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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 = Web Developer. Book Author. Secretly Important.
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37 responses
  1. Sometimes we all need to take a few steps back and look at things with a different prespective and sounds like you a learning a lot from your new prepective but I would do to market yourself to bring in new business with your spare time and not just laying driving around taking pictures of houses. Use Google maps street view for that.

  2. @Mandy – Taking time out and getting out the office into a different environment can radically open up new creative processes and perspectives. Architecture of different geographic regions profoundly affects many web designers i socialise with. Experiencing environments in reality, is a far cry from looking at the pretty pictures / graphics or lame Street View visuals.

    Marketing and hustling for new business in my experience produces appalling results, having strengthened creativity, passionately resonating with clients and delivering the package promised opens up many potential new clients. Word Of Mouth is much more valuable than blurting out marketing phrases and mass emailing, if you ‘have’ to market you may not be prioritising the service aspect.

    This is just my opinion, and i am fully aware all the marketing guru’s don’t like this approach, but it works fantastically for many businesses, web design /development seems to be ideally suited to this approach – as unintuitive as it may seem.

  3. @Alvin, i see where you’re coming from.
    You can become too focused on digital imagery and miss the depth and creativity that being out in the real world gives you.

    Marketing is something I, as a newish web designer (old typesetter from way back) have never done.
    It’s all been word of mouth. In a smallish community, when Mr A gets a new website, Mr B wants to keep up (out of fear). No one wants to be left behind in this medium.

    We have a local “web designer company” that advertises and spouts off the usual jargon, has pimply kids working for it, and just churns out crap at ridiculous prices.

    I say nothing, but get the work at fair prices, based on word of mouth.
    I’m at the point where I sub-contract all my basic 2-5 page html sites out, and just focus on the CMS sites. I’m in loooove with CMS atm.

    Probably be harder in a city of 3 million, or could be even easier.
    I know my other business ventures in the city have always succeeded on word of mouth, nothing more. Even furniture manufacturing.

  4. @Shane – I think this industry needs more ethical leaders to stamp out the opportunistic predators that are flooding in. Unfortunately the average Joe / Joanna has no idea what constitutes great design, so there will always be a market for the disgustingly contrived crap from the self professed experts.

    I have seen some recent email campaigns, that are laughingly awful. I am not sure if designers refuse to work with these marketers or they are too ignorant to know any better. If nothing else they are good for a laugh. Comic Sans is making a return!

  5. lol… I have really enjoyed all these comments. @Jared if we start a movement Down with internet, what is the way to massively communicate the movement? lol…

    We all get stressed of work, and yes, specially when we rush ourselves to learn more and more to keep up current. This article reminded me a post I read very long time ago.

    I actually enjoy time with friends when I am not in my computer. But I also enjoy what I do. What happens is that we had not realized that we are in another era, and the more advanced the technology goes, the faster it will continue. Who stop it? nobody can stop this phenomenon.

    ~Mike

  6. Stephanie March 4, 2010 @ 4:44 pm

    I really enjoyed reading your thoughts. And it is far from rubbish. This reply may be off tangent but I took the time to write it..

    The internet has become a copycat of itself. If you find something cool somewhere, it probably came from somewhere else. Not to point any fingers at any blog, but you just look at how many WordPress blogs there are (like actual blogs talking about WordPress), and while many are great, a lot of them are just saying the same techniques.

    It is hard to find something unique and original and not something you heard before. More so, it’s hard to find someone that can show real pleasure that it’s their hobby and not something they’re doing to pay the bills. Of course, paying the bills are important and a guy’s gotta do what a guys’ gotta do. I understand that.

    However, for me and blog reading, it comes down to where is the passion? Even the most quality blogs I read have been hit with ads being everywhere and all in your face. Do they really have a passion for what they’re writing or are they looking for your clicks and comments? I personally see a difference when people write because they love writing and when people write to get Google to notice them and to earn that extra dime.

    This was a refreshing post. No offense intended but it really showed a human side to this blog.

  7. @Stephanie, i think most people reading this blog are at the same evolutionary place as you are in regards to internet culture or lack thereof.

    To go on another tangent, i’ve been thinking of what a different place the internet would be (if it’s a place at all) if there was no anonimity. On a deeper level than just the user.

    Full accountability for what you say or show, playing on the same playing field as the (physical) social and business world. No hiding behind a proxy when you’re in the office.

    We could clean out the bullshit, give porn it’s own network, and be accountable for what gets published.

    Access to the internet could only be to those who can prove their physical identity. Maybe that’s too far, but maybe it’s not.

    To operate a device on the mobile phone service, here in Australia, demands 100 points of ID. What’s so different about the internet.
    Is it regulation? Or is it just turning it into something credible.

    Whatever did Governments have in mind when they let it lose, without restraint. I believe we as a race, sometimes need “rules”, like children, otherwise we run amok. E.G. the internet.

    My thoughts.
    Oh, and I like this post too.

  8. @Stephanie – I agree with you, but the problem is not just internet originality, in general society people tend to pass of others idea’s as their own, it just migrates easily to the blog world. Deep down we are all very similar, and most of us are far too willing to take shortcuts.

    @Shane – Anonymity is fundamental to why the internet has been embraced. In Aus and other similar societies we have all these freedoms to speak our mind, even without anonymity. But the tide can turn, as evidenced by the Federal Governments moves toward Internet Censorship that will hopefully be abandoned.

    Imagine a time no too long from now when you have to register your blog / page / brochure / email address – if you don’t the vast majority of Australians will be blocked from that content – all under the banner of protection against [Insert Reason Here]. Imagine the implications for political parties, they can be blocked by a bureacrats whim, a business that could be blocked because it competes with a government sanctioned corporate entity, etc etc.

    We already have the exact connection policies you are recommending, you or someone in your household / office / group has proven to a service provider sufficiently to allow connection. Instituting a personal access pass for each and every individual is kind of spooky.

    The internet culture will correct itself, more people will become advocates of change and influence others to do the same, instituting further legislation / regulations is not going to achieve anything as far as i can see, i may be wrong.

    People only follow fads and trends until they discover their own voice, so any day now there should be a landslide of original idea’s and content.

    And now i am jumping off the soap box.

  9. Garrett W. March 10, 2010 @ 1:58 pm

    GREAT post, Jeff. To the same degree that I agree with you, I am overtaken by the web/computer and am struggling to loosen its grasp on me. I’ve been an addict for quite some time (hi, hello everyone, my name is Garrett … “Hi Garrett” … etc.) and I know I have a problem (the first step, right? haha) but it’s such a hard habit to break.
    Anyway, I’ve never forgotten the time when I was much younger that my mom grounded me from the computer for a whole MONTH. For the first week I felt like “What am I going to do? I’m so bored, and almost everything I think of doing involves either the computer or working around the house doing chores or something.” But by the end of the month, I was wanting the grounding to be extended because I was getting work done and didn’t want to be distracted until I finished whatever it was. So I know I have the potential to get down and get busy on stuff, but my drive to do — well, anything, almost — is just sapped dry. I think my biggest issue is, first of all, denying myself the easy pleasure of sitting down to a point-and-click session, and then I need to prioritize.

    I really don’t want to cut the computer completely out of my life — there are lots of things I really need it for — but I think I use it as a crutch for getting out of things that are more important (because those things take WORK and EFFORT! how terrible! :P)

    Didn’t mean to turn this into a confessional, but I thought you and your readers might be interested in another personal anecdote, I guess.
    Again, great post and thanks for saying those things.

  10. I’ve actually taken your advice Jeff, and for the past week or so I haven’t done anything, (much), and just sort of stepping back. Its soooo nice. I love it. I still do some, but I dont stress all that stuff as much.

  11. @Jared-Garrett, I’ve been trying to take the advice. I know it’s good for me, but actually doing it is a different kettle of fish.

    Most of my relationship dramas are the result of me working too long. At my shop and then at home. I have a retail shop and an online business. I work 50/50 between the two.

    However, i tend to extend my working hours at home until 10pm, darting back and forward into the office to tap or click. I’ve been addicted to joomla for the last 6 months, loving every bit of it, learning heaps about the power of css, the brilliance of using php, and daring not to get involved in mysql.

    10pm, midnight, 2am, nothing unusual for me, after working a 9 hour day as well. then up again at 6 to check-out that thing i just couldn’t finish the previous night.

    Great lifestyle for a single guy perhaps, but not married with a young child.

    It’s not only the time spent away from the family, that’s one aspect. It’s the mental condition you’re in after being on the pc for many hours.

    I find you’re not in an emotional state of being, so to speak. You’re not thinking or feeling about things from the heart. Things like, caring how someone else feels, or remembering interactions during the day with others, and talking or dwelling on them. Or pondering where your sons at, what his needs are, how he’s going emotionally.

    I find i’m still thinking about that module that won’t just sit right in IE7.

    And if sex wasn’t so overpowering, i don’t think i’d ever have it again. too emotionally demanding, too much connecting with another person, because that f*cking module still won’t sit right in IE7.

    I’m being a bit exageratted here, but basically i’m aware that it takes an hour or two of regular breaks to actually get out of the “logical” mindset and back to becoming a caring, sharing human being.

    I better stop, but before i do, i must make the comment that the only thing that does SWITCH me instantly from thinking, thinking, thinking is a slim, one paper scoobie.

    night,

  12. Chris Roane March 11, 2010 @ 7:56 am

    Wow, great post. It is always a good idea to step back from things and remind yourself what really is important in life. As Socrates once put it: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”.

    I like using the internet and posting articles, but I love my wife and daughter even more.

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