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Issue № 108

Circle Jerks & Web Elitists

by Published in Industry, State of the Web

Recently, on several well-known community and personal sites, familiar cries were heard: “A is a sellout. B, C, and D are much better than X, Y, and Z. N, O, and P are overrated, back-scratching link whores.” The web design community goes through this kind of self-examination every three months. Under the banner of honest criticism, names are named, guesses about motivation are sketched, and sometimes entire bodies of work are dismissed.

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Useful and reasonable criticism is often advanced in these debates. But too frequently it is overshadowed by those with the loudest voices, whose anger can sound like passionate truth to those who’ve nurtured similar thoughts but been afraid to express them publicly.

Undoubtedly some people sell out, some are overrated, and some use links merely to advance their careers or promote their friends. But even when the accused are guilty as charged, the accusations change nothing—they simply create turmoil. And innocent people, once accused, become guilty in the community’s eyes.

Guilt ‘til proven guilty

Call a man a murderer, and he becomes a defendant. When accused of being an overrated back-scratching elitist link whore, most artists will rush to defend themselves—which only makes them look more guilty. Imagine you’ve just read that you’re “overrated,” and ask yourself how you would reply.

If you say, “I’m really quite good,” you sound like an idiot.

If you say nothing, you confirm the accusation. (“You see, he can’t even say anything in his own defense.”)

If you continue to say nothing, your silence “proves” that you are an “elitist” who does not care what “the community” thinks.

If you reply frankly and openly, in the forum where you were accused, you are an elitist who “only comes here to defend himself, but never participates in our discussions.”

You might honestly say, “I agree, there are plenty of talented people around. I don’t claim to be better than others, and I prefer many people’s work to my own.”

Then you’re “pretending to be humble.”

Once accused, you can’t win. Neither does the community. Whether you’re crushed by the accusation or take it in stride, your work won’t improve when someone says you’re overrated. Nor will that abstract criticism of your work help anyone discover a lesser-known artist deserving of wider acclaim.

As criticism, “A is overrated” does no one any good. Yet, useless or not, it remains the most popular critical observation ever advanced on the web.

J’accuse!

In the digital realm, accusations of self-promotion and selling out have been going on since the beginning of the designed web.

In the mid-1990s, Lynda Weinman and David Siegel wrote books bought by nearly everyone working in the medium. Inevitably, Lynda Weinman’s site linked to David Siegel’s, and his to hers. For a few months, “everybody” publishing a personal site also linked to Weinman and Siegel.

Inevitably, a few frustrated designers, programmers, and writers began grumbling that Weinman and Siegel had set up a self-promotional network. That they were exerting a “stranglehold” on the budding medium. That they “weren’t that good” anyway and that their linkage was an attempt to prevent “people who really get it” from receiving their due acclaim. The grumbling of a few became the accepted wisdom of many.

Same stuff, different day

Two years later, four writer-designers received praise for pioneering the personal storytelling site as a valid art form. “Everyone” linked to these four. “Everyone” declared their greatness. Even the mainstream media took notice, in the form of awards and press coverage. The four became friends and contributed to each other’s sites.

Then the grumbling began. By breaking through the indifference of the mass media and calling press attention to the web’s creative potential, the four had somehow “sold out.” By linking to each other and contributing to each other’s sites, the four had become “self-serving elitists.” Two of the four were so distressed by these accusations that they drastically curtailed their creative output. Who was that good for? Not the artists. Not their readers. Not the many other designers and writers who had found their work inspiring.

This month’s accusations are the same. Only the names have changed. Next month or next year, new names will be in the spotlight, and new artists will be accused of selling out, behaving like elitists, or simply being “not that good.”

Why this keeps happening

New people are continually entering this field. Inevitably, many will align themselves with mentors and role models (i.e., creative people who already have a reputation in the industry). Some will imitate their role models’ work; many will publicly express their respect to these “elders,” often in emotional language usually reserved for rock stars.

That’s natural enough. The new web designers are excited to be part of the “scene,” and the high praise is more an expression of their enthusiasm for the web than for the individuals being praised. But the high praise for A can easily rub B the wrong way. After all, B has been working in this industry for as long as A, and is probably more talented than A (at least, in his own estimation). So B begins to resent A, and to suspect that A spends more time promoting his reputation than working.

Then the mainstream press enters the picture, notices that A is getting a lot of attention, and decides that A is hot. No matter how modestly A tries to handle the sudden press attention, he will soon discover that some of his peers (and even some of his friends) have begun to resent him.

The Nature of Hype

Every year new members of the vast creative underground are “discovered” and elevated by the press. Every year, their elevation initially stimulates excitement in the community. Those so elevated temporarily become heroes to many of their peers. “One of us” or “several of us” have broken through the glass ceiling, forcing the mainstream to become aware of the “real” web scene. Right on.

But happiness and hero-worship inevitably turn to resentment and accusations. This is partly because equally worthy designers, writers, and programmers have been overlooked; and partly because of the nature of media hype.

It is the nature of mainstream media to find and elevate representatives of the web “scene,” because mainstream media cannot possibly investigate all the web’s creative sites, and because readers prefer personalities to concepts, “leaders” to movements.

The temporarily elevated become spokespeople for a movement much larger than themselves. But when they attempt to explain that movement, the press coverage implies that they created the whole scene themselves, that they are its guiding geniuses and sole leading lights. Their peers naturally resent this.

It is the nature of mainstream media to sell magazines by hyping its latest “discoveries.” It is human nature for the rest of us to resent our suddenly semi-famous peers for “buying into the hype.” Unfortunately, this process will continue as long as the press acts like the press and the underground acts like the underground.

The scenario typically goes like this: you do a two hour interview while jet-lagged or after working all night on a site launch. You try to make sense, and you give full credit to your collaborators and to other artists who’ve influenced you. The two hour interview is boiled down to ten minutes’ worth of quotable comments. The comments are rearranged to satisfy the journalist’s theme.

The Two Hour Interview

Below is the kind of thing you might actually say during an extended interview. It is fair and balanced, but it is also long, rambling, and dull. The journalist interviewing you will need to edit it down to a quick, compelling text byte. Try to stay awake through the following hypothetical interview excerpt:

“Margaret and Johan and I were very influenced by A, B, and C, who really pioneered this type of work on their sites X, Y, and Z. We decided that a high-bandwidth solution was necessary to satisfy our objectives. We looked at creating a low-bandwidth version as well, but unfortunately, it just didn’t make sense for this particular project. The concept couldn’t be executed in HTML alone. So we had to sacrifice a large part of our potential audience, and focus our efforts on delivering the best possible solution for those few with sufficient bandwidth to appreciate what we were building. We argued about that a lot. Margaret was very passionate about needing to do a barebones HTML version. But ultimately she agreed with Johan and me that the concept would die if we tried. Actually, we did try. We built the HTML version. It just didn’t work. So at the last minute, we killed it. In the end, I suppose we designed for an elite audience. I wish that weren’t true, but we really had no alternative. We’re looking forward to high bandwidth becoming the norm in another five years. We hope, anyway.”

Like we said, fair and balanced, but long and dull. Let’s see what your interviewer makes of it:

The Ten Minute Text Byte

Next month, in the magazine, you are quoted as saying, “I decided a high-bandwidth solution was necessary. I design for an elite audience.”

The headline reads, WORLD’S GREATEST WEB DESIGNER TO LOW BANDWIDTH USERS: “DROP DEAD.”

The magazine considers this theme so exciting, they make it their cover story. Coincidentally, the magazine’s newest advertiser builds high bandwidth networks.

In the cover photo, you stand before your computer, arms crossed over your chest, grimacing like a badass. It is one of three hundred photos taken that day. But it’s the one the editors chose as best suited to their controversial theme.

Most magazines behave responsibly, and few edit comments to deliberately change their meaning. But all journalists have story angles, and all interviews are edited to fit the angle as well as the space.

The Upshot: in Print

In the world of print, a few highly motivated readers may send in letters commending the magazine for featuring the work of an “innovator” like you, while others write letters condemning the magazine for promoting “irresponsible jerks” like you. The magazine will select one or two representative letters from each camp and publish them in its front pages.

The Upshot: Online

Meanwhile, on the Internet:

A thousand frustrated designers send you their resumes.

Two dozen design portals link to your high-bandwidth masterpiece.

Five thousand people send long letters to your personal email account, telling you how irresponsible you are and demanding a reply. If you don’t reply to their long letters, you will be blasted as an elitist. They don’t know that four thousand nine hundred ninety-nine other people wrote similar letters demanding similar responses.

Five thousand frustrated designers send you the URLs of their high-bandwidth sites and ask for a detailed critique. If you don’t reply with a detailed critique, you will be blasted as an elitist.

On community sites, bulletin boards, and mailing lists, you are alternately hailed as a hero and blasted as a stupid, selfish imbecile who frankly “isn’t that good, anyway. A, B, and C are much better, and they did it first.”

The unbearable lightness of networks

There is a futile and unexamined hypocrisy in the way our community views links—a hypocrisy that rewards the quietly respected while ignoring the obscure and punishing the “famous.” Let’s see how it works:

  1. Little-known designer A links to the little-known sites of her friends. No problem.
  2. Little-known designer A links to famous sites X, Y, and Z. No problem.
  3. Famous designer X links to little-known sites A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O, and P. No problem.
  4. Famous designer X links to famous site Y. Big problem. X and Y are featured in magazines with gaudy headlines declaring X “the best designer on the planet” and Y a “superstar.” Suddenly, X and Y are back-scratching elitists. It doesn’t matter that X genuinely admires Y’s work, and thinks his readers will, too. It doesn’t matter that X has also linked to obscure sites A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O, and P. He linked to Y, and that makes him a back-scratching elitist link whore.

Linkage builds networks, and networks are not only the lifeblood of the web, they are also the best defense against everyone’s remaining in total obscurity.

Networks built from links are also a service to readers. If you like this New England poetry site, visit the others in the New England Poets ring. If you like Shift, visit Design is Kinky, Three.oh, and Digital Thread. Nobody says “if you like A, try B,” but that is what the links are about: a service to readers and a self-sustaining network of support for people who create websites.

It has always been that way. It will always be that way. It is never a problem until a group decides that certain members of the network have become a little too popular for their own good (or everyone else’s). Once you are accused of back-scratching elitist link whoredom, your work is devalued and your links will be suspect—until the community loses interest, finds new heroes, and eventually turns them into villains.

Since this is a problem not of networks but of human perception, it cannot be solved, except possibly by a change of consciousness. And that is unlikely.

Almost famous for 15 minutes

Let’s be clear. On the web, nobody ever becomes truly “famous.” The medium is too big, the audience too vast and too diverse. At best you may become well-known (or overexposed) to a tightly focused group or two. And even those who know of you may choose to ignore your work.

There are networks that would not mention A List Apart if I persuaded Jeffrey Veen, Steve Krug and Jakob Nielsen to co-author an article designed by Hillman Curtis. Whether I like it or not, that is the right of the people who create those networks.

Those same networks may lavish praise on sites or authors I immodestly consider less interesting than A List Apart. Again, that is the right of the people who create those networks. My sense that A List Apart is more interesting than the sites those networks promote is undoubtedly colored by the fact that A List Apart is my baby. Anyone who spends 30 hours a week on a non-profit, non-commercial site has to believe that their work has some value.

This is Only a Test

How you react to your linkage (or lack thereof) is a test of your belief in the value of your own work and the rights of others to do their work as they see fit. I can waste energy resenting networks that fail to recognize the “importance” of A List Apart, or I can carry on trying to make A List Apart a somewhat useful and interesting site.

Similarly, if given enough drugs and alcohol, I could decide to publicly blast those networks for their “elitism,” but what would I really be saying? I would be saying I hate you for not letting me play in your clubhouse. The web does not need such resentments and accusations. Neither do the creators of those networks, neither do I, and neither do you. If resentments are tearing me up inside, I can tell my best friend or my therapist.

Hat Tips and Consolation Prizes

Overrated elitist link whores will always be among us, though there are fewer of them than the community’s constant infighting would lead you to believe. Some hard-working talented people will always get more acclaim than other hard-working talented people. When resentments flare, the “famous” will be flamed. This will continue as long as people are people.

I have no solutions to offer, no apologies to tender, and no beefs with anyone—not even with those who have recently made unfair accusations against sites I admire, and against my own work, such as it is.

I have never claimed to be particularly talented, so I won’t waste energy defending myself against accusations that I’m “not that good.” My point, since I started doing this in 1995, has always been that if I can do it, anyone can. If that is elitism, I’ll eat your wife’s hat.

Those still consumed by resentment may take consolation in this: any artist, writer, or developer who is currently well-known will be replaced by someone else. Though the web is a beautiful vehicle for personal self-expression, it is not any of us but the web itself that will endure.

It will endure, that is, as long as we don’t destroy the incentive of those who create it, by making them afraid to write, design, and program to the best of their ability, and to link to whatever or whomever they choose.

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