Discussing software, the web, politics, sexuality and the unending supply of human stupidity.

The Sellotape Problem, design and the indie web

For those who haven’t been aware, my site, where you are hopefully reading this, is part of a plucky little group of Internet folk who raise the banner of the “indie web”. Sadly, I haven’t been working on the code behind my site as much as I’d like recently. Last week, I was racing away on a work project. And there’s always the time I spend working on a little encyclopedia you may have heard of.

One of the more complex issues the indie web faces is a non-technical problem. The technical problems are easy enough to work out. Good people can differ on preferred approaches there. Some will like Activity Streams, some will like microformats, some will like PubSubHubbub, some will like, some weirdos like me will even like the Semantic Web stack with technologies like RDFa. This reflects technical differences and underlying philosophical differences (I see the web as containing graph-like data, and thus needing a graph-like data model, others do not value in such an approach).

But, for users—both in this case readers and writers—the particular brands of techno-duct tape that holds the whole contraption together shouldn’t matter too much. There are some big problems beside the technical ones. In fact, much bigger problems we’re going to have to solve in order to build our own homebrewed alternative to centralised social networks like Twitter and Facebook.

That problem is that the centralised social networks don’t just rule the web because they are big evil silos who horde all your content and so on. This is true. No, the far bigger problem is that they own the genre. Before Flickr, everyone knew what a photograph was. Before YouTube, everyone knew what a video was. Before Wikipedia, everyone knew what an encyclopedia entry was. Before blogging… not really. I mean, we are familiar with what writing is, but not necessarily in the form they take online. People still don’t get that it is sort of a mixture of citizen journalism and diary writing, but different because it is on the web. Photography and video have settled on the web in a modified form: naff hipster camera filters weren’t necessarily widely popular before Instagram, three minute video diaries weren’t necessarily popular pre-YouTube. But writing on the web has been a maze of exploration. From fairly masturbatory hypertext fiction that has been subject to lots of excessive academic theorising to things like the humble FAQ to wikis (of which Wikipedia is actually a very unrepresentative example) to blogs and microblogs, how we write online has changed pretty dramatically.

It’s perfectly easy to start a microblog. Hey, so long as your blogging system doesn’t require anything weird like obligatory titles for posts, there’s no particular reason why you can’t just start microblogging on your own site. And per the POSSE principle, syndicate it out on to Twitter and so on. The problem is the interpretation given to a microblog post. If I write a short snappy silly post on my personal site, people give it a seriousness that it doesn’t seek or deserve. If it were on Twitter in an admittedly compressed form, it would never have got linked on Hacker News because it is… just a tweet. But it is just a microblog post. The long post I made about Neo4J a day or so later didn’t get any such consideration.

We have a Sellotape problem here. Or a Google-as-a-verb problem. Twitter has defined microblogging just like Sellotape defined sticky tape, Xerox defined photocopying, Hoover (and now Dyson) defined vacuum cleaners, and “to Google” has become the verb you use to talk about doing a web search. We struggle to find the terminology to talk about it outside of Twitter:—now—used to call it a “dent”, and Facebook call it a “note”. We’ve used “posts”, “notes”, “statuses”, “updates”, “microblog post” and so on. The name isn’t the issue, or isn’t the complete issue. The issue is we don’t have a way yet of describing, displaying and understanding what one of these little posts is.

Finding a language to talk about these independent tweets is hard but not that important. I don’t particularly care about whether we call them updates or notes or statuses or even “tweet-like posts”. What is far more important is that we have ways of signifying to people that a short status or tweet-like post is in fact that. It is more important that the reader understands that they are looking at something that should be mentally pigeonholed into the same category as tweets or Facebook status updates rather than as great philosophical monologues on the state of the human condition.

My usual source for design inspiration, namely books, fails me here. Books—or at least, the sort of books that people who go mushy about typography (I’m guilty of that) tend to like—aren’t usually in the business of pointing out their own frivolity and lack of seriousness. I mean, there’s always Comic Sans and Chalkboard, but I don’t see anyone suddenly writing their site all in Comic Sans. And that doesn’t send the correct message either: it’d be like a stand up comic wearing a clown outfit on the basis that the clown outfit represents humour. It’s more complicated than that.

The answer may lie in kitsch and camp. Quite what that even means in web design, I’m struggling to work out. Bette Midler songs? What exactly is there to ludicrously send-up? Well, there’s 8-bit gaming, perhaps? The Super Mario theme tune as web site. We live in an ultra-modernist Helvetica world, and finding a playful but subtle way of expressing the frivolity and fun of something like Twitter in the context of everyone having their own little self-published independent microblogs is hard.

The challenge isn’t just building the technical infrastructure for the independent and decentralised web. The bigger challenge is building a shared design language for that new frontier. It will be fun though.