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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?

Jeff Starr
About the Author
Jeff Starr = Designer. Developer. Producer. Writer. Editor. Etc.
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37 responses to “A Few Steps Back”

  1. Avatar photo

    Oh I definitely see no end to it, or even the slightest bit of thought that it might. It’s all moving far too quickly, like Jeff said, people are forced to have to keep up with their own updates, and software etc. just so they can keep up with themselves. You are lucky to never been subjected to social media, it only makes things so much worse. I’ll spend hours trying to get something done, and then realize I spent hours getting not only nothing done, but what I was doing the whole time was complete and utter waste doing useless nothingness.
    Facebook and Twitter suck you in before you know it, you’ve just lost a year off your life with nothing to show for it.

  2. Once again, great to hear from someone who feels the same as I.
    I usually have to get sick or so over-tired that I just can’t even focus on an lcd screen anymore.
    I’ve just gotten over a bout of sickness, a couple of days off from the insanity of the internet. It’s wonderful how you can sit back, reflect on what you’ve been doing. How much life you’ve been wasting sitting in front of the screen.
    It does pay the bills, and there’s people to please, but I love my other pursuits which have nothing to do with the internet.
    I’ve never got into the social networking side of things, just restrict myself to email, of which I can control better. Always considered social networking to be a lonely interaction with others.
    Well said, enjoyed the read for breakfast.
    And Jared, yes, I think it needs to stop as well, but I don’t see that happening yet whilst there’s so much money to be made in software development.
    Just look at the continuted evolution of the phone ….. when is that going to stop!

  3. Avatar photo
    Jeff Starr 2010/02/15 4:24 pm

    @Jared: Completely agree. With so many people pouring all of their time, effort, and money into cyberspace, there is a growing void within society that’s absent of much-needed human interaction. Especially with kids. They need so much more attention than what they are currently getting. I try as much as possible to spend time with my kids, but there are millions that just go without any level of attention, education and encouragement from parents and other adults. It’s easy for some of us to step back, remember “how it used to be,” and then continue forward to make a living, but kids growing up today will have no comprehension of life without computers and gadgets.

    @Shane: Yes, I almost look forward to getting sick these days just so I can enjoy that downtime and step back and appreciate things for what they are. One thing that is reassuring is that, for the most part, we really don’t need to work as constantly as we do. There is no reason that anyone needs to be plugged in all the time. I can tell you that nobody has come knocking asking where I’m at when I’m not online for a couple of days. It’s like, life goes on and the Web goes on, regardless of whether or not I think I’m keeping up with it all. It’s always there when I get back although it usually takes a bit more effort to get back up to speed with things. It sounds like avoiding social media entirely may be a good thing after all.

  4. Avatar photo

    Lets start a movement! Down with internets! lol
    Or something like that :P

  5. Jeff: I agree with the void that is being created and the issue with the kids.
    My 7 y.o. boy prefers TV. He’d watch it from sunrise to sunset it he could. However, when we extradite him from the box (we don’t watch it at all), he is a completely different kid.
    During TV, he cannot think or react to questions asked of him. He is unable to interact with people full stop until a half hour or so after leaving the Box.
    On days where we unplug it (which is our only way of stopping it), he is a gorgeous, interactive, social being, willing to help around the house and join in activities. We’ve noticed a HUGE difference in his behaviour without it.

    Social Media is the death of human relationships and the death of having any time for other people. Email used to be to blame, and it’s still invasive at the best of times. Google Wave, yes, here comes another tidal wave to destroy relationships.

    I know I don’t have to be online all the time, my online pursuits are in the web development area, creating sites for customers. I, being the workaholic I am, tend to take on too much in too short a time span, thus putting pressure on myself.

    Then I want to improve this, or improve that, like your minify app. I have a heavy site I wanted to speed up before putting it live, and thus I started at 11:30 pm and finished at 2:00 am, and it still didn’t work. Reason being I couldn’t trace all the calls for all the .css and .js files in the template, they were spread around too many index files etc. I then settled for second best, using rokzip, which did gain me 6 seconds on load time.

  6. Avatar photo
    Paul Winslow 2010/02/16 5:15 am

    Almost forgot, .net mag are running an article in the latest issue about the internet having a negative pull on our ability to absorb information.

    “The British Library and the Joint Information Systems Committee, found clear evidence of the negative effects of internet use. Deep log studies show that, from undergraduates to professors, people exhibit a strong tendency towards shallow, horizontal, ‘flicking’ behaviour in digital libraries. Society is dumbing down.”

  7. I live in a small Australian country town, roughly 47,000 residents, a social media ‘guru’ in town boasts of having 100,000 Followers on Twitter. Her services are aimed squarely at local business. With the push to capture more and show ever improving numbers people are losing sight of reality. Alienating every possible person with an endless supply of no brain retweets to fellow marketers that have no interest in anything except their own ineffective campaigns to convince even more would be marketers to follow them.

    I bailed out of Facebook and Twitter around July 2009, I have no need to be endlessly bombarded with sales pitches or ‘friends or friends’ that have crazy agenda’s that are either commercial or religious in the extreme.

    I limit myself now to reading blogs by interesting people with insightful information that is relevent to my situation. In a sense i did exactly what you are advocating Jeff, but i also completely quit the office politics and struck out on my own. Since then my work, life, relationships and self esteem have improved immensely.

    At the time i made my decision all my colleagues and ‘friends’ were calling me crazy, seems like a lot of people are starting to make the decision for themselves. Social Media is not as social as it was meant to be.

    Don’t get me wrong, i am not living in a commune singing folk songs, i work primarily online and advise daily on web strateges and UX, i just don’t live vicariously through the medium, it is a job, not a lifestyle choice.

    Keep up the good work Jeff, this site is invaluable in so many ways.

  8. Avatar photo

    Hi Alvin, good stuff there.. we also have those sorts of greazy marketers here in this small town of like 20,000. The sad part is that none of them are even remotely popular on either Twitter or Facebook, yet they use those credentials/profiles to convince customers that they’re actually providing some sort of SEO/marketing service or something. It’s hilarious.

    I commend you for dropping Twitter and Facebook. I want to do the same, but it takes an ability to transcend and go beyond where the rest of the crowd is hanging out. Other than Delicious, Twitter is really the only other network I bother checking on and updating, and for the most part even there I spend very little time each day.

    Sounds like you are way ahead the curve with things. Understanding that there is actually a difference between a lifestyle and a job is something that would benefit a lot of web folk these days. Too many are just plugged in without direction, mindlessly flowing along with wherever the big current takes them. Personally, I prefer to have a solid plan and live within my own head.

  9. Avatar photo
    stevengrindlay 2010/02/17 10:23 am

    OK so here I am screamimng through the twitterverse….good lord! I think I’ve just passed myself?

  10. Avatar photo
    Amber Weinberg 2010/02/17 10:43 pm

    You read my mind. I could not agree more with every single point you said. I remember when I first started making websites – when I was in the 6th grade in the 90’s. Things were relatively simple back then, with very little in terms of design, but it seemed it offered much more substance and was easy to get 100+ people to answer your question or call to action (like friending you or chatting, etc). Now the web is so crowded it’s hard to get yourself heard.

  11. Avatar photo

    Thanks for the thoughts. No, it’s far away from rubbish.

    Good thinking that resonate. Cheers

  12. Avatar photo
    Michael Beckwith 2010/02/19 6:10 pm

    Short response, but it’s that lack of originality and whatnot that really tends to prevent me from retweeting stuff and generally being annoyed by it. Yes it’s good to a certain degree, but chances are everyone is following $popularperson already and got it anyway. Just some basic thoughts

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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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