A Few Steps Back

I have been doing some non-design-related work recently and have not been saturated with anything even computer-related for the past several weeks. Mostly I have been just enjoying life, but also drawing quite a bit and going around taking photos of old, decrepit homesteads and factories. Needless to say, it’s been a much-needed respite from the usual crunch and grind.

Taking a few steps back like this from the Web — even for such a short period of time — is remarkably refreshing, and has given me time to contemplate all this web-stuff that keeps us all so busy. When you’re right down in it, focused like a laser and cranking the days away, time sort of loses meaning, as every moment is purely an opportunity to get something done.

Looking more at the overall shape of things gives you a better perspective of how all the little pieces fit into place. When we’re focused strongly on a particular set of goals, it’s necessary to filter out as much extraneous information as possible. This helps in the short term, but it’s good to step back once in awhile and “let in” as much depth and perspective as possible.

Here are some of my observations regarding the Web and design-related goings on. I don’t think any of this is really anything new, but somehow taking a few steps back helps to illuminate certain things in a clearer light.

I’m tired of catering to the lowest common denominator

It’s frequently necessary, but not always. There’s too darn many websites that just crank out post after post of the most popular-type content possible. Whatever will get the most hits, tweets, and diggs. I am guilty of this myself, not just for writing articles, but also for certain designs. If I know the client is going to drool over some tasty jQuery tricks, I’ll usually go ahead and throw them into the mix. In fact there’s almost a “magic recipe” these days of “hot” design elements that go into a wannabe popular website design. What does it all mean? If it pays the bills, then go for whatever works, but seriously, I remember the Web back before it was the Babylonian money-maker it is today. The percentage of original, inspiring material is shrinking to atomic size, while the the amount of flashy popular mainstream garbage is spreading like the black plague.

Popularity is an illusion

Especially on the Web, the idea of someone being popular is all relative. Sure, you may have a half million followers on Twitter, but it represents little more than the cumulative total of a very small percentage of the online population making a quick, self-serving decision to jump on board. What does this mean? People associate themselves with you because of what they can get from you, whether that be something as shallow as another Twitter follower, or something as important as friendship. It’s all too easy to self-deceive into thinking that anything is really that amazing, including yourself. It kills me that social media has devolved into the marketing opportunity and popularity contest that it is today. I remember back when Twitter was just getting started. It was an amazing thing. Everyone involved seemed genuinely “tuned in” to the Web and tweets were more about fun and friendship than self-promotion and relentless egotism.

Social Media is already dead

Or at least, what it once was is no longer possible, thanks to marketers, salesmen, politicians, and other self-serving entities. When you’re sitting there telling your client that social media is going to help them sell more products or gain more popularity on the Web, you may be correct, but you’re missing the whole point of “social” media. We can’t even call it that these days, it’s more like “commercial” media. I stopped watching television many years ago after tiring of all the manipulative sleaziness. For awhile there, we enjoyed a Virtual Utopia here on the Web, sharing with each other via blogs and then more so with social media. It’s sad, to say the least that the sellouts have taken over, but fortunately there are many “microcosms” of online communities that still try to keep it real. If you are lucky enough to be included in a genuine community of inspired and passionate people, then congratulations. I would definitely focus my efforts in that area and work to keep the scene alive.

None of this is real

In a tangible sense, all of this digital stuff doesn’t exist. Basing your life on the Web is a complete and utter blast, but if the power ever goes out — sort-term or long-term — you’ve got nothing, baby. I shudder to think if something bad should happen, but if it does, it’s good to have something going out there in the “real world.” What could happen? Anything really. From natural disasters to wars to government-run blackouts to prohibitive regulation and even censorship. Hopefully nothing like this will happen, but it’s always good to have a backup plan in place just in case. This perspective may seem pessimistic, but it definitely helps to put everything into perspective. “You can’t take it with you,” as they say.

It’s impossible to know it all

The best we can hope for is a realization that we don’t know it all, and an understanding of how to find out what we need to know. This is why search will always trump categorization, tagging, and other organizational methods. There’s just too much information and it’s increasing much too fast to keep up with it in a useful way. For smaller subsystems, archiving is useful, but the Web itself is best navigated via search, not tags or bookmarks. Know what you’re after and go get it. I think that understanding how to search is the first and most important thing that anyone should know when working on the Web. From there, anything is possible. Without such ability, you’re relying on your own limited knowledge and confined to finding information the old fashioned way.

It is possible to be content with what you have

Why get hung up in the rat race? If you’re working online, you obviously have more than enough, so why the need to fight and sell your way to the top? There is no unwritten law that dictates the rapid pace of technological and software development. This may seem like a completely dumb thing to suggest, but can’t we just use the technology that we have rather than rush it forward just to keep up with itself? Seriously, way back in the day, I was completely happy with Windows 98SE, Photoshop 7, and my trusty copy of Winamp. Now, I have a copy of Adobe CS3 that I can’t even use because my operating system isn’t Windows Vista. That may be somewhat of a tongue-in-cheek example, but the question remains: how much time must the online community spend dealing with unending updates and upgrades? Fixing things and racing to keep up is a good way to take time away from more productive tasks, imho.

There is a lack of originality and personality on the Web

It’s more like some sort of weird hive-mind or something. It’s always possible to stir things up by disagreeing, but even dissenting opinions fail to express true thoughts and feelings. It’s easier to be yourself within small groups or with lower visibility, but as you begin to merge with the larger hive-mind and assume a more visible role, speaking freely requires more work, unless you enjoy getting flamed and hammered on the public stage. Many businesses and politicians bend over backwards to avoid saying what they really think, and then scramble and squirm after revealing something that goes against popular opinion. Yes I know, that’s just the way it is, and it’s always been that way, but understanding who you are and then actually representing that person online in an honest way is too difficult for most people.

Too much time spent farting around with stupid things

This is a double-edge sword: you are either so focused and goal-oriented that you miss out on all the cool things that everyone is doing, or else you’re so distracted with all the twittering, linking, and emailing that you never get anything accomplished. Sure most of us are somewhere in the middle or higher end of this spectrum, but finding that balance is an important part of being a “tuned-in” and relevant contributor in your field. I always marvel at people who spend all of their time twittering, for example. It would be interesting to hear why they do it and what they think they’re getting out of it. Many online activities are pretty much equivalent to flushing your time down the toilet.

So what’s the take home-message?

Not sure. I do know that it feels real good to get away from it all and take a few steps back. I may not have communicated effectively the different things I have been pondering, but overall it’s basically a sense of awe that all of this is possible mixed with a growing disdain for where it’s all possibly headed. There is still plenty of reason to abandon the more cynical concerns and just dive into what you’re doing with everything you’ve got, but there is always a better way of thinking about and doing things. It just takes a few moments to step back and see it all for what it really is.

Man, you’re just crazy

Perhaps, but it feels good to share these thoughts with you. Somehow therapeutic talking about this stuff. Not really any mind-blowing revelations here, but thinking about them in greater depth and while sort of detached from the usual workload chaos has proven refreshing. A more profound contemplation and understanding of what you’re doing helps to liberate from old ways of thinking and enables you to see and embrace new possibilities.

Or perhaps I am just talking rubbish?