How not to use the Internet, part 3: how the Internet’s current design philosophy fails
3. How the Internet’s current design philosophy fails.
Websites compete for the really limited commodity online, namely, attention. That much is understandable, and not likely to change. How they compete is the problem.
Putting lots of menus, internal links, feeds, and self-promotional media on pages drives traffic around a website internally, while putting external links and various media on a given page is thought to increase its value and interest to end users. Competition for limited attention also motivates others to link to us (through reciprocal links, which are often automatic in blogging systems). More information seems better, so more pointers to information and ways to organize it seems better. Similarly, systems for regularly alerting us to mail, news, blogs, and so forth are straightforward attempts to grab our limited attention. Software-driven media tries to prove its relevance to us this way, and sometimes succeeds.
But if we really are trying to capture and hold each others’ attention, isn’t this busy, distracting design philosophy puzzling?
Why saturate a blog post (or other media) with a panoply of enticing choices to other things on our website, when we surely know that most users will, by habit, bounce right off of the page that brought them to our website, the very page that has the best chance of keeping them there? Such internal links might in a few cases get your user to go elsewhere on your site, but it also reduces the chance that the visitor will at least read the thing that brought them to your site in the first place. Why not seize the bird in hand? For that matter, why have so many external links right in our own text? Why don’t we design our pages so that, when we are graced with a visitor, the visitor will focus on, and actually want to stay to the end of, what brought them?
Similarly, if we really want to get others’ attention, why do we flood their Twitter and Facebook feeds with so much noise? Why do we bore them with too much news, repetition, and chitchat? We are instructed to increase the signal if we want more followers, yet most of us don’t. Why not?
Yet if the choices of web designers and marketers seem paradoxical, how much more paradoxical is it that we, as end users, continue to consume—ravenously—what so often contains more noise than signal? Consider that many of us follow hundreds of people on Twitter (far more than we can really keep up with), that we have “friended” people from high school whose names we barely remember, that many of us welcome in more mail than we can reasonably manage, and so on.
Both paradoxes, of Internet producers and consumers, disappear when we reflect on the fact that we are very anxious about “missing out,” and Internet producers are merely exploiting this anxiety. It’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that we are in a collective panic, a veritable mania, over the fantastic content now online. Information purveyors, working in this frenzied atmosphere, and who are end users themselves, naturally go to great lengths to seize their portion of the online public’s attention. Faced with a zillion things to pay attention to, calm, slow decision-making seems ridiculously inefficient. In this atmosphere, there is no time to exercise wisdom.
It’s bad enough that this design philosophy looks, at least to some extent, self-defeating for information purveyors. Even worse is that it doesn’t really benefit the end user. Consider:
Many of us spend a lot of time on Twitter. Why? The people you’re following come up with some quite insightful observations? Actually, not so often. Few can say much that is really worthwhile in 140 characters. The best that most of our Tweeps can do is be occasionally interesting, clever, or funny—and otherwise a waste of time. But maybe you get a lot of links to fascinating news articles, blogs, and so forth? Maybe, yet most of the links go unclicked. You are usually quickly in-and-out of those that you do click. Even if you don’t bounce out after a glance, even if you actually read something, you’ll probably just skim it quickly and forget it, which means you don’t really benefit from even the things you spend the most time on. But, you fret, if you don’t follow your feed, wouldn’t you be out of it and disconnected? Not necessarily. If you focus on a few high-quality news sites and blogs that cover your industry and interests, if you actually read them, you’ll almost certainly be more up-to-date about those topics than someone who uses Twitter as a replacement for such sources.
But you knew that. No, surely in your heart of hearts you know that the reason Twitter exists is not information exchange, but a kind of socialization. Yet it’s rarely bona fide socialization or friendship-building. It’s mostly networking. For most people, I suspect, we just have a somewhat pathetic desire to see our username replied-to and retweeted. This makes us feel relevant, popular, and connected. Our ego swells with each new follower, reply, and retweet. Yet this is clearly illusory. It is increasingly fashionable to apply the self-effacing epithet “narcissistic” to these, our common social networking habits. We know that, just because our vanity is flattered by public attention, it does not follow that we are relevant, or popular, or connected in any way that matters.
Face it: the only reason we (some of us) waste so much time on Twitter and Facebook is that “everybody else” is there, wasting time too, and we would feel out-of-it and incomplete, somehow, to be drop out. The whole advent of truly mass participation in social media, beginning in the mid-2000s with Myspace, seems to reflect not “the wisdom of crowds” but “the madness of crowds,” like tulip mania. I think Twitter exemplifies this observation perfectly.
Facebook looks open to the same observations. Why do you spend time on Facebook? Because your Mom and old friends are on it, for one thing. Are you closer to them now than you were before Facebook? Probably not, in most cases, except for the few comments you’ve exchanged with people you haven’t otherwise spoken to in years. On Facebook, we frequently exchange sentiments (and media) with people close and not-so-close to you, and that is being sociable. I won’t be so churlish or anti-social as to deny that it’s nice. Of course it’s nice. But this style of interaction makes socialization less personal than it once was. If you spend a lot of time socializing on Facebook (I’m guessing; no doubt someone’s done a study) you probably talk less on the phone. You probably feel less of a need to spend face-time, or even ear-time, with loved ones. Be honest, now: is Facebook really enhancing the quality of your social life and family relations? For society as a whole, is it bringing us closer together and improving our social relations in general? I strongly doubt it. It seems only to make our social lives more “efficient”—and impersonal, too. Doesn’t this social media par excellence actually make us less social, in the ways that matter? Why shouldn’t I draw that conclusion? Some might have a knee-jerk tendency to call me a Luddite for saying such things. But I live online and have devoted much of my adult life to building bits of the Internet, so that would be silly; can you explain why I’m wrong?
Wikipedia is an amazing and frequently useful resource. (For all my criticisms, I’ve never denied this.) But when you look something up there, how often do you increase your store of knowledge, rather than gaining a temporary grasp of not-fully-reliable “fact” and fleeting sense of understanding? Is your mind significantly improved? Probably not. Even if you spent the evening lost in Wikipedia’s hyperlinkage, you are apt to forget most of what you come across. It’s intellectual fast food; the taste is strangely compelling, but it is not exactly mentally nutritious. Building your personal store of knowledge requires deep reading and critical study, focus on a topic for a lengthy period of time. The design philosophy of Wikipedia—the copious irrelevant hyperlinks, and the way text tends to be written in smallish, loosely-related chunks instead of woven into a coherent narrative—militates against deep reading and critical study. I’m not saying you can’t use Wikipedia as part of a program to do serious research and gain solid knowledge. Of course you can. Some people even have, I’m sure. But I doubt that’s how most people use it. Its design encourages surface grazing, not immersion.
Even Google Search itself falls prey to this sort of analysis. What could be better than Google, which delivers highly relevant results and often answers your questions instantly? Well, yes. But we should demand more. There is more to search than faux-relevance and speed. When you do a search to find the best possible information on a subject, is that what you are shown? Not necessarily, because what Google shows you is the most popular and the most recent (and now, if you’re logged in with your Google account, what they think you’ll be most likely to click on). The highest quality results are too often far down the list. Google’s daily influence on us may well have trained us to overvalue popularity and recency, frequently at the cost of more significant qualities like reliability, clarity, historical importance, and depth.
I could give many similar examples, but let me skip to a general conclusion.
The Internet is ostensibly set up to let us help each other navigate the wealth of information online and, by speeding communication and new ways of collaboration, bring us closer together. But that isn’t quite what it does. When I spend much time on social networks, I find the experience to consist more of noise and alienation than signal and connection. What many, including myself, have touted as a potential tool of enlightenment and increased social connection right now seems to be making us less enlightened, less sociable, and less disciplined to boot. The Internet caters particularly to those who want to promote their work. Because so many people are doing this at once, its most striking effect is to distract us endlessly with what are, at the end of the day, mostly trivialities.
I know that SEO people have answers to my rhetorical questions about menus and links. Here is a sample (chosen only because it’s highly ranked in a Google search and thus, no doubt, played the SEO game well). But the SEO strategy is about building traffic. It is not about encouraging them to finish reading what they came for.
It’s common advice to Twitterers that they increase their focus and signal in order to get more followers; example.
This Google search is a good place to start reading about how social media is narcissistic.
The famous phrase “the wisdom of crowds” seems to have gotten its start in the book by James Surowiecki of that name. “The madness of crowds,” by contrast, comes from Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. I’ve read the former but not the latter, even though it is free (courtesy a part of the Internet that really doesn’t suck).
I read on the Internet that 71% of all U.S. citizens are on Facebook. So, probably, your Mom is.
While I don’t recall ever being accused of being a Luddite, I probably was at some point. Nicholas Carr, though, makes much of the purported “Luddite” aspect of Internet criticism.
Wikipedia doesn’t seem to place much stock in narrative coherence, contrary to Citizendium.
On the idea that the Internet generally (Wikipedia is not mentioned) encourages surface grazing and does not increase our knowledge significantly, see this speech of mine.