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Issue № 72

Fame Fatale

by Published in Industry, State of the Web, Brand Identity

It’s no news that the web has exploded, making it harder and harder to find worthwhile writing and design amid the exponentially-increasing “web properties” that cry out for our attention each day. And while useless marketing sites are certainly responsible for much of the glut and clutter, some of the blame falls on the shoulders of the creators of personal sites. In particular, it falls on that genre of personal site which requires no effort to design or maintain and whose numbers, maybe for that very reason, are multiplying faster than rabbits on spanish fly. It’s a genre of site which frequently creates no value whatsoever, yet demands to be taken seriously. I am talking, of course, about weblogs.

Certainly, there are some good weblogs. And, naturally, everyone has the right to stake out turf on the web, even if what they create isn’t particularly unique, meaningful, or memorable. So what if many weblogs are wastes of cyberspace? Surely they cause no harm, right?

Actually, I believe that the current weblog explosion has harmed, and is continuing to harm the web. Blame it on laziness, vanity, or both: as the quantity goes up, the quality goes down.

Who Wants to Be A Cyberstar?

The current “brand names” in independent web design and content – people like Siegel, Harpold, Steadman and Arthur – achieved their fame when the web was young and there wasn’t a lot to see. It was a time of experimentation and pushing the envelope as simple love of the medium fueled further and further advances.

And even if you weren’t the guys and girls on the edge, you still got that rush of validation because people came to your site, making you part of it all. Why were you on the web? Well, to develop, to learn something new. And there was validation for what you were doing, regardless of who you were or how good you were at whatever you were doing.

Today, there are hundreds of millions of people out there and over a billion web pages. Who is going to find what you are creating amid the dross that covers the net like a thick, damp blanket?

So begins the great disillusionment. Though there are more and more sites, there seem to be fewer and fewer that can hold my interest. Perhaps Blogger has made web creation too easy. As gratuitous, incestuous linking has gained more and more steam, “web logging” has become less about logging the web and more about self-perpetuation.

People used to link to sites they thought their visitors could appreciate. Blogs seem to have devolved, in the majority, to a high-tech web ring of sorts. While Pyra may have a killer app for the business world, its application in the personal web space has merely propagated the idea of less, faster, more in our sound-byte-saturated society. Meaning is sacrificed for a quick one-liner buzz, with links to other blogs that link to yet more blogs that refer to what someone said on another blog.

Art Versus Crap

Some of you will remember this quote:

“Weblog schmeglog, whatever. Kerouac just drove up and down the peninsula and then wrote about it. Other people argued (and still do) over what it should be called.”

Kerouac? Weblogs? Huh?

I’ve got a name for it. Crap. That the majority of what goes on today on weblogs should be compared to the Beat Generation musings and writings of Jack Kerouac is simply laughable. Ginsberg and Kerouac wrote poetry and fiction that influenced not only their generation, but those that came after. Can anyone, with a straight face, compare Ginsberg’s “Howl” to this a typical weblog entry like this one:

“Hey! Joe linked to me! Hey Joe!”

I didn’t think so.

Not only has the weblog phenomenon added little to the content of the web, Blogger has simplified the creation process so that the lowest common denominator rules.

They say e-mail has destroyed the art of the letter. Blogging has just become some public web form of e-mail. Give someone a tool that allows them to not think about what they are actually doing, and, surprise, surprise, they won’t think. Make something exceedingly easy for everyone, and almost no one will challenge themselves further. (Want proof? What exploded the population of the Internet? AOL’s $19.95 pricing strategy, along with those infernal shiny coasters that allowed even my mom to get up and running in less than ten minutes. That’s what.)

And so, with this ever-expanding population and a continually dwindling need for sophistication to play, we are subjected to the ever-expanding soap box, full of ever-greater numbers of people who have nothing to say, and say it loudly.

A low barrier to entry was the great power of the Internet, of course – what has always been touted as the One Great Thing. But the world is so full of self-important, self-involved people as it is. In real life, we are ever-more focused on ourselves and on our narcissism. Why do we have to drag this self-involved emptiness to the web in the never ending growth of ever more useless crap?

This is not an assault against AOLers, my mom, or some 10 year old with a web site. It is a cry against people who want the rewards without the effort. Blogger itself isn’t evil – it’s what people do with it.

When things get easy, people take the easy way out. I find myself looking at site designers who I know could do so much better, could contribute so much more. I know it because they’ve done it in the past. And yet they sit back, collecting rent for aging past accomplishments, simply because they can. Instead of pushing the envelope as they once did, they merely add to the pile.

A Waste of Cyberspace

Nothing new is being created here, just sound bytes unworthy of a 15 second direct marketing spot, followed by gratuitous links. It doesn’t take a recognized name to create something truly wonderful; and recognized names don’t automatically offer prophetic comments whenever they open their mouths.

Is this all the web is for, trying to bring the world to us and measure our success in hits and links? Or is the gift of the web its potential to bring our true selves to the world? Not our mundane musings and shout outs to people who recognize us on their home page because we use the same stupid software, but the depths of what is within us.

What if everyone spoke their minds and actually put some effort into it? How about presenting who you are – what you are made of – what drives your inner being? Take a chance and create without bounds. Don’t waste the power the web has given us in a hit-seeking circle jerk.

Of course I can see the value of an ongoing discourse throughout the web, which is the only rationale ever given for continual cross-linking. But have you ever paid attention to 90% of normal, every day conversation? We talk about the weather, using pointless filler between possibly insightful comments, repeating what someone else told us, who was repeating what someone else told them to pass the time. Here’s an idea: dig out the gems and leave the filler behind.

Do As You Speak

“So why don’t you go and create it yourself, you self righteous bastard?” you ask. That’s the second front of the Great Disillusionment. Why have a personal web page at all?

Of course, there is the purist ideal where you create for yourself alone. But I’ll wager that most of us in this space, whether we wish to admit it or not, seek validation from other people.

Webtrends wouldn’t be such a requirement on everyone’s hosting account if we didn’t really care. Blogger’s popularity is fueled in large part by the communal cross-linking it has inspired, so like instant karma, it lets the owner get instant satisfaction. Since the beginning of the web, the first major services were counters and Link Exchange banners. If you don’t really care about who or how many people visit your page, why have these tools at all?

Of course we don’t create web pages to get hits. We create to create, we create to communicate. But, what is the point of creation if there is no one there to appreciate it?

And if there is no appreciation, no feedback, no response, how do we, as creators, grow? How can we push ahead and break out of the mold every now and then to do something new, something that isn’t just a variation on a tired old theme from the offline world? The isolated communities of people that exist on the web become self-validating, so that a variation of groupthink simply extinguishes the critical evaluation of a piece of work.

Oh, sure, there are stand out examples of individuals, or small pockets of groups that have brought us amazing and wonderful things, from k10k to the guys running The Web Standards Project. And we’ve enjoyed groundbreaking sites like { fray }. But, for all that it is and was, { fray } was created in 1996, and at Internet speeds, that’s quite old. Yet no other non-commercial web venture has shown anything like the same staying power. Moreover, if { fray } were created today, it would hardly be a blip on the screen, because that mass of crap would have hidden it. The reason it succeeded years ago is because there was less out there, and there was a sense of community around the web.

It is painful to realize that anything that we create on the web today as a labor of love, and not as a potential IPO, will receive as much attention as if we simply shoved it in a desk drawer already filled with papers from millions of other people. The personal web space is becoming a repository of lost souls who may never find each other, let alone themselves. But the very sites that add to the clutter – useless blogs – could, with a little work, become useful filters the save us from the glut and chaos.

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