A List Apart

Menu
Issue № 61

Time to Close the Web?

by Published in Business, Industry, State of the Web, Graphic Design

The web is a democratic, two-way medium, built on open standards.

Article Continues Below

Yeah, right.

Electronic Rape is the pinnacle of current commercial website development. Commercial sites are looking like the covers of the supermarket tabloids, with about as much content, as many pictures, and as much accuracy. And the Get Rich Quick schemes are just as plentiful.

Like Judas Iscariot, we take our 30 pieces of silver and follow each other into the Stygian depths of tabloid presentation. Success is measured by market cap,  press release, and ad serving. Content has taken a back seat to advertising. Just like with television and magazines.

From Search to News to Browsers, sites are serving the same look, news and information. Newspaper and News sites–seduced by the promise of complete story, not constrained by column inches, advertising placement, or above-the-fold considerations–have failed more thoroughly than any other category.

The bad news is, you don’t need a dollar to get your name on a thousand mailing lists anymore.

Even design and development resource sites have descended into portal-itis, defining presentation in terms of ad space, wedging content in the space remaining.

The electronic privacy invasion points to the failure of site designers to provide compelling content, clear navigation, and a user experience memorable enough to entice repeat visits.  Click-thru is more important than Content. We have opted to become Electronic Rapists.

Electronic Rape

The cookie has been turned from a simple feature for personalizing a website experience into a tool of electronic rape.

  • They came to me.
  • They were begging for it.
  • They really wanted it.
  • Everybody else is getting some.
  • They were wearing a skimpy browser.
  • I’m not doing anything wrong!

But they never asked you.

DoubleClick, the largest ad server on the web, has planned to tie your online surfing to your real name and address, creating a rape of your privacy unparalleled in marketing history. They claim this innovation in direct marketing will reduce the number of mailings it takes to get you to buy stuff. They assume that you will enjoy this environmentally responsible mail.

But they never asked you.

With the exception of the W3C and the Web Standards Project site, every last one of the online resources linked-to in this article wants to set cookies.

We have turned the web into an enabler for Electronic Rapists.

Hyperlinks to Hell

Over 50% of the connected people on the planet have been surfing less than 12 months.

The reality of the situation is that access to the web is not DSL for everyone, but a continued ramping-up of old browsers, slow modem connections, old computers and the ever-expanding pool of new users. “Free” Internet access is increasing the number of users faster than the Melissa Virus.

Rollover is something that their dogs do. They don’t know the difference between a gif, jpg, and pdf. Nor should they. They just want to go places, do things, and not feel like they have been ripped off. The fastest-growing segment of the Internet community is non-English speaking.

The default hyperlink, (a blue underlined text description), the most important code fragment on the Internet, is still amazing to these new members of the Internet Community.

There is a bright star on the web. This requires special note, as it is so rare. Yahoo News Full Coverage sections.  With every article comes an amazing array of links to more information–enough to gladden the heart of the most compulsive news and information junkie. It may also help explain the continued popularity of Yahoo.

  Alas, the hyperlink, the primary technological reason for the expansion of the web, has been replaced by a backwash of whizzing, buzzing, whirling crap: images, banners and buttons. These ‘links’ do not bring us into new exciting territory, but instead smear us with the same sites in different colors with a different name–more Ads and Electronic Rape.

We have designed the hyperlink into a crapshoot of pop-ups, roll-overs, color changes and nonsense which requires people to mouse over every square inch of their monitors,  trying to figure what anything on the page means, or if it goes anywhere.

Presentation and Accessibility

In our desire to explore and extend the presentational possibilities of our digital universe, we are constantly expanding the realm of presentation–but mainly, for the sake of design rather than information.  Presentation becomes the story, and content is something that gets in the way. The simplest things, such as providing ALT text for images,  seems to be too much like work.

It has been said that a picture is worth a thousand words.  Are we using images to convey information? Are our images helping our clients to effectively communicate their goals? Or are we simply helping to maintain the “World Wide Wait” as a popular definition of the Internet? Is building the site in Photoshop, cutting it up, and wrapping the pieces in HTML, and telling visitors upgrade or die the way to build websites? Or simply the way to win awards?

It is the current state of salesmanship, regarding the client as mushroom, that allows this type of design to continue. The prevailing attitude seems to be “it looks good, ship it!&8221;  Most commercial developers are largely ignoring coding to the standards or checking accessibility. Which is a pity, because learning to code correctly is no harder than learning to code in the first place.

We are in danger of killing the golden goose.

Many people joined the Web Standards Project.  Most joined to be able to say they support Standards, but few are actively involved. There is no immediate gratification or money to be made on it. No mouse pads, t-shirts or screen savers. We can only build one site at a time.

The government camel has its nose in our tent. Taxation, Privacy, Anti-Trust, Fraud, Free Speech, are a few of the issues that governments are looking into.

We are Failing.

We are not making the web into the open-ended, expanding universe of possibilities that its framers envisioned and our VCs blab about in their elevator pitches. Occasionally, you hear someone say that their site is saving them money, growing their business, or serving some creative or community-oriented purpose. But such news gets lost in the cacophony of IPOs, mergers and lawsuits.

We are losing the web to the “Hidden Persuaders.” AdAge, one of the largest trade publications for the TV and print advertising industry, devotes an entire section of their Online e-zine to critiques of Banner Ads.

The proliferation of Ad Servers points to the failure of developers to provide sites that can stand on their own merits without the crutch of banners.

Even our outrage is formalized. Send the email. Display the Boycott Megacorp.com Button. Build the megacorp-sucks.com site. Hyperlink to the megacorp-sucks.com site.

We have created so many successful sites for buying and selling stuff, that the brick and mortar world is crying foul, and some shopping centers forbid companies to own websites if they want floor space in the mall. The richest companies in the world no longer make durable goods such as machinery, cars or appliances, but are instead directly related to the Internet. Software, Hardware, Telecommunications.  We have done such a good job here that Venture Capital is a part of site planning.

The coming U.S. regulations regarding accessibility and government websites not only dictate compliance with W3C standards, they will also force authoring tools to generate standards-compliant code. This should lead to more content and less splash on the government portion of the web. (Though “splash” is hardly the word that comes to mind when viewing most government sites.) But will designers have the will to extend this new emphasis on content to the commercial realm?

Understand, this is not a call to return to amber text on a black screen, but rather an observation of the state of play that is shaping the web we are building and the developers that follow us.

On the cusp of the first group of standards-based browsers, we have a first opportunity to make the web truly universal. Will we let this golden moment bear fruit? Or just have another cookie?

No Comments

  1. Sorry, commenting is closed on this article.