying to give a speech in a crowded room where everyone is talking. Only people with bullhorns or microphones get heard, and on the internet, large corporations and media conglomerates were the ones with all the bullhorns.
Blogs have become the technological equivalent of a battering ram, able to break through the artificial barriers that separate the amateur from the professional. It is most apparent in the political sphere, where upstarts from Talking Points Memo or Daily Kos are now given entry to White House briefings along with well-marinated reporters like Helen Thomas.
Recently the New York Times had a hilarious article highlighting the tension between old and new media in the fashion industry. The reporter profiled bloggers -mere kids, for that matter – who had such a following that they were outshining fashion industry luminaries from Vogue and Elle. One blogger from the Philippines (gasp!) was even seated a few seats away from Anna Wintour at a D & G fashion show in Milan. I’m afraid the barbarians are at your velvet-trimmed, Swarovski-encrusted gates, my dear!
What we’re witnessing is the beginning of a media upheaval, a re-balancing of power in which information is not a closely held commodity to be doled out to the masses in pre-digested chunks, and the conversation is not limited by viewpoints favorable to corporate interests.
The technological upstart Twitter was initially derided by old media (“Using Twitter suggests a level of insecurity” said the UK’s Times Online). It was, however, one of the primary ways that dissidents within totalitarian Iran could quickly communicate and coordinate in the days following what many viewed as a deeply flawed election.
Citizen journalists have been some of the harshest critics not only of the banking mismanagement which led to last year’s economic crisis, but also some of the most dogged investigators of the TARP program which was meant to speed economic recovery, but seems to have primarily ensured that many banking executives got their bonuses on time.
Social media has been maligined by the mainstream media as a forum for trivialities and ego-driven babble. And although it can be that as well, the technologies that are all lumped together under the social media umbrella can be powerful tools for activism, journalism and civic participation.
It is about more than sharing pictures of Hannah Montana, or any other artificially manufactured pop tart, it can be about telling truth to power. Ultimately, it depends on what you do with it.