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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?

About the Author
Jeff Starr = Web Developer. Book Author. Secretly Important.
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37 responses to “A Few Steps Back”

  1. Awesome reading, man. It’s only good for us to think loud sometimes, and especially if it’s wise thoughts.

  2. Interesting read. I can relate to what you say about the digital world being virtual and not tangible. I often think about that too.
    What bothers me about the web are the “traffic whores”. Making a lot of noise but not really contributing anything.
    Nowadays, you get a tweet with a link that you click which takes you to a news aggregator, which takes you to a round-up post which takes you to a list post which takes you finally to the original post, just so that everyone can suck on the traffic along the way. And when you read the post, it’s just something old that has been rephrased just enough so that google thinks it’s fresh.

    Anyway, I don’t have much difficulty in finding the right balance, I don’t like spending hours on Twitter or Facebook.

  3. stevengrindlay 2010/02/15 2:23 am

    I was just thinking last night as I looked at incoming tweets on tweet deck that few people if anyone says anything at all. Almost all posts seem to direct you to something someone else has said??? It’s like being in a conversation where everyone deferrs to some other person/expert who is not present, so no conversation/orginal/infomation/knowledge exchange takes place at all??

    Erstwhile the voluminous amounts of referrals make the tweeter appear; important, informed, popular? It’s like name dropping on an infinate scale.

    I keep posting away at a very low rate when I think I have something of value to say… so far the results have been underwhelming to say the least.

    On the other hand… had I not been referred to your site I would have missed your delightful and very poignant musings and comments. And that would have left me poorer.

    The big question is what are we going to do about it…social media phase:2?

  4. Yeah, it is really nice to step back and get perspective on “the web” or our own individual relationships with it, whether it be for work or social use. I think that I do a fairly decent job of censoring myself. I follow very few individuals and I am followed by only a small community of people, most that I know personally, in RL.
    The pessimistic thoughts about how intangible the web is, I think that many web based employees, freelancers or companies have those ideas/fears, that someday it will all be gone. But to me it is no different then people who rely on the stock market or other intangible global markets that could simply end given a drop off in technology of as you mentioned natural disaster. To quell those thoughts I think of how creative and adaptable we are as people and know that we will figure something out.
    I was very impressed by this article and it is one of the few things I will “retweet” this week. Thanks for the time and effort you obviously put into this, very refreshing to see someone add some true emotion to a posting.

  5. Paul Winslow 2010/02/15 8:07 am

    Definitely. There’s nothing like a good serving of perspective to set you straight on your priorities in life.

    It’s horrible when something hits you too late.

  6. Balanced, thoughtful, world-wise observations, pullng into words concepts many of us have only marginally considered while chasing our individual rabbits. Excellent endorsement of common sense and individuality!

  7. really informative for me …

    Basing your life on the Web is a complete and utter blast,… and yes it sucks.
    thanks again for the post..it was cool to see a post like these.
    it kinda hit you in the head.

  8. Great to read some one else thinking the same thing. I get so burnt out trying to know it all, which leads to farting around with stupid things. Then I love when I see job postings expecting people to know it all (Required Skills: Flash AS 2.0 and 3.0, CSS3, HTML5, JavaScript/Ajax, Java, STRUTS, JSF, PHP, ASP.NET (VB and C#), mastery of Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign. Oh, and must know MySQL, MS SQL SERVER, and Oracle. C++ and COBOL knowledge preferred. WTF?!?!? REALLY?!?!?)

    And I couldn’t agree more with @stevengrindlay and @Paul – I’m so tired of people regurgitating other tweets. Blah, RT some-great-list-of-crap. Vomit RT you-need-this-widget-to-be-cool, aren’t I awesome for sharing with you? Just to get traffic up so I can fill my right hand column with ads for services you probably don’t want. Then half my feed reader’s posts are links to links to links to an article (with more ads.)

    I enjoy when I get to be away from the web for periods of time. It’s great to unplug. We also have to keep in mind that we view all of these things through our own perspective. The web is a much different world for our spouses, parents, children, friends, etc. With all of that being said, I do know that I’ve tried several career fields, and I love this one the best. It’s great that we can publish anything we want, any time we want to, and we can put our own personality stamp on it.on it.

  9. I think of the web as a global, instant communication tool (which it is). You simply have to learn to filter out anything you don’t need or like. It’s pretty much the same in “real life”, it’s just that there’s much less c**p (that you have access to).

    Yeah, if something happens and it’s shut down, I’ll probably start selling wind turbines and solar panels (to get the Internet back up :-).

    Btw, CS3 works very well on XP and 7 (never used Vista, it’s a bloated POS).

  10. There is a balance thats required in life. Some people do what you do with cars, some with their work no matter what it is.

    I also have friends from around the world I talk with daily. But I recognize that this machine takes way too much of my time. I look at people with phones growing out of their ears and think they are living their lives on the phones.

    I follow you on nettuts and twitter because I learn so much. But we spend very little time thinking of the next person in the chain, like yourself and your needs.

    Think we all need to step back where we were a long time ago and spend more time thinking about real things. But not giving up our current things. Balance

  11. Man are you telling me! This is a all so on point, at least from mine and my friends’ point of view. about an hour ago now, we were discussing how insane it is lately with just…. everything really, that you mentioned.

    It’s just so overwhelming sometimes, and I seriously couldn’t agree more. I’m so happy to hear that it’s not just me that feels like this. After talk with my friend, and now reading all what you have said here, I feel much better, and not so discouraged.

    This was just what I needed to hear, and would’ve been even better if you posted it last week lol. I could’ve used it then even more.

    I just hope it doesn’t end up where it is seemingly racing at the speed of light towards, with increasing speed everyday. It would be a shame if one day the internet became the “thing” that no one wants to use anymore, but perhaps that may be for the better. Kids would actually have lives as they grow up, and go out with friends, not sit in a room on a computer and talk shit about nonesense.

    And the retarded and freakishly over-abundance of rediculous content needs to stop. I can’t take it anymopre. I swear I’m going to explode if I see one more thing that I have to bookmark, only cuz i have 35 tabs open already in firefox that I’m trying to do somethin with, and that bookmark will basically just join the void of lost things that are never looked at again because there’s too damn much, that by the time I finish this comment I’ll have to go and learn a whole new coding langauge that was just realeased and revolutionized the web for all I know.

    It needs to stop, all of it.

    Thanks again for this. OH and I really need a vacation. I wish I could take a step back, but gotta pay the bills right.


  12. @stevengrindlay: Twitter is for the birds. I say we focus on friends and small communities of like-minded individuals. It is far more difficult for marketers and salesfolk to grease their way into these smaller networks. On a large scale they can get away with it because their is no real accountability, but if someone walks into your living room and starts dropping names and promoting their crap, it’s much easier for you and your friends to deal with the situation effectively. There is very little value in Twitter these days.

    @paul: Absolutely. That was another point that I wanted to make in this post, but it escaped my mind at the time. Everything is artificially inflated with the social-media crap, and the amount of genuine, worthwhile content is becoming increasingly difficult to find. Once you discover something or someone who provides real value, those are the ones you support and get involved with.

    @Zack: good point about other industries/areas that deal with “intangible” goods and material. It’s not just the Web-based stuff by any stretch, but when you think about the level of actual interpersonal communication and material goods that are involved, the Web is almost a figment of our imaginations. I mean really, we’re all just sitting in a room somewhere on a chair looking at a piece of plastic and pressing buttons. It’s quite lonely and sad, if you think about it.

    @Gabe: I also echo the RT Twitter sentiments. The game is becoming so thin and transparent that even the most clueless are beginning to see it for what it is. Just because retweeting another person’s post works, doesn’t mean that everyone thinks you’re doing it out of benevolence. In fact, it’s quite the opposite: when I see others retweeting something, it’s like I make a mental note of it: “oh, so @whatshisname is on @thatotherguys tip and retweeting his crap for points.” There’s no way anyone can possibly check out all of the resources that continually flow across the screen, so what’s the real value?

    @J: Some good optimistic feedback there, but I’m telling you straight up: CS3 does not work on the two different XP machines that I tried. A few quick searches will reveal the hell that many XP folks endured while trying to get CS3 working on their machines. After spending an entire day on it, I came to the conclusion that yes CS3 works on XP but only if all the conditions are juust riight. One odd-something application or preference setting in a program is enough to prevent the installation from even starting. From what I’ve read, if it’s working for you, then you’re one of the lucky ones.

    @Brad: Great points — thanks for sharing your thoughts. It is indeed all about balance, and that is very difficult to achieve unless you have the desire to do so and the time to do it with. All I can do is tell others how much a few weeks away from it all benefited my perspective. As I dive back into the game, I will be doing so with a freshly charged battery and a pocketful of new ideas.

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Perishable Press is operated by Jeff Starr, a professional web developer and book author with two decades of experience. Here you will find posts about web development, WordPress, security, and more »
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