Richard Rogers: Okay, welcome to the structures of meaning session, my name is Richard Rogers I am from the University of Amsterdam Media Studies, and the govcom.org Foundation here in Amsterdam. I am joined by three experts, or actually four experts, from what you might call the space between the front-end and the back-end.
We have Angela Beesley from the Wikimedia Foundation, famed facilitators of Wikipedia, the collaboratively authored wiki-based encyclopedia and soon to be, I would imagine, the slayers of the Britannica dragon. We have Steven Pemberton, who's on a couple of W3C working groups, on HTML and XForms. He works at the Dutch National Research Institute for mathematics and computer science also here in Amsterdam. We have Anne Pascual and Marcus Hauer from Schoenerwissen the office for computational design based in California. Anne and Marcus also work in media arts and technology at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
Now to kick things off, I wanted to try to highlight a couple of overarching themes behind the structures of meaning on the web, at least as far as I see them, over the last decade, and them I'm going to turn it over to the speakers. After each speaker finishes I propose we can take only very very urgent questions at the time. After all three have had their turn we can open it up. Now there is one content note here, meaning note; the transcripts of all the talks, the ones that actually were not made in full, will be available on the web site www.decadeofwebdesign.org.
Okay: structures of meaning, I just wanted to throw up four themes. Theme one quality of information. Recently when some US congressman, when they voted to debate the certification of Bush's election victory, some of the Representatives in House argued that the challengers were getting their information from blogs, that the challengers of the US election were getting their information from blogs. Now blogs became the latest way to fill in the old chestnut, the old idea of the web as a rumor mill. Now suddenly we can trash the web again, but is it so easy to do so and should we ignore those who question the quality of information. Secondly, theme two, relatedly: reputation. Gaining it, keeping it, managing it. Remember when we had all these little award icons, and listing of top five cool sites and things? I dragged out my collection from 1999 inspired by one of the previous speakers; this is my dead awards collection. All of these awards are completely dead and buried. Later as we move from hit counts to link counts, so hit economy to link economy, as an indicator of reputation another shift occurred, so we were no longer in charge of our own site descriptions. Metatags and things mattered less. Others were determining how we would be described.
Theme three. Information recommendation, which again is related; With such initiatives, recently, as delicious, books we like, and certain social software, we are creating information recommendation devices authored more by tribes and communities than by much larger greater conversations. So the web is become, at least in information recommendation terms, increasingly more tribal.
Theme four, the last one, semantic web. Now there always has been this massive tension between allowing the web to organize information in itself and creating classification systems that we should squeeze our information into. The question I would like to pose to the speakers as running theme is: are we tagging ourselves to death? I would like to turn it over now to Angela Beesley from Wikipedia, Angela.
Angela Beesley: Hi, I'm Angela Beesley, I'm from the Wikimedia Foundation and I will tell you a little bit more about what that is in a moment here. I'm going to be talking about Wikipedia and how that's been designed through open source principles.
To start it off, what are wikis? The first wiki was started in 1995, which was c2.com. This was a site where programmers come together to basically discuss programming topics. A wiki is simply an openly editable web site, that can cover any range of topics. Where anyone can come along and create a page. You don't need to know any programming languages to do that. Wikis have a very low learning curve so they are really open to anyone.
One of the reasons why it very easy to do is because wikis have a simplified syntax. I am going to show you an example of that. This is actually an edit screen. This is where you edit the wiki, so it has an editing toolbar on the top as well, so you don't need to know bits of syntax, you can just click on icons. Things like the double square brackets will create a link to another page in the wiki. So simply by typing things any user can come along and create web pages straight away.
A more common feature of wikis is that all user actions are logged and are very easily reversible. So if someone makes an edit, you can easily revert it was a bad edit.
There are three terms here, which are very commonly confused. There is Wikipedia, Wikimedia and MediaWiki. So I'm going to talk a little bit about those and tell you the differences between them. Very quickly, Wikipedia is essentially an encyclopedia, Wikimedia is the foundation that runs it, and MediaWiki is the software that it runs on.
A little bit more about the Wikimedia Foundation. This is a non-profit organization. It was founded towards the end of 2003. To basically manage Wikipedia and all its sister products which includes Wiktionary, a free content dictionary, Wiktionary was created because people started to have dictionary definitions in Wikipedia, and other people would say that Wikipedia is supposed to be strictly encyclopedic, so that spun off into its own project, Wiktionary. One of our larger projects is Wikibooks, which is a collection of open source textbooks for educational use.
A very recent project is Wikinews. It is still in beta testing at the moment. It is really just a project to see whether we can apply the principles of Wikipedia to a news site, so actually people coming along and writing news stories. Wikisource is a collection of primary source documents, so it is not something that people would edit so much. They can upload texts and then can use as a source in any other projects.
Wikiquote is a collection of different quotations. The Wikimedia Commons is a repository of images and other media files that are used by all the other Wikimedia projects, and can be used externally as well because all of those are under a free license.
Wikipedia itself is, of course an encyclopedia and was started four years ago. We just had our fourth birthday. In the first eight months we had eight thousand articles, which was quite a big thing, because before Wikipedia there was a project called Nupedia, which managed to create about thirty articles in two years. Nupedia had very much stricter controls over who was allowed to edit and a very controlled review process, but it turned out to be very slow. So they opened this up a little bit more and said let’s use a wiki to write Nupedia articles, and this took over very quickly and Nupedia soon died out because it just wasn't producing articles at any sensible rate. So that was the birth of Wikipedia.
It is very international project. It started off in English but within a couple of months there was German and then French. One of the core policies of Wikipedia is that the encyclopedia is written from a neutral point of view. We try to avoid any bias and if there are two opposing points of view we describe both of those in the article rather than taking any particular side.
All the content on Wikipedia is freely licensed. It is available under the GNU Free Documentation License, so it is re-usable. People can take it, modify it, use it commercially or non-commercially. This is an example of one of the internationalization features we have. The interface and so on is completely internationalized. So this is a screen shot of the Hebrew Wikipedia. As you can see, it is using right-to-left writing, and the logo is on the other side, which would normally be on the left side. We’ve got about 100 languages, but only twenty-one of those so far have over ten thousand articles. The other is just really beginning.
Some statistics; we got 1.35 million articles in total, this is across all different languages. The English Wikipedia alone has got 450 thousand, which actually makes it larger than Britannica, and Encarta combined. The Dutch Wikipedia is just about to come up to its fifty thousand articles milestone. According to alexa.com ratings, we are now in the top 100 web sites. So it's a very big project. Over four years it’s developed well over a million articles.
This is a screen shot showing some of the larger Wikipedias. The dark blue line is the Dutch Wikipedia and the red one is the English. They are both growing at a similar rate but are different sizes at the moment.
There are a lot of social rules within Wikipedia, about how people can edit and so on. There are also some technical constraints that affect what people do on the site. For example, we can protect pages and block users. The technical parts of the software affect how people are using the site and what they can do with it.
There is also a lot of openness. The software doesn't constrain what people can actually add. People can format pages in pretty much any way they like. There aren't that many technical constraints. It is very much up to the users and the community to determine what can go on the site. Policies just emerge from consensus-based processes. People will suggest a policy and then, if there is agreement on it, it will just become policy. There is no top down process run by just one person. It is very much community driven.
Contributors construct their own rule space. One of the policy pages on Wikipedia says "ignore all rules". So there is quite a lot of openness to what contributors can do. But there are certain norms, which are either enforced by the community or in some cases by community leaders. Some people are more trusted to enforce policies than other people would be.
One question that is always asked about Wikipedia is, "can the content be trusted?" I think it can. We have a lot of review process. People say it is not peer reviewed, but in many ways it is constantly being reviewed. We’ve got things like recent changes, which show every single change that is made to the content, and people are constantly checking that. We also have the watch list feature, which allows you to watch particular articles in your area of expertise. So the articles are constantly being reviewed.
One thing we are rather keen on doing is developing a stable version. So users worried about coming to an article and not knowing whether the last entry could be trusted would have the choice to view a stable version if they wanted to.
Moving on to the software that we use. This is called MediaWiki. It is used by Wikipedia and our other projects and also by a lot of external sites as well. It is one of over a hundred wiki engines; a wiki engine is just a type of collaborative software that allows people to edit in this way. MediaWiki itself was primarily developed for Wikipedia. Before we were using MediaWiki we were using UseMod, but it turned out to be not scalable enough for such a large site as Wikipedia. So the wiki engine was re-written from scratch in PHP and it uses a MySQL database backend. Over time, it became more scalable than most other wiki engines. It is also use by a lot of other web sites, sites like Memory Alpha, a Star Trek wiki. There are all sorts of different content sites, not just Wikipedia, that are using MediaWiki.
Functionality includes a lot of quality control features. Versioning: we store every version of a page that was ever written. So every edit that been made is saved so you can go back and check who’s added what and when things were added.
The watch list allow people to keep an eye on certain articles and make sure they are not being vandalized.
Another feature is the organization of name-spaces and categories. Name-spaces keep a discussion of content separate from the content itself. So if there is a dispute on an article, that would happen on a talk page rather than the article itself. The categories are very user driven; the software doesn't impose any particular category structure. Any user can come along and create a new category and that hierarchy has been built up over the last six months, since the feature was introduced. So it provides a rather different approach to categorization rather than being handed out in advance. It is very much being built up over time.
There is also administrative functionality. Pages can be protected. Usually this is done if a particular page is being vandalized a lot. It will be temporarily protected until that is sorted out. If there is dispute over an article, it will be protected to force people to discuss it rather than edit war over it.
Blocking of users or IP addresses is a function of the software as well. So if a particular person is being a problem they can just be blocked from editing completely.
There are a lot of extensions, which makes it quite different from some other wiki engines, allowing math tags for mathematical formulas and so on. There are a lot of different types of formatting that people can add very easily through these extensions. Even hieroglyphics can be added to the wiki. The wiki interface itself is available in over 30 languages.
This screen shot shows a version comparison. This is page history, so every time someone makes an edit you can go in see exactly what's changed, with the old version on the left and the new one on the right. And the words that have been added have been highlighted in red.
Richard Rogers: Hi, whilst we're waiting, I am just wondering if there might be any questions from the audience?
Steven Pemberton: Yes, Steven Pemberton. So, the web was actually originally designed for exactly this sort of thing. I mean Tim Berners-Lee was doing exactly this sort of thing with his first browser. It is because almost all servers don't support the "PUT" part of the HTTP protocol that you have to make all of this extra software. Don’t you think it is a shame that you have to do that, when it is actually already built into the technology and shouldn't you be pushing for servers who actually did it right rather than this approach?
Angela Beesley: I don't know, there is a lot more to the software than people simply uploading there text to the web. There is so much functionality I don't think you can do that without having specialized software designed for this purpose.
Steven Pemberton: But it would allow you to do, for instance, WYSIWYG editing, and then you just do save, and just like it ought to have done it just goes back to the web server. I mean that... for instance, the W3C site is exactly like that, it’s a wiki. Everyone on the team is allowed to edit any page, but we just use WYSIWYG software and we just hit save and it sends it back to the web.
Angela Beesley: I mean at the moment what we've got in terms of WYSIWYG is simple writing extensions that will allow that. So yeah, it’s a shame that is just can't do that without having the extension of the software.
David Garcia: Maybe I'm pre-empting something you will come to later in your talk. There have been a few articles recently about a split in the Wikipedia community. Some people wanting to re-instate some of the more hierarchical protocols for quality control, are you going to comment on that in the rest of your talk, or if not could you comment on it now?
Angela Beesley: Yeah, there is a little bit of a split, but really the foundation is trying to address both sides of that. To see if we could come to some sort of compromise, this is what the part "stable versions" was about. It will give people the chance to mark an article as being authoritative and you would have these hierarchies saying yes this article is now authoritative and so on. But the live site itself will still be editable by anyone. So it is all mixed and the best of both worlds. Then people have a choice, if they need stable version they can go to that but they can still edit the live one, too.
David Garcia: So the things like the Wired Online article kind of hinting at a big division, you feel that's been resolved by the process you've indicated, too.
Angela Beesley: I think it will be resolved; it is not actually resolved yet. And we are still discussing how to resolve it.
Geert Lovink: Could you give a bit of context for those of us who do not know what caused this split or debate?
Angela Beesley: I think part of it is because as Wikipedia got bigger, people began to rely on it more and more as a source. It is no longer just a project to create an encyclopedia; it really is an encyclopedia that people are using. So the need for things to be trustworthy really increased just recently since it’s hit the media so much. I think that is a part of what it is about, people just getting really worried about if they can trust it.
Geert Lovink: (?)
Angela Beesley: I don't think there is one particular instance, no.
(Technical difficulty end)
Angela Beesley: Okay, looking at some of these features again, quality control, I mentioned recent changes already. There’s also the page history, which I should you a screen shot of, so anyone can check exactly what's been changed. If we've got a problem user, if we find a particular user adding bias or writing something that is not factual, every user has a list of all of their contributions. So if you find a problem you can go back through their contribution list and check their edits and make sure those are all right.
Besides the content on Wikipedia and its sister projects, there is also a large community around behind that, which is something that people just coming to the web site and reading it will often don't notice. It is a very strong community. In anyone month there can be as many twelve thousand different editors. So there are a lot of community features to try and keep those people together. That includes talk pages; every article has a talk page attached to it. So if anyone wants to discuss a problem with the article they can go there.
Every user can put up a profile page about themselves, as well. So people are wondering if they can trust a person they can always go to the profile and see what sort of person is editing it.
There are different access levels as well. People can apply to become administrators, which gives them a few more technical features they have access to, such as page protection or blocking of users. There are also automatic user-to-user emails to try and encourage people to communicate more. And there is automatic message notification. You can leave a message on the wiki for someone and they will be notified of that next time they come online.
As I said, all of Wikipedia is free content. All Wikimedia content is under the GNU Free Documentation License and the software is under the GNU General Public License. This means it can be freely distributed and modified. Another thing the license means is that authors have to be attributed by anyone using the content, which encourages people to contribute because they know if their work will be used, then they will be attributed. The way Wikipedia does this is through the page history. If you click history on the top of any article you can see a list of who has contributed to it. The license means it also remains non-proprietary. Though people can use it commercially they can't lock it down, they would have to keep it under the same licenses. So any re-use of or any modification will still be under "GFDL", so Wikipedia can then re-use any improvements that people make to it. One advantage of this is that it increases a sense of shared ownership, because no one person owns an article. Anyone can come and edit and modify it at any time. So it really belongs to the project rather than any particular user. This decreases some problems we might otherwise have if some person wrote an article and they wanted it to stay in a particular way.
The web design of the site is split between developers and users. Developers create the skin framework and then it is very much up to the user to customize that and tailor it to particular projects. So for example, the English Wikipedia might not have the exact same design as the Dutch Wikipedia. Developers with provide default skins and they also create extension tools that help the users with editing the site. The users can format the site content in anyway they want. They have access to certain HTML tags such as tables, so they can format things in that way if they want to. Different projects would have different formatting. So all Wikipedia articles will not be formatted in exactly the same way as textbooks or Wikibooks for example, it is very much up to the users. And users can create user style sheets and edit the interface. They can also create new skins, which happens quite rarely.
Right here is an example of a user created skin. Some one has completely changed the design. It doesn't look like the typical Wikipedia design. This feature is often used by other sites using the MediaWiki software. They don't want their site to be confused by Wikipedia; they will make a completely different design like this.
Users can create individual style sheets, so you can have Wikipedia looking a particular way for you. There is a problem with this in that users can't always be trusted in the design things very well. This is a screen shot of my skin of Wikipedia. This is how I see it. The one on the left is how it looks before you scroll, and the one on the right is after you scroll the page, which is just a complete jumble of links, rather unreadable. So that is one of the downsides of letting users do this, is that they don't really know what they are doing. They end up with a screen looking like that. Here are some screen shots of the largest Wikipedia; English, German, and Japanese. It is completely up to the users how they decide to format their pages. This is the front page you see if you go to any particular language version. But what often happens is that they share a lot of similarities between them. So one site would make their main page and then the good parts of that will filter out into the other languages. You really end up with parts of the design that work well. An example of this is parts like the "featured article", which is showing on all six of the largest Wikipedia. You can see that they have all copied the same sort of table format with the different colors and different areas. There are also a lot of similarities, which are forced on them, in terms of the navigation. The logo is always in the same place the standard links are all there on the left. So certain parts the user can't change are given by the developers. But the rest of the page is completely up to the users to come along and edit.
There are a lot of external tools that people create. Because the software is free content, it is very easy for people to modify that and add on extensions. There are a few offline editions that people have been working on. One of them is WikiWriter. There is a screen shot of this here, which gives a more WYSIWYG approach to editing, for people who prefer that to editing directly on the site. This one actually splits off metadata, you can see the inter-language links and the categories are appearing in different columns. There are also various plugins for different text editors and a plugin for Firefox. If you use the Firefox browser, you can download this plugin and edit Wikipedia directly just from the right click button.
And users create markups and conversion tools, which convert HTML to wikitext as well. This Tombraider screen shot is actually an extension, which allows Wikipedia to be read on PDAs.
I’m just going to show you some screen shots of the last four years of Wikipedia, which shows a history of the site from being very content centric to becoming more user centric. And there is a tendency over the last four years to move to more dynamic information for like things that are in use and things that are updated daily rather than vary rarely.
More visual elements, more color have been added over the last four years. And there has also been a separation between editors and readers; before there was just the main page for everybody, now there's a main page for readers, and there is a separate community main page. This is August 2001, just eight months after we started, when we were still using the UseMod software. So it is very basic, just text, there were no images at this time at all. It is just basically a list of main topic areas we had at the time. Then, in November 2002, we move to what we called phase three. This is MediaWiki before it had a name. Again it is very text centric, but you have more navigational feature now. You got links to older versions and so on. Jumping to 2003, it hasn't changed all that much but we've moved into a table format now. We split off the articles along with the community aspect under the "writing articles" heading, and you've got links to the community and you have policy and help pages and that sort of thing, now on our main page. In February of 2004 we had a logo competition, so we got the new Wikipedia logo. And it is also the first time we had color on the main page. It still isn't very colorful but it is a little bit different than it was before. And then in 2005, this was the main page a couple of days ago. So it is still fairly similar. We have the same table but we have far more dynamic information, like the featured article is changed every day. Rather than just listing all the main categories, readers have to click the browse link and they can go to those categories, but the main page is used for things that are regularly updated. So the main page now is updated on a daily basis rather than more rarely.
Quickly to come to a conclusion, by empowering users like we've done on Wikipedia, they can fix their own design problems. Over the last four years, Wikipedia has opened up its design process so it is no longer just up to the developer of the site; through the use of style sheet and so on, it has become much more open. There are feedback mechanisms, the way the community feeds back to the developers, such as various pages on the wiki for people who have a problem, and a Bugzilla bug tracking system. People don't need the knowledge to fix the bugs themselves because through these feedback mechanisms, they can report them to other people who can fix them.
Even beyond wikis, this open feedback management can go a long way. Its not only can be applied to wikis, in terms of open design, other sites could take this up and give it to the user to help with the design aspects.
Caroline Nevejan: Our next speaker is Geke van Dijk, connected to the Open University in England, she has worked for a long time in digital culture in Amsterdam; started ACS-i and later sold it to Lost Boys; Geke van Dijk.
Geke van Dijk: Hello. I've chosen the title "A Decade of Web Use". When I was invited to do a contribution to the conference, I thought, maybe the most interesting or relevant thing I can do is speak about the decade of web use. My background as a person who has worked since the beginning of the 90s in the web industry was actually in user research. We were working in an independent research company who was focusing on usability research and later on other user research as well. And at the moment I am currently working in the UK doing PhD research but I will come back to all this later.
I think I have to stress at the start the focus I am going to be talking about. The perspective is mainly the commercial use of the web. But not so much what we tend to call e-commerce, which is very focused towards purchasing, but what I mean is web sites that are from companies or institutions, that might be governmental or non-governmental NGO's, which are meant to explain and give information about the organization. And people, as consumers, make use of that information. So it is not about the artist web site or people's personal homepages. This is the realm that I've been working in, the commercial use of the web. And I think that is where I can offer a contribution to the conference.
What I've done for this presentation is to look back for the past ten years, like some of the other speakers have done as well, just to realize what has passed in these ten years, which feel much longer actually. Not so much as to be concrete or nostalgic and talk only about history, but also to understand where we are now? Where we are coming from? And maybe look a little bit ahead, where are we going?
So what I started out to do, very simply of course, was to make a time line, where I focus on the discourses, the dominant discourses, in this decade. When you look at visions we share as intimate culture, about users of the web. But then when I was preparing the presentation I found out that it makes no sense at all to put it into a timeline. Because I do recognize these periods, and I hope a lot of you in the audience do as well, but the thing is; on a time line you suggest one thing is finished and then another one is there. We dismiss the dominant discourse of the period before that. Which is not at all true. I think these discourses are still very valid.
So I decided to try to do it differently and to use the metaphor of a pond. A pond where stones are thrown into it so it will stay in motion, every time you throw in another stone it adds to the dynamics of it. I think this explains better how we are mixing in our discussion about use, how we are mixing the echoes of discourses happening now and ones coming up from the past decade. I hope you will recognize a lot of them.
I will try to speed it up because I think the previous speakers went through the past ten years, and you will recognize especially from the session this morning, some of the characteristics per period.
The first stone that was thrown into the pond was around 1995 when the commercial web was born, and the focus of that time was very biased toward technology.
The second one... actually I have to stress that the years I put in are just to give an idea of when it was. Of course it is also something not meant to build in concretely. This is per person when you first encountered the discourse, but I am sure you recognize the discourses. So the second stone thrown into the pond was around 1998, where the focus was shifting more to usability and user friendliness of a web site, and this enters discussions about strategies for the development of sites and also the evaluation of sites.
The third stone was around 2001, when the focus shifted again more to the user experience. Usability remained an issue but it was moving towards the user experience, and terms like fun, desirability and pleasure entered the agenda.
And the fourth stone, more recently, is user value. So now days you more often hear that the criterion for a successful web site is whether they are really offering user value. Are they contributing to what people really want, and do they support the well being of people?
I will come back to all these periods in more detail later in this presentation.
I just want to stress again that the years are not that important, so it is more the idea of the periods and I hope you will recognize the metaphor of the pond and that it is not about dismissing earlier periods but recognizing new discourses coming into the discussion.
If we go back to the first period and look at the technology focused period the main question was 'what can technology do?' So the web sites that were developed at that time were feature driven. This period was about discovering what you could do with coding. Programmers who were doing the coding mostly did the design as well. Anyone who mastered the code was a web designer, and web design as a profession was not a really a discipline yet.
This meant that the evaluation of web sites was driven by a technological focus as well. The criterion for good design was whether the web site worked. The people, at that time using the web obviously did not object, because they were the early adopters. They were interested in the technology and not scared of technology and they were ready to accept inconvenience, as long as there were new areas to discover.
The opinion leaders of that time were the programmers. They were the wizards who were 'in the know'. Also on the client side you found that in briefings about web sites or evaluating prototypes the team from the client side was very much dominated by people from the IT department. Most initiatives for web sites originated from the IT departments.
When we look at user research at that time it was very minimal. Actually we were just discovering it. There were some projects, but usually the techniques and methods had to be custom-developed. There was not that much experience with user research at that time. If we look at the main vision of a user in this period, we sort of accepted that users should adapt to the technology. We didn't really realize at that time that it could be different, that the technology could be further improved rather than the user adapting to.
If we look at the next period from around 98 the usability concept and discourse entered our discussions. The main question at that point was 'can we make technology usable?' The starting point was still technology driven, what can the technology do, but there was an awareness that maybe not all users are technophiles, or even that for technophiles web sites can still be made more user-friendly. So you see, as you may all remember, that at that time web sites were much more visually attractive and more usable.
But also as other speakers have pointed out before, there was a sort of tension in that period. The feeling of some web designers was that some usability requirements were incompatible with making creative design, and some usability researchers thought web designers didn't want to hear what they had to say. However I think in general most people who were open for improvement and curious to find out how to make better work were really open to the discussion and interested in incorporating it into web design.
By that time design was becoming recognized as a profession, as a specialization. Development teams now usually had one or more designers working along side the programmers.
The evaluation of what made a site successful changed. It now shifted to the criteria of does it look good?
The audience that was online grew to the early majority. These were people that did have affinity with technology, who were curious for it, but who were not necessarily educated in this field. They were willing to do a bit of exploring, but not too much. They would drop out if sites were too difficult or too freaky.
The opinion leaders of that period, as you can predict were mostly designers. They usually headed the presentations of concepts to clients. And also on the client side, in the briefing team, there was much more awareness of the necessity of creating good design. And in that period contacts with the communication departments from clients were very important.
User research was starting to pick up. This was of course helped by usability advocates like Jakob Nielsen, who did a lot of PR and brought in a lot of knowledge. The need for pre-launch usability tests, were becoming ingrained into the process. Clients started to pro-actively demand this from agencies to be part of the deliverables. Many sites were successfully adjusted before the launch as a result of usability tests done with user groups.
At that time the vision of the user was an early user, people with an awareness of technology but without a technology background. But it sort of went a bit over the top; if you see a lot of reports at that time we thought, well these are new people to the web, so we have to carefully guide them. The assumption at that time was that the learnability of the site wasn't very important. People were prepared to invest a bit in learning a site but it shouldn't be too difficult. It shouldn't take too much time.
If we look at the next period, the focus was shifting to a new perspective or discourse of that time, and that was not so much on technology anymore that was shifting; it was more focused on the user's experience. That was one of the key concepts at that time. The ultimate goal of a web site was creating a positive user experience. So a site had to offer fun and had to be a pleasurable adventure. This meant that the discussions about new web sites were dominated by the necessity to offer an element of fun.
This was very noticeable on the client side as well. There the marketeers suddenly entered the briefing teams. And they stressed the point very clearly that it should be fun. This is despite the fact that the site was not an entertainment site but perhaps a telecom site or a banking site.
In this period web design had matured into several specializations. Suddenly we were talking about visual design, interaction design, functional design, information design, audio design, etc.
Development teams generally included several types of designers focused on the different aspects of the site design.
The evaluation of a successful site in this period began to center around statistics that were brought in by the marketeers. We were looking at statistics that revealed the popularity of sites. So if a site was generating a solid 'hit rate', it was more about hit rates, than actually purchasing statistics that determined if it was a successful site.
In this period the late majority was entering the Internet. That included people that were not attracted per se to the technology but were attracted to the Internet because of its content and what it would offer them.
As I said, opinion leaders at that time were the marketeers. Their discourse was very dominant in the evaluations of whether a site was good or not, and they were the ones who collected the statistics about target groups and success rates of sites.
User research at that time, just as design, is a parallel development, as web design was becoming a profession, user research had also matured into several specializations. So we were not just talking about usability research, the testing of actual sites, but as well the user experience, which is more preliminary research; research about the culture and style of target groups; online panels were developed at that time for online surveys; click stream analysis; eye tracking diaries, etc.
The overall vision of the web user in this period was that people are not so much looking for the technology, but instead looking for fun and easy deals. It had more to do with the marketing idea about the popularity of the web site in order to attract users.
Now if I move on to a more recent period which is still very much in development, whereas the other three periods are seen more clearly, I think this is something developing at the moment. I should say the focus at this moment is more looking for a balance between what the technology can do and what can it offer to the users, and both of them are very relevant. I think the history of the decade has learned what to ask. The formats for web sites are more strategically chosen. It is less about what you should always use in a site and what makes all the sites good. It is more about what is this site meant for so which guide lines should be followed. So much so that you cannot generally talk about a good web site anymore. You have to look at formats of what the web site is meant for and then you can make your strategy and do evaluations.
If we look at design, it is a very natural part of any development team. Nobody can imagine that a site is built without one or probably more designers in the team. The criteria for what makes a site effective or successful has moved towards a specific evaluation, as I said before. Not only what a site is meant for, but also whether it is valuable for its users, and when does it deliver what they are looking for.
We could say that now the general audience is online. We can no longer distinguish between early adopters and late adopters. Today that does not make any sense. Most people have some basic experience with Internet. The only difference now is whether you have experience with a specific format that you're focusing on. So if you do any user testing, it is not about having Internet experience anymore because we just have to assume that everybody has Internet experience, everybody, let me put it roughly, most people. But what we are looking for is, with this who has experience particularly with this format and who has not.
Who the contemporary opinion leaders are it is very difficult to say, I would guess, I would call it power consumers. People that generally know how and where to find what they want, and who are pilots or agents for their friends, family, and colleagues. The people who are saying hey you have to seen this, you have to see that, or that's no use. I think we have come to that period with the Internet as well. So it is much more complex and dynamic, and the consumers who need a certain service find out by themselves if it is valuable and then tell others whether they should use it or not.
User researchers just as web designers are now generally accepted. We don't have to defend it anymore. In most cases there is exploratory research before the concept development starts, testing and post-launch evaluations to adjust project plans before the launch date of a site.
The contemporary vision of web users should be that the web is so integrated into everyday life that we as users and consumers, we hardly think of it twice. We just use it. When we need some information we use the Internet just as you use other sources of information. You ask your friends, you look on the street, whether its shops or billboards pasted on the wall; you find your information, you discuss it with others and you use the web like that as well. So the web is not as much a goal but a means to use. It is not so special anymore. It is not a particular activity.
To sum up, my personal experiences, and I hope you recognize them, is that if you look at the past decades and form periods with dominant discourses, I would say they are all still very relevant. I think even, that it has enriched the discussion about the use and evaluation of sites by these different discourses entering the discussion.
I see at a conference like this that sometimes for the sake of getting something clear we have to focus and tune to one of the perspectives. So we can have a debate from the technology perspective or from the usability, or when Helen before was taking accessibility as a specific topic then you zoom in on one of the voices. But I think the metaphor could also have been instruments in an orchestra. Sometimes it is really good to listen to one instrument but all of the instruments together make up a good piece of music, and I think that could have been the same metaphor. It makes the music richer. I think we cannot dismiss the perspective as being out of date, just because it started earlier. We shouldn't make that mistake. I think sometimes I hear it in some presentations but I think it is usually to have a good laugh, it is always nice to point out stereotypes and say, 'that was a nice time, that was a geeky period', but if you are really looking at the complexity and the dynamics of the reality that is going on we should consider all of these perspectives. That is what I really appreciated about the session this morning, each of the speakers were focusing in on one of these periods. The last speaker, Danny O'Brien, started also talking about the geeky period, focusing on the technology period. Then Rosalind was talking about the cool period of the designers. I think she spoke mostly about the late 90s, she stated that as well, because she said the report was from 1999.
But I think also the social history and identity has moved on as well. And the first speaker this morning, Michael, he spoke more about the period which I characterized as the marketing period, the user-experience period. Which was much more about venture capital entering the market and who would be the first one who has a dominant part of the market, and who would be the first one to claim a certain target group.
I think what didn't come into the debate, maybe later in the day, was the fourth period, which we are in at this moment. Where I think we have even moved on from these three which were so nicely characterized this morning, and we are looking for a more balanced, a more subtle discussion where all these voices are still there, but there are more instruments in the orchestra.
I'll wrap it up. I think I made the argument of effective formats, that it is very... it is impossible to talk about golden rules or guide lines in general for web sites. There are so many specific formats. There is so much variation for which format is effective for which situation. So you really have to look per site and per strategy and whom it is for. That is what I mean by looking at the user value.
My last point I want to make is bringing it back to my main topic, which is the vision of the web user. Our visions of who the web users are have changed a lot, literally, because there were differences, early adopters, late adopters, and late majority. There were literally different audiences, but now it is a general audience that is online. So sometimes it is difficult finding the right terminology, because 'users' is a word I use everyday, it is not a word to dismiss, but it also has the connotation of coming from the technology, using this technology.
Whereas customers, the term used by the marketeers has the connotation of buying; I have this service do you want to buy it. Consumers I like to use because it is much more broad, it is much more about you have a lot of things to do in your life and part of that might be using what is on offer. I think this is a discussion that will go on a long time.
In general we can say the web is integrated into our daily lives and our daily lives are very elusive, chaotic, messy, so we use anything we can to arrive at our goals, and the Web is one element within that. We can say the users of the web are very sophisticated and very active people who know where to find their information. If they don't like the site they won't use it, they will find another site. Telling others about that as well. But we are also as consumers very unpredictable and erratic. That doesn't mean that if your site is really good, if it looks good, if it works, it doesn't mean per se that people... even if people appreciate it, they've used it last week to book a ticket, it doesn't mean per se that next Saturday, if they want to book a ticket they will do it again online. That is what the statistics just scream out to us. People use the Internet a lot, mainly to do research, not so much to buy, because we like to go to shops. And if it is eleven o'clock in the evening then of course you do it online, but if you have time and it's the weekend and you want to go out you just decide differently. That doesn't depend on the design as much; it doesn't depend on the technology as much. It can depend on the mood. Or that somebody yesterday told you a scary story about worms, viruses or online security issues. I think if we look at visions of web users we should except that it is a messy, very complex, very dynamic and very interesting. This is the topic I am researching at the moment, for my PhD research. As producers we shouldn't over focus on making anyone use a web site, regardless if it is perfect technology or perfect design. People will move in an out and they will know how to do that, and if they don't feel like it they won't.
That's it basically. If anyone wants to give a reaction you can email me, I'll put the slides online as well.
Geert Lovink: Rosalind Gill teaches at the London School of Economics, there she is also heading the Master Program of Gender and Media, and she wrote an influential paper called Working Practices in New Media and it is one of the few based on empirical work that looks into work and practices with a strong gender aspect. Rosalind.
Rosalind Gill: Thank you very much Geert, and thanks everyone for inviting me. I think it is really going to compliment what Michael said very well. Because what I've been interested in is: looking back at web design was not just the excitement about what the web could do, in terms of creativity, in terms of new technologies, in terms of new designs, but there was also such a powerful moment of the excitement about new ways of working around web design; new kinds of anti-corporate, informal, flexible, autonomous, non-hierarchical ways of working. There was a really powerful sense of utopian imagining around what kind of work would be possible. So that was the interest that I had when I started out on this research, basically to test some of those ideas. To test some of those utopian imaginings against what was actually happening and what people's experience of working in web design actually were.
First of all I need to make the sociology plea and apologize for doing such a naff PowerPoint presentation. It is very very embarrassing to be in a room full of very creative artistic people and here I'm using the most boring off the plate template in PowerPoint, but sorry I am a sociologist. Forgive me.
Basically the research that there was around new media, at the time we did this was, there's been quite a lot of sociological research and research by anthropologist and geographers but it seemed to focus on quite a few themes that didn't actually have to do with the workers own experience. One of the key themes was the theme around the New Economy. A lot of the research focused on the New Economy and economic boom and bust patterns, trying to specify in what way the New Economy or the Knowledge Economy worked as a different form of economic organization.
A second theme of sociological research was around the death of distance. This was a really really powerful research theme. Basically it focused on the possibilities engendered by virtual products. The idea that workers could be based anywhere, and businesses were really interested in that because they thought that saved them loads of money in distribution costs.
The idea of the Weightless Economy, it is very interesting because the Weightless Economy is a very, in sociological terms, a very common term. But whenever I mentioned it to new media people they would think that "weightless" was spelt "wait", "wait less", rather than "weightless", and they associated with that faster broadband connections and so on. But it is actually more about the weightlessness of what is produced.
The flip side of that interest in weightlessness is a current preoccupation around the return of sociality. There is a really strong interest, at the moment, in clustering, why people doing similar activities, who are involved in similar kinds of work, why they cluster together. Even though these works are by definition virtual. We could in fact be working anywhere, we can communicate by email; why is it that people doing similar types of things want to all live and work in the same parts of the city. Right now there are a huge number of research projects examining those questions.
I'm basically focusing a lot on the value of face-to-face interaction as means of sharing information, such as getting information about what jobs are available, evaluating new programs, new types of software and so on.
There is also a lot of research around new types of firms in the new media field. In particular the declining significance of the traditional firm, and this new interest in networks, where firms pull together diverse people from different fields and bring them together as project networks rather than old established units of the firm.
And finally I'd say in terms of what the dominant sociological research is looking at; there is a huge amount of research on consumption and the uses of new media products. There is a lot of work on the unequal distribution of access to these kinds of products and these kinds of skills. There is a strong focus on the digital divide, focus on things like the way the web is transforming peoples consumption, healthcare and people's health practices, political transformation; how that is being impacted by the web.
All of this stuff I think is really interesting, really important, but what's left out of it is; there is little focus on who the people are that work in these fields, what they are doing, what their aspirations are, how are they organizing, are they actually doing things differently, what kind of challenges do they face, all these kinds of questions.
This really echoes what Michael was saying. Into this space generated by a lack of research comes all of these really potent myths usually based on studies of just one city and it is often either London where I'm from, or New York, and dominated by quite North American assumptions. So there is the image of the Techno Bohemians from New York at the end of the late 90s, artistic, cool, alternative, kind of DIY punk sensibility, Generation X'ers with a strong anti-corporate ethic. It is really interesting when you read a lot of the writing about this that quite a lot of the popular writing about this group of workers focuses more on how many body piercings they have and how many tattoos they have and what their hairstyle is like, rather than the nature of the work, or what they are doing.
The British flip side of that is the "Independent", that was the term coined by Charlie Leadbeter and Kate Oakley and it was a term that had been used to talk about young people who were setting up creative or cultural industries, micro businesses, in Britain in the late 80s and throughout the 90s. T hey share a lot of the values as the Techno Bohemians, they are anti-establishment, they're highly individualistic, they value autonomy and fulfillment in their work.
According to Leadbeter and Oakley, the emergence of this group had several quite distinctive social and demographic determinants. They were the first generation who grew up with computers and consequently felt enabled by that technology. They entered the work force in the 1980s during a moment of economic recession and industrial downsizing. And also, this is quite crucial, during a moment when there was a diminishing availability of the public purse for arts subsidies. So they were kind of pushed by these social determinants towards self-employment. They generally reached adulthood or adolescence during the time of Margaret Thatcher's Prime Ministership, and they are said to derive some of their values from this kind of political formation of Thatcherism. In a kind of contradictory way because none of them would identify themselves as Tories, they wouldn't identify themselves as conservatives, and yet they have some of those Neo-Liberal, like Michael was saying, anti-establishment, anti-tradition, very individualistic qualities. And this again pre-disposed them to entrepreneurial self-employment.
In addition to this academic writing about the new media myth there has really been a very powerful and potent media in popular culture about the new media myth, a myth around it being exciting cutting edge work. That it involves artistic young cool people. That it is very creative and it is autonomous and that working relationships are relaxed and non-hierarchical. That there is this anti-corporate feel, and that there is this really egalitarian focus and a focus on diversity. The myth around what a new media start up firm looks like, is that it doesn't matter if you are gay or straight, it doesn't matter if you are male or female, it doesn't matter if you are black or white, because everyone connects to this "post-Benetton" ideal of egalitarianism, I think you could call it. You know the Benetton adverts; it's that kind of image. A sort of classic image of it in Britain was seen in a drama that started in late 2000 called Attachments, which was the BBC's first attempt to do a dotcom drama. I'll just read a bit from the press release of the drama. The BBC promised us:
"An abundance of sex, nudity and lust..." and it highlighted the following things, "lattés and trendy warehouse premises, temperamental designers, people shouting things like, 'can't you do a tracer route on the IP address', web cams in the toilet, swearing abuse and practical jokes, brooding techies with body odor and investors who seemed to be friends but turn out to be enemies."
A... just the opening two scenes kind of set the tone for the whole of this drama. The opening scene shows the coder hard at work on his HTML or his JAVA or whatever, then the camera pulls back and we see that he is actually completely naked. Then he gets up to make a call on his mobile, which obviously he has to do on a skateboard, and he skateboards across the room, naked, and calls his colleague on the phone. His colleague answers the phone midway through having sex, and there you have all of the ingredients of this show.
It was against the backdrop of these myths that we set out to do, really some basic empirical research about what it is like to actually work in new media. This research is five years old and that makes it basically half a lifetime away, in terms of the lifetime of the web and what we are addressing now. One of the things I'd really value is your feedback on how out of date this research is. How much has changed, what is different now. The situation I think is perhaps very different and it is partly a result of the Dotcom Crash. Though I think this is more of a North American story than it is a European story, especially because of the huge amounts of venture capital that were involved in the US. But it is also very different because things have just shaken down. Things have stabilized and there is much more differentiation now, say for computer game designers, which are now a separate group largely, rather than included under this heading.
There has been this stabilization and differentiation, but I am keen to explore what has changed. We have started a new study at the beginning of this week with Andy Pratts, from London and Folkes Beltan from Berlin. We are looking at six cities but don't have any data yet, we started it two weeks ago. What I've done in this talk; I am talking mainly about research I did with some colleagues, but also supplementing it where I can with more up to date information from other colleagues.
These were my research partners and I just want to acknowledge them. The study was carried out with these partners and it was cross European. We focused on six different countries. We did interviews, a combination of interviews and electronic surveys. This is just a slide mentioning some of the additional research I am drawing on.
The countries in the study were Austria, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, Spain and the UK.
The responses that we got from the study were very uneven. So we got a lot of responses from the people in the Netherlands and a lot of people from the UK, some from Spain, hardly any from Ireland and a few from Finland. So it is very unevenly distributed.
Our findings. Starting off with the most banal, most people were aged between 20 and 40; most of them actually were between 25 and 35. They've been working in new media an average of two to six years. The people that we spoke to, 112 of them, the sample we have is overwhelmingly white. I think this is an important point. I am not totally clear whether the whiteness of our respondents is at all related to the fact that this industry is very white dominated or whether there something in the way we did our research, and particularly the use of snow balling, that meant we didn't actually get to close to the black, Asian and other people involved. I suspect that it is a very white dominated field, and I can say that looking out at this audience. But also based on the evidence of art school admissions. In the UK there is a real concern at the moment because entry to art school is so white and so middle class, and it shouldn't be. I think there are really important issues around racialization, particularly when we look at the findings juxtaposed with the myth: the myth of racial egalitarianism.
In terms of education we found that, you guys, are probably the most highly educated workers in Europe, that 93% had a degree, half of those with a degree had a post-graduate qualification, but more than that they have also done loads of supplementary training and learning from all kinds of packages, training languages, techniques and so on.
There was a really powerful finding around how critical people were about their formal education, so although they were kind of up there with doctors and lawyers, in terms of how much formal education they'd had, they were extremely critical of that formal education. They were critical of their teachers having very low levels of IT literacy; they felt that their teachers had a very impoverished view of the potential of new technologies and applications. And that there was much too much a rigid split between art lessons on the one hand, IT lessons on the other, and no connection between them.
They were also very critical of the way that ICT was treated as kind of play, instead of real work, in schools in particular. So a bit like, "oh now kids we are going to do something really fun". Instead of, this is just as important and serious as the rest of your work.
A lot of them having been very critical of their formal education had then learned loads of packages and applications, by themselves or in adult education settings, or media centers, or from their peers. There was an incredible amount of peer teaching and learning going on. Someone mentioned it yesterday in terms of just standing around terminals. People gathering around saying, "look at that, how did you do that? Look at the particular look and feel of that", all of those sorts of things.
Findings in terms of the work itself, we found that the informal networks that people had were extremely important. They were a source of support, of learning, and of information about jobs. Lots of people at that time created their own jobs. And that could be something as basic as somebody going to their local independent record store and saying do you want me to design a web site for you. Lots of people created their own work, or produced CD-ROMS that they took around and showed people. They were trying to engage with people about thinking about doing different things and extending people's vision of what was possible.
A key source of finding work was a culture that was organized around bars and cafés. The recent research pool has born that out as well. There is some research on Brighton and Hove from 2003, which is a very big new media hub in the south of England. It found that although there are loads of internet recruitment agencies and also lots of state subsidized agencies to support new media workers with bulletin boards of vacancies and jobs etc. people didn't tend to use them. They used word of mouth and face-to-face as their source of finding work.
Importantly it was not just a source of finding work, but it was also a source of trading evaluations of who was good, who was doing crappy stuff, who was good to work with, who kept a deadline, who didn't. All of that kind of tacit information was passed on informally in face-to-face settings around bars.
We found that people were often working on lots of different projects simultaneously. The average was around eight per year and they sometimes made distinctions between the things they had to do to pay the rent, which might be very boring and mundane things that they had to do just to pay the rent, and then their artistic or creative projects, which they saw as actually defining who they were and what they wanted to do; where they were pushing the boundaries.
Findings in terms of money: we were really shocked by this, when we found this out, bare in mind it is five years ago; very low earnings for new media work. Men were earning an average of 16,000 euros a year and women were earning an average of 10,000 euros. These low incomes meant that they had to supplement their new media work with other types of work. By far the most common other type of work they supplemented with was teaching. There is a lot of adult education teaching going on, some of them were doing part time teaching at a university, and what was very significant was, they are bit like actors in a sense. They might be waiting tables in a restaurant eleven and half months per year and get a part in a show for two weeks of the year, but they still self-defined themselves as actors. And so it was with the new media workers we spoke too. Their identity, their sense of who they were, what they were doing came from their new media work, even if that was, in terms of their financial earnings and in terms of time, much less significant. That is really important.
The attractions and frustrations, the youth dynamisms, the creativity, the fact that it was never boring, people said that a lot. It is never boring. It is always challenging you; you are always being forced to think through new things, a sense of possibilities. They also really valued working in flat organizations where there wasn't specialized differentiation, where everybody had to do a bit of everything. That was how it was for most of the people at that time. They valued the autonomy, they valued the freedom to shape their working day. They could get up at three in the afternoon if they wanted and work then, and work through the whole night. But there was nobody saying you need to be here between these hours.
Again, the myth of new media was heavily referenced by the people we spoke too, saying it is a fun place to work and a really valuable part of it was the blurring of work and non-work, so you didn't think, this is my work and then this is the rest of my life. There was a blurring between work and life.
Leadbeter and Oakley in their study offer a very upbeat assessment of this kind of work. It really stresses the pleasures of working in a creative micro business. But what we felt and what often gets left out of these very celebratory accounts is a sense of any of the costs, or risks, or the insecurity, or the precariousness of this kind of work. So what we tried to do is hold on to both sides, hold on to the fact that people told us about the exhilaration, the excitement, the pleasure; how good it was to be doing something you really enjoyed and was challenging, yet also hold onto some of the problematic features that there were for people working in new media.
We grouped these together under the headline, "The Individualization of Risk". This phrase is one that comes from a German sociologist Ulrich Beck. Unlike employees in traditional organizations the majority of our respondents were freelancers and they were working in extremely competitive environments, where your portfolio of work and your last job and your reputation were fundamentals, like the phrase, "you're only as good as your last job" was very powerful. The workers we spoke too dealt with a lot of anxieties and risks around finding work, managing their time, managing their new media work with the other stuff they had to do in order to make some money to pay the rent. Managing the gaps between contracts updating their skills in a field where innovations are just crazily fast. Staying abreast of new developments was a constant challenge. You couldn't get sick because you might miss out on a whole new set of things.
So, for example, Susan Christopherson has done some research around the new media district in New York, and her respondents said they were basically spending 20 hours every week staying abreast of changes, training themselves in new skills, updating their skills, and looking for their next contract. 20 hours a week you know is more than half of the standard working week and that is before they've even done any work. You see what I mean? They haven't even started their actual work. That's just to keep ticking over. So a long hours culture, very demanding. There wasn't a culture of complaining about that. People did that and understood that is part of working in this field, yet you could see that over a long period that might become unsustainable to work at that kind of pitch and once you've left a particular age bracket.
Turning finally to the specific issues around gender. We found that when we asked women and men about what you could call their "techno biographies", that whole set of experiences they had with different technologies growing up, that they had totally different techno biographies. And this started either at school or before going to school. At school the women routinely reported having much less access to the PC, and that the PC's would be dominated by groups of boys hanging around them. There was lots and lots of talk about that.
It ended up with the fact that women just got fewer of the contracts. So I said to you earlier that there was an average of eight contracts per year, eight different projects per year, when you broke that down by gender, men were doing an average of nine and women were doing and average of six. Women were doing fewer contracts. As a consequence to that they earned substantially less for their new media work. Where men were earning 16,000 euros on average, women were earning 10,000 euros. What this meant was that, de facto, women became part time in what they were doing. They got pushed into a situation where, because they were getting fewer new media contracts they were having to do more teaching, the university lecturing and so on, in order to supplement their income. And so it polarized many of them. If you looked at their career trajectories side-by-side they started to look very different and they became more different.
One of the other significant things about this was that one of the universal desires of everyone we spoke to was that they wanted to work in the cultural hub or the technology hub of a city. That was their most desirable place of working. So everybody's aspiration was to have some sort of rented studio space in the cultural hub of the city. What happened in terms of gender was, because woman were earning less from their new media work they couldn't justify the rent on the studio space in the way that men could. More women end up working from home. And then it became a sort of self fulfilling prophecy, that they were working from home, they weren't in the cultural hub of the city where a lot of the men had rented studio spaces, so they weren't in the café and the bar culture, so they didn't have a place to bring clients to and say this is my work space. And so this whole cycle continued.
We had from women and men; we had people telling us very fun solutions, and very creative solutions, that they made for this problem. Nevertheless, it was a problem. One woman adopted a café, which she always used to bring clients to. It was like her café and that's where they kind of reserved a table for her and she could always bring her clients and know it would be reasonably quiet.
Diane Parrins who's done some work around Brighton, told me a very fun story about how two men, who were working out of a bedroom, how they managed that problem about talking to clients in a space that wasn't a converted bedroom. What they would do is hire a black Mercedes in order to generate the impression that they had tons of work and tons of business. They would always get out their PDA and say, "I can't fit you in, I just can't fit you in at all" and then they'd say, "look the only time I can do it is midnight, is midnight by Brighton Pier going to be okay?" Apparently people would say yes and they would actually have the meeting in this hire black Mercedes.
There was another similar story, again around generating an aura of solidity and busyness and creativity around the company, was again from Brighton, which was two guys hiring a yacht just off the coast of Brighton, and then they would pay young people to wear t-shirts with the company name on it and to walk up and down the beach wearing these t-shirts, which was basically just these two guys; the company; wearing these t-shirts to generate an impression of how big and successful the company was while they had this hourly rented yacht trip out at sea.
There were incredibly creative solutions but nevertheless the serious issue is around what happened when woman got forced back into working in the home.
So far I've talked about some very traditional mundane, not at all surprising difference between the number of contracts that men and women got, the rates of pay they got, the access to work places they had. But in addition to those traditional markers of inequality there were a couple of things that seemed to be new, seemed to be distinctive to the new media field, one of them centered around informality. As I said before the informality in new media work is something that really attracted people to that work. But this could also pose problems for women. There were various women who reported problems in terms of working with men in male dominated teams, where there could sometimes be inappropriately sexualized interaction, sometimes bordering on harassment. More commonly there were complaints about ladish culture. This was also found by Victoria Pitts in her 2003 study, and by Diane Parrins in her study in 2004. Her respondents talked about the "bloke-ism" of working in new media.
Women also tended feel that they missed out in getting contracts because they were less likely to be involved in the drinking culture. They also felt implicitly that judgments that were passed on around who is good, who's creative, who's doing exciting stuff, who's hot at the moment, those kinds of informal judgments tended to discriminate against them. Not that it was deliberate but tended to privilege men, in what one of them called the new boys network.
Another issue was flexibility, as I said, flexibility is another of those things that is seen as highly desirable. But there is a very flexible discourse of flexibility in new media. It didn't necessarily turn out to be the kind of flexibilities that they wanted. Flexibility ended up not being determined by their own needs, it wasn't that they were truly autonomous and able to work flexibly, but it was flexibility determined by the needs of the project. So you could be quite flexible when a deadline wasn't due, but as soon as one was due flexibility went out of the window. In fact it turned out to be something that Andy Pratts called the bulimic career pattern. Which draws on that notion of eating disorders where you have really intense periods of binging on work where you are working all of the time and then periods where you are basically starving for work.
Another issues about women working from home, I'd like to add just one point here. Historically the home has had a very different meaning for women then its had for men and that is another reason that made it particularly difficult for women to be returned to the home. It made our female respondents feel that being in the home made them seem less serious then it did for men.
The final issue here is about children. We didn't specifically ask about children. Very few people had children, partly because of the age range of the people. But Susan Christopherson in her study of New York found that very few of the new media workers she studied had children. And Annette Henninger and Karin Gottschall in Germany also found that women were much less likely to have children. Now you could just say, maybe new media workers don't want to have children. But what emerged was that men could have children, so male new media workers often did have children but the female new media workers didn't. This seems to be another hidden cost that women where facing. As a side note to that, I've done some work for the BBC and they've been working towards getting targets for the number of senior executives, executive producers, and producers and they reached those targets for women. But anecdotally what they reported now is that the new in-equality that they found is not between men and women but between men with children and women who can't seem to have children to make it in the same positions within the BBC. I really think the issue around children and being able to have children combine that with work is an important one.
My very last point now, is around something we called the post-feminist problem. One of the issues was that there was a real reluctance amongst our sample, both male and female, to admit to the new media scene being anything other than completely egalitarianism. There was a kind of willful gender blindness and racial blindness so that people would not notice that it was completely white, and not notice patterns of male domination, and this went for age as well. There was such a dominance of individualistic and meritocratic discourses so everybody seemed very wedded to the idea that if you work hard enough you can make it. That it is up to you to be good enough so that you get the next contract. What seemed to have disappeared was any kind of language for talking about a structural inequality. There was a kind of schizophrenic quality to some of the conversations we had. Where on the one hand people would know that it wasn't really meritocratic, it wasn't really based on how good you were and there were all kinds of other things going on in the allocation of contracts; who do you know, who is you friend, who did you work with before, or were you in the bar on that particular night when that was being talked about. All of those things were in fact really important things, but once people talked about it they came back to this idealized notion of it being a meritocracy, and it is all on the basis of how good you are.
To conclude I think there are a lot of issues in terms of new media workers lives, but particularly I focused on the differences between the kinds of career biographies that women and men were able to have, and I think there is quite a long way to go before we can say in anyway we are living up to the core creative, egalitarian image. Thanks
Geert Lovink: Lets just start with Michael Indergaard, from New York. He is the Associate Professor at St. Johns University in sociology and anthropology, and we asked him to speak here because he published the history of the New York, New Economy, the so-called "Silicon Alley". The book is called Silicon Alley, The Rise and fall of a New Media District and in this book he is addressing different issues concerning the New Economy. Apart from Silicon Alley he has another forthcoming book on corporate government and financial crimes. Please Michael Indergaard.
Michael Indergaard: As a sociologist I'm sort of from a different tribe than you, and I was pondering just exactly what tribe do I belong too? I was looking at my very interesting badge which of course is now all over the room; I wasn't sure if I was representing George W. Bush or perhaps the Pope and both of these aren't very good choices, so lets just say I'm the sociologist.
I think perhaps these little badges were a device to raise the issue of how does legacy and lineage effect identity. And it turns out that trying to specify the essential character or nature of something, in other words its identity, is a rather difficult thing to do.
My book on Silicon Alley is one of those messy kinds of works that tries to look at many different things and see how they all came together in one clump, namely, how many diverse kinds of actors and social cultural resources, in the city, were organized into this ensemble, under a particular identity.
Here is my thesis: the character of web workers, their work, and even their ideals ends up being shaped ultimately by what it is they are a part of; by what they are connected too. Which means the larger social economic systems. Based on that, I think a lot of the issues that arose in the 1990's in places like Silicon Alley are still facing people in this field, even as the field changes quite a bit. Part of these issues are this: what will sustain their work, your work, in a material or economic sense? In terms of, who will sign your paycheck or what will pay the bills of the enterprise you work for, whether it's for profit or not for profit. How will you gain the resources that you need to sustain what you are doing? One of the key ones I will be focusing on is how do you gain a place in the built environment, in the expensive urban real estate. The other issue, I think, is in the networks that web workers belong too. Where is the power, where is the control and how much do you have, how much did you have in the early 90s and how much can you look forward to have in the future? I will probably ask these questions without giving that many answers.
I'm guessing that there are lots of idealistic, young, web designers here. I would like to start out with the ideals and idealistic new media types once found in New York circa 1995, and these ideals you can organize around a set of expectations as well as hopes. For example, that the Internet would allow for the rise of an alternative media, and that, new media producers and users could escape corporate controls. That corporations would have lost their advantages in terms of both production and distribution, and not only that, the new media producers could produce content and expressions that were more creative and more authentic; escaping the whole mass market, mass consumption circle. Finally the New York media claimed that they had a special comparative advantage; that they were creative. That they could excel at making creative content, then in trying to make a more sophisticated version of that, they dubbed this "Creative Commercial Applications". What they had in mind was; this is our advantage versus the tech heavy West Coast. We have the media; we are the media center of the world.
So I'm going to introduce a young idealistic web designer and I'm just going to kind of loosely follow him. This is one guy I mention in my book. This is a zine he helped found, the guy is Kyle Shannon, he was an unemployed actor who was doing desktop publishing to pay the rent. Around 1995 he formed this web zine called Urban Desires, of which this was one of the covers. The notion was that there is much in the city that is desirable. He first started with a kind of erotic notion and then he went to a more general idea talking about the dark side of our desires and wants. He also formed an association so that he would have like-minded techno bohemians to exchange ideas with and that was called the World Wide Web Artist Consortium. To show the importance of those kinds of networks for supporting these new creative sub-cultures, as well as, their life and work style; one of the people he started to get help from in this association was a fellow named Chan Suh. Within a couple of months they formed a company, a new media startup that they called Agency.com. Basically they did advertising based web design and other services and that probably was the kind of work that Silicon Alley became known for.
Ironically these new media progressives, who were so adept at creating these vivid imagery lost control. They lost control over the images, as well as the identity of the New York new media itself. And that is the story of Silicon Alley. Silicon Alley is a commercial identity.
Originally Silicon Alley was in this corridor along Broadway starting at the Flatiron district and going through Soho and Greenwich Village, the traditional bohemian area of lower Manhattan. But as you can see I have a separate little quadrant towards the bottom of lower Manhattan and this is actually the downtown financial district and this became a second center for them. And that is a somewhat novel twist for the bohemian experience in New York, to end up on Wall Street, in more ways than one.
Where did this commercial identity come from? It was produced largely by real estate interest, as well as, by the financiers, and especially the venture capitalists. With the important collaboration of the media, both the burgeoning new financial media, that we heard and saw so often, as well as Silicon Alley's own specialized local industry newsletters and online magazines, probably the best known is the Silicon Alley Reporter, which is actually a real paper magazine.
Also contributing was a segment of the new media pioneers themselves. A segment. Those who aspired to be national contenders, if not international, or more specifically those who sought to become new media moguls. To be first movers who can dominate their market segment and be the new Bill Gates.
Now, a quick brief to layout the larger forces that set the scene here. I can only give you a slice of what is in the book of course, but I think it is useful to reflect on the era, these larger forces, and I'll just do that briefly. One is Neo-Liberal policy in the US. One segment of that and probably the one that is most obvious is this promiscuous deregulation of finance and telecommunications sector, which really together fueled the boom; set it off, as well as the general deregulation of corporate governance. So you can make funny numbers, to make funny money. Not only did Neo-Liberalism entail this deregulation but also it also actively promoted it. That is an important thing to realize about the Neo-Liberal state, it is active. It just doesn't retreat. In this case their active promotion, this of course was a Democratic President, the Clinton administration, actively promoting finance driven tech development.
A second major force going on was what I call the New Economy and Cultural Mobilization, in which you have these networks of intellectuals and business professors and consultants who are making the brickolage of new sensibilities in the "new rules" for the New Economy. And the one I just want to point to here that really is important in a concrete sense in Silicon Alley is the idea that you need to turn your stock into a currency. That is your weapon for getting big fast, so you can be that first mover.
Back to the local players and the making of Silicon Alley. Since the Federal Government has no direct intervention at the local level you have sort of an institutional vacuum and the two interest that filled this, were as I mentioned before, the venture capitalist and the real estate developers.
Lets take a look at the venture capitalist first. Of course it is well known what their role is supposed to be in these high-risk innovative economies. They are supposed to reduce the risk, because they are smart money on account of their networks and insider connections. But what we found out during the 1990s is that their insider connections meant that they were able to learn how to beat the market regardless of the quality of the firms they had, because they knew the financial system. They know how to shepherd them through. The pioneers in New York are Wall Street veterans who see an opportunity to challenge Silicon Valley, to challenge its flow over venture capital, and they're thinking it sure would be nice to start directing that flow back to New York, because a lot of that money originates in New York. It just was not being targeted to New York; it was not being applied to New York.
One of them coins the name Silicon Alley in a rather obvious bid to set up this rivalry claiming we have the media, you've got the computers, the computers can replace the media but maybe we can compliment each other, and we'll both be Centers.
One thing I found very interesting is the degree to which the venture capitalist did not just exploit networks they were actively creating them. They in fact helped organize Silicon Alley through connecting the diverse kinds of occupations from the new media people with corporate executives with business professionals, like accountants, as well as, of course the financiers on Wall Street. They formalized that network when they created the New York New Media Association, which I was surprised to find out was a model for a new media association in Amsterdam, but I don't know if it was as oriented to venture capital. At its high point the New York New Media Association probably had about 8500 members, from a very wide spectrum of professionals; artist to bankers to lawyers to accountants, executives to the venture capitalists and at least one sociologist, which just tagged along of course to get some inside dope! Or I guess I should say some information, being here in Amsterdam.
Let see I... Oh the real estate connection! Well this is the reason why the new media got the foothold in Manhattan in the first place. There was a very bad recession in the early 1990s the city lost something like 300,000 jobs, 10% unemployment. Starving artists experimenting with the digital technology are able to find spaces in lower Manhattan, especially in old industrial lofts, along that Broadway corridor. But the worst area was down town in the financial district. Wall Street had a vacancy rate in 1995 of about 20%. At one point the World Trade Center was 30% vacant. That's 11 million square feet.
This is how they end up in the financial district. One of the real estate powers down there has an abandoned, an empty 30 story building that he opens up to the new media. And he spends 40 million dollars putting in the wiring, state of the art infrastructure; invites them in, calls it the New York Information Technology Center and also launches a PR blitz and gets a lot of coverage, and that helps put the identity on the map for the general population. That was quite successful, and the public/private real estate promotion group that this guy influenced down there, decided to do a larger program, which they called "Plug 'n' Go", in which they ended up wiring a total of 13 different office buildings. We're talking office buildings now, not lofts. At the high point they had about 260 new media firms in those buildings. Here you can see in the promotion for this, you can see the commandeering of the new media imagery it is pretty blatant here, entrepreneurship as extreme sport.
I don't know if this map turns out so well, but this map just gives you a sense of the extent of these "Plug 'n' Go" buildings. I think there are only 8 or 9 of them shown here. There are about 4 or 5 more than this. And you can see where it is vis-Ë†-vis the World Trade Center and where it says New York Information Technology Center; well that's part of Wall Street.
This changes the geography of Silicon Alley at the same time that it reinforces the identity. Greatly reinforces identity. It is reinforcing and spreading this territory. And when the tech stocks later heat up many real estate interests all over Manhattan start using the presence of new media firms to change the imagery.
By late 1998 you have extensive financial networks in place to take new media starts ups to IPO's, to their stock listed on the stock market. One thing I tried to emphasize in my book was to answer the question, what were they thinking? Were they con artists? Crooks? Were they deluded, and I think the majority of the new media entrepreneurs themselves were none of these. They were not necessarily trying to make a win fall of riches for themselves. They had a very specific set of ideas they were following and this once again couples with this New Economy doctrine: you've got to make your stock into a currency, you have to grow really big really fast and then you can dictate the terms of that market niche, when your the biggest fish in that pond. And that was their bid. Now in regards to the financiers I'm afraid it is a different story and that's the other doctrine: pump and dump.
Well you get a string of huge IPO's for Silicon Alley firms starting in the fall of 1998 running throughout 1999. In fact they had some record breaking IPO's in the fall of 1998. They were actually the highest one-day rise in price of the stock compared to Silicon Valley firms. I think it influenced the whole tenor for the whole market and made it much worse. By late 1999 you had 28 firms in Silicon Alley ending up with a value of nearly 30 billion dollars, on paper. These are places where five years before it was two guys and a crappy machine in one room.
Of course this provided new imagery for commentary and for reinforcing the hype. This is from the Silicon Alley Reporter, they were doing a top executives issue every year and for the beginning of 2000 they entered this nice little cover here; it's a rip off of the Sergeant Peppers Band cover, and what of course is the message here? I guess in the United States I would use the term "a double play", meaning not only do they have a victory in the capital circuit, they are claiming a victory as cultural authorities. In fact pop culture icons, saying we're the new wave. What's interesting in here is the guys that are front and center, taking the place of the Fab Four, (I put in these little signs because I saw this as the value of how one got to this cultural position, noting here the value of their own personal stock in the company they helped fund), the guy over here with the dog is from Razorfish, I'm sure you've heard of Jeff Dachis, his amount says 190 million; what he was worth at that time. Candice Carpenter, iVillage... Okay the Double Click guy is something like 750 million. Oh! There are a couple of characters here; you see the Blues Brothers, the sunglasses; Kyle Shannon and Chan Suh. Their company by about this time has about 2000 employees with a dozen offices across the world.
After this IPO run, you have an immense flood of venture capital come into New York. To give you some perspective in 1995 the total amount of venture capital in the United States was something like 4.2 billion dollars, and that would mostly be Silicon Valley. In 2000 New York Internet alone is making that much, which is mind boggling since Silicon Valley had been there for 40 years. The total in the United States in 2000 is about 102 billion. So you know now the flood of capital behind the startup explosion.
This has an effect in terms of having an incredible multiplication of startups in Manhattan and they are starting to eat up all of the space. They're going everywhere. In fact they are ending up even in mid-town, which is really the biggest business district. Not only did the real estate prices soar, a space crunch started and many small businesses begin to be displaced, businesses that were profitable, and employed many ordinary New Yorkers. This then began to back fire onto the new media itself. It started to become difficult for them to get space. In January of 2000 a new growth coalition formed to specifically address the new media space crunch, and it was formed by a New York Senator, Charles Schumer, and co-chaired by Robert Rubin, the former secretary of treasury under Clinton. It had a great many high-level multi-national corporations on it and it had representatives of 4 Silicon Alley firms including Agency.com.
Despite the fact that the crash came in 2000 before this group issued its report, it still went ahead and said we need massive commercial re-development in Manhattan to create more space, and they pointed to the west side of Manhattan, west of Times Square. But now the purpose was to provide space for corporations, so the whole new media thing had been used, abused and then refused, and tossed to the side and this whole thing ended up to be good old corporate deal. In fact the corporate economy kept expanding, even as new media was sinking after the stock market crash. You also had this terrible commercial and residential gentrification all over Manhattan, which was continuing to push out businesses. The places where that new media types used to live, they became full of yuppies.
The World Trade Center attacks of course changed everything and finally ended the corporate expansion and put New York into a deep recession. It ended any hopes that Silicon Alley was going to rebound and pull through this. Many of these national contenders go bankrupt, others shrink drastically, Agency.com had an interesting fate; they go private. They get purchased by a private interest so they are no longer listed on the stock market and they shrink to 80 employees.
Many of the characteristic Silicon Alley institutions fold. Silicon Alley Reporter and all of the local new media publications like that, the New York New Media Association, folded. The identity pretty much died in a sociological sense. You can say Silicon Alley died as a sociological entity, in terms of that name, that identity, and that particular ensemble with those connections to the media and to the financial district.
At the end of the book I raised the question, I said, there are lots of surviving elements of the new media in the area. There are thousands of computer firms and there are a number of institutional programs that have been started, but how could they be combined in some sort of new ensemble? I think we are starting to get one answer to that on the real estate side. A major trend seems to be this effort of large-scale real estate development projects to build around new media infrastructure and activities. And there is a conference at MIT, right now, called "New Century Cities", which is a joint project of the Media Lab, the real estate department, and the Urban Planning department. That tells you something. They are suggesting that in many places in the world you now have these new projects that are located at the intersections of technology, urban design, and real estate development. So basically the IT and the media technologies are being woven into the design of cities. So it looks like the web design problematic is morphing, becoming more interesting for an urban sociologist, no doubt, but you have to wonder what does this portend for the people who want to work in this field?
There is a specific project that I am working with that is kind of an example of this thing, a project by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. And it kind of embodies the contradictions we saw in Silicon Alley in the 1990s, in that the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council's agenda is very progressive, yet their biggest backer is that down town real estate interest, because the real estate crisis in down town is accelerating, and when the new World Trade Center is built it is just going to add more surplus capacity. So they figure they have to have and angle. They are going to have to have some sort of major identity for that place, and they are thinking its going to be a 24/7 community, a good place to work, live and play. What the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council is coming up with is, if you have new media used very interactively in the built environment you can gain those qualities. And in terms of the specific goals here you see a lot of progressive elements. They want to bring together many of the different constituencies involved to discuss and plan this, including the new media practitioners and their institutions. Also they are very interested in issues of diversity and sustainability and granting access to this areas activities for groups of people who might usually be excluded. They've been doing a battery of activities where they've been bringing in interactive artists who do things out in the streets, in interactive art installations, and often times depend upon what the audience is doing. Such as, they project onto a building and then people who walk in front of the projector end up with their images on the building and they can manipulate the images and do little plays and skits and things. This gives you an idea; this is a pitch on one of their posters. The pitch they are trying to make to the general public is; you now live in this new media world, be aware of it, seize it, use it. Very progressive. Yet, a sober reminder of the ability of the elites, when they are in these networks, to swing them to their own designs is now what is finally happening out of that big west side project that started with the mobilization to create new space for the new media. As it is becoming the new engine of New York the city has now morphed into this. An attempt, a highly controversial attempt, to have about a 5 billion dollar development, will have a 600 million dollar public subsidy by the state and city, very corporate oriented office development, maybe up to 28 million square feet and a professional football stadium.
So I think that kind of sketches out a lot of the challenges, questions and issues and thank you.
To read a clarified and extended version of this presentation please see 16 ways of thinking about web design
John Chris Jones: Thank you very much. As you've just heard I've been waiting a long time to be able to give you this talk, probably thirty from fifty years. Because in the 1950s, I was concerned as an ergonomic industrial designer with the interface of one of the early mainframes, the AEI 1010, and I've been connected at a distance with computer people ever since then. At that time when they used to consider auto coves for the cities and re-mended it in machine language, which was one's and zeros. And off course the amount of software has increased ... but for all these years it still wasn't flexible enough to act in a more human way for things I wanted to do with it.
It only worked in a more human way. Only recently in 1995 due to the persuasion of one of my good friends was I induced or forced, I should say, into becoming a natural computer person. And that was Jonathan Moberly who obliged me to buy the necessary equipment and to learn the skills about do it yourself with aid from him. Previous to that Erik von Rauschell persuaded me and eventually talked me into it. And what you see here is a bit of a website I was assisted by Kass Schmidt is Kass here now? Could you put your hand up? Of the BBC who helped me to make this, rather than on my own, and Rob Blake who some of you know. Without these people I could do nothing. And I think I made something of these things because its a collaborative medium is it not? And it is the first in the world that is so collaborative. I think the spontaneous example of the open source movement is kind of comparable for the good that can come out of this network situation. The general word for Internet ... I think the generic word should be computer net, namely a telephone network with a computer at each node as well as people at the nodes. That is what makes the difference whether you call it Internet or not. And it allows for things to go off on different routes and seems to be centerless. I wrote something called the phone in collaboration with Jonathan Moberly, which became quite a well-known piece of software.
Now I'm going to talk about my own experiences as really an amateur in this. I've been a professional amateur all my life; I would say going deliberately at the receiving end and seeing what it looks like to be fired at by the producers of technology. Mostly it hurts in my opinion though we're induced to believe that it doesn't hurt. And we get induced to mechanize ourselves to such a point that maybe we can't de-mechanize ourselves, by that meaning to pre-computer technology. The computer as I realized in the 1950s is flexible, movable, changeable, not concerned with fixed centers of authoritarian modes of behavior. And that is the promise. So first technology really does is allow people to send matter off, possibly a website too and the radio microphone.
We will read in a few minutes from my digital diary. If this is live, I am not sure if it is live, we'll find out in a moment. Then I'm going to look at the latest day if we can get to it, which was the 19th of January. We'll read what is there. Let see if we can get to it. I've never used one of these lines with two things in it I've always been a Mac person. Now is this working?
Thinking out of doors, is something, which I did on the 19th, and I've been taking another computer... where's my hand held? Here's the hand held. I found ... I was getting really far with the desktop computer and then I got an impulse one day ... I am going to visit the cave drawings in France, the underground cave drawings by stone age people and on the way I bought this. Which is a hand held made by ... it's called a Visor it's really strictly the same as the Palm. It uses the Palm software, and I write on this out of doors, and not in office spaces, not in houses, not with roofs, and floors, and wall around us. And following the advice of Thoreau, David Thoreau the American philosopher poet, or biologist poet, you could say that, who lived several years in a hut in the woods. And he says what you write out of doors in totally different, I agree with him. Also Rabindranath Tigore the Indian philosopher he says what I see in western philosophy I see the reflection of the city wall which is outside the philosopher and insulates him from nature and produces a dualism, the dualism of Plato for instance which has sobered us so deeply, and so highly ingrained and that I think is what we're up against. The dualism, very relevant to the last talk. I think from Hayo whether we accept all of it, don't accept splits between people into classes of professional and amateur and so on. I refuse to use splits. I find ... I tried in organization to do this but eventually I had to resign, in the mid 80s, because I had a profound argument with the Open University where I used to work, but I could see that within such and organization as that it was impossible to proceed in the way I wish to and since then I earned much less money and freedom from having a boss, freedom of having an editor I had to work for and so on; And freedom from being on a committee. I don't think I've been on a committee since then, since about 1985.
This is an expensive decision and this is one of the results. I have a clock here ... what time are we supposed to finish?
Femke Snelting: Fifteen minutes.
Jones: Fifteen minutes to go, so that's quarter past three. I hope I can keep my mind on that.
Now, I'm sitting in such a funny posture that I can't do that. I'm trying to get to where I can ... I wonder if you can do that for me, and I'll take the microphone a little bit nearer, so I can see the projection properly.
I'm just going to read this and we're going to enjoy the experience I hope, now of what I call collective reading. Which was absolutely impossible till digitized print. And I think the digitizing is a liberating move. We're going to read very slowly. I normally do this every other Friday on a radio station in London called the Late, Late, Breakfast Show. It went off at two o'clock (...?) The Late, Late, Breakfast Show is arranged by Jonathan Momely and his wife and I'm there every other week and I read the latest bits from my digital diary. So I'm going to read now as if I were on the broadcast.
Funny thing reading from a microphone, from print, in broadcasting and now into collective reading, I think you might find you enjoy the experience of reading rather more when your sharing it with everyone else, than you ever dreamed possible before. If you read the writing of Marcel Proust, he has some beautiful essays on readings which lead to his first book, and he says its a tremendous joy being in touch with the secret recesses of the mind of the writer reverberating into the recesses of the mind of the reader.
Okay "Online 20th January 2005. Modified", also 20th of January 2005. I do this each time. Note the modification. There will be more in this one I think because there are some mistakes in it. "19th January 2-0-0-5, Thinking out of doors. 16-0-3, Walking a different path today I find myself perceiving things differently. Ground, Trees, ponds, houses", I do these walks on (?) in London for those of you who know it. It's the city forest completely surrounded by a city and really quite wild. "... Ponds, houses, valleys, the whole of technology, and the ... the six billion of us alive and the billions who have already lived and disappeared without (it seems to me) having dealt adequately with their technologies or with themselves as workers, instruments, victims even of the circumstances that they and we create." By the way, when I am writing this, I'm never more than three words ahead of what's going to come. "...Causing accidents of human life. And work and its apparently senseless products all over The planet..." ha I must change that later on a late modification for this evening "...and beyond it. I'm still in the woods. But in my thoughts I'm revisiting the prevailing unhappiness or nonsense ... the rumble of an invisible jet plane above gray cloudy sky seen through bare branches. The sounds and scenes are alive, but what of the hundreds sitting up there in a metal tube." As I was sitting yesterday. "Why are they there and where are they going? Questions one need not ask when walking in the woods but necessary I think when re-arranging life and nature to make fly an all systematical prostheses..." I've recently come to the conclusion that all design, all products are prostheses, for those of us, all of us in fact who cannot fly, we cannot go at fast speeds, we cannot go at a hundred miles an hour and so on. Where have I got to? Ah, it's gone to the top, you moved it up! "And not when walking in the woods but necessary I think when re-arranging life and nature to make flight and all sorts of magical prostheses possible for many of us..." Bracket, this is a modification I put in yesterday, "I'm flying to Amsterdam tomorrow where I may read this at a conference on web design." I think that is a good moment. "But I intended to write were more modern questions, more in mind and psyche." Notice I didn't say brain there. "And the nervous system that are now physical techniques and process and machine made works and its consequences. Why work, why software, why all of this mechanical seriousness in our ways of replacing human effort by automatic process? All forms of modern magic endured without smiles without fully realizing that our technology is out growing its mechanical past and changing its nature. That is the question. What is the answer and what has happened to our spirits? We are human animals at work when we could be at play or at something better than most of what we do for money. But it is getting to dark to see what I'm writing and I have to be in a waiting room..." Doctors waiting room that was. "A few miles away in about fifteen minutes." To get some stitches removed, you can see if you look closely on my head there is still a sign of them there. Um... stitches removed where am I? Ah, spirits. Lost it again. Ah, "the clock, the train, the planned structure we inhabit. Walking fast toward (?) hill..." We going to move up?
Femke Snelting: Yeah we're going to move up.
Jones: "I see the red light, at the top of a tall building..." Okay, "visible beyond the hill top, and when I get to the top I see a surrounding city lit up in the dusk... and the mist... and I am speechless." I could have found a better word but I didn't. "My questions..." forgetting "forgotten in the face of all this, the beauty of the city..." and I can't help remembering Wordsworth's poem there, "... scenes so touching in its majesty, city now just like a garment ware beauty of the morning silent pair. Ships, towers, domes, theaters and temples (?) open to the fields and to the sky..." I can't remember the rest. Now where are we, "the beauty of the city in the evening as it is, the towers, the lights, the unknowable whole of it, seen from above, from this distance, and half imagined in our thoughts... there is more here than we know." Now take us up, up, up, oops wait, a litt... no, no, the other way.
Matthew Fuller: Down.
Jones: Down, down, down, down, yeah "These pages are designed to be read with the window set to 2/3rds of the screen width." I make the text something like twenty four point on most peoples computer and I put that instruction at the bottom rather mildly ... because these long, long lines are terrible on the eye. The printing industry in the past always said no more than 72 letters in a line. (...?) shorter paragraphs in order so that you can read long texts on screen without having to do a print out. I don't really like these methods of media print out, it's going back to our fathers for God's sake. Now we'll see what's new, or we saw what's new. The homepage you had a look at that. The digital diary archive... the Daffodil, which is a newsletter. Anyone can join; you receive the newsletter monthly if you just send me the word "subscribe". And I won't use your information and I won't force it on you, but there you are you can have it if you wish. I send it to about 200 people at the moment, and they seem to like.
Now this copyright, I'm keen on copyrighting and I'm keen on freedom as with the open source and so on. And copyright, copyleft (...?) A sentence that took me a long time to compose, "You may transmit this text to anyone for any commercial purpose if you include this copyright line and this notice and if you respect the copyright of quotations." I think that in a nutshell, other people have come to similar sentences. It's a reflexive legal way of guarding the rights of people and yet open at the same time. If you wish to reproduce any of this commercially please send me a copyright protection, "Permission request to jcj at, to avoid... 'at' instead of the symbol to avoid encouraging spam. I was getting about 50 spam a day now I'm down to about four or five thanks to the Macintosh filter, not the Macintosh filter the Demon filter that I use, and this sentence which I think means you can attribute to that.
Lets go now to what's new. Lets see if there is anything. I'll have a look at my notes now and the clock, which we have only a few minutes left. I have about six things I wanted to say. I'm going to have to choose one of them. Because I've really allowed myself to take a long time over that but I think it's worth it. I was going to show a very elaborate bit of multimedia but the equipment isn't quite right so... as usual as very often happens this is plan B, if not plan C. Plan A was going to be really a lot of fun but we've missed it.
Now... I'm only half way down the first page and there are two pages. Creative democracy. What I was asked to speak on was not what I've said so far. I was really asked to speak on creative democracy. I am going to now have to navigate to get to... wait a minute... no, I think we'll do that one by reading through a book. This was the one I was going to do in a multimedia form. But we now have to do it through the book. On page 18 in this. This is a book which is like a bible, it looks like a bible, it isn't really a bible, only you can believe it if you wish, it's called "The Internet and Everyone", and we'll turn to page 18 to some words that took me quite awhile to work out. Where's 18, oops, 15 ... 17, yeah here we are. Two quotations from this book. This is what I wrote about... Matthew asked me to speak about it; I think it must have caught his interest. He's one of the few people that has picked this book up and read it seriously I believe.
"What I promised in the synopsis of this book was to map out in some detail the creative democracy." This is the word "creative democracy". "The despecialization of industrial living to the point where professional jobs are deconstructed into families of intelligent software enabling anyone and everyone to take over the continuous reforming of culture, in every act and every thought. There are fictional hints at this vision in several places in the book. But to nowhere near the extent that the synopsis predicted. Something keeps stopping me," this is an important point, "writing in that prescriptive way the way of the utopias." All the utopias from Plato's republic onwards, have, with one or two exception, a group of well thinking guardians or philosophers who are telling the other people what to do for their own good. Lenin, in the case of the most famous utopia, Soviet Russia for instance, followed up unfortunately by Stalin. Only William Morris and one or two others in the history of utopias wrote a utopia without government, in which self-government was the form. It is very very disappointing to me to find that science fiction which is a kind of utopia nearly always reverts to this hierarchical mode and has no conception at all of a changed social relationship, a changed nature of how we are together. That's the real point I'm reading about here. "Something keeps stopping me writing in that prescriptive way of the utopias. Some deeper reluctance kept me back from any kind of faits accomplis in which other minds are not free to be clever or more stupid than any of us might predict."
And just to finish I think we'll read one more page. Page 29 to 30, this is only a little bit. Ah it's difficult with all of these other things but never mind. I think we might have needed about six hours for the other version. This is from something called the "Unnamed Something Else" because I didn't want to name its, because when you name it, in a way you destroy it when your talking about the "whole". I think the whole is in fact unnamable and most names for the whole are diminishments of what we are capable of if we don't name "it". This is William Wordsworth here interspersed with computer thoughts. The William Wordsworth thoughts come first, 'Once again do I behold the steep but lofty cliffs on which a wild secluded scene impress thoughts of more deep seclusion and connect the landscape with the quiet of the sky." Now comes the computer bit. "The central point to this view of things is that specialization is no longer the right form for living in industrial..." Turning to the other page. "Industrial culture. I believe that the logic of the change from mechanical to post mechanical..." You can put the cameral right on the print here. This is the ghost; he's going to give a version of what the multimedia version would have been like only it will be on tape. You can focus on the writing. "I believe that the logic of the change from mechanical to post mechanical, via electronic media and computing, implies that people cease to organize themselves in specialized roles, as experts highly skilled in narrowband jobs. With the aid of the computerized internet everyone should be able to take back (from what remains of the specialized professions) the creativeness and initiative that was long ago lost to them." The designer is a greedy man said someone called Josephine at a conference I remember about design. He steals all the interesting parts of life and leaves all the rest for all of the others. "The manual skills..." Wait a minute now... ah, I can't help doing these departures from the text. "As I see it the presence of accessible computing power embedded in everything will turn the technical know-how of experts into accessible software and their manual skills and intuitions into the normal abilities of everyone else. Thus users could become designers and designer could become facilitators (the designers of contexts and software in which these changes can happen)." That I think is the answer, my answer to the question hanging over this conference. Web design if it's professional should be a meta-profession whatever that means. That might be too much of an un-naming of the unknown. Anyway I brief look at the time and ah that was only about 25% of what I was going to say.
This is an adapted version of Olia Lialina's text A Vernacular Web, for the entire content follow the link below.
The Indigenous and The Barbarians
When I started to work on the World Wide Web I made a few nice things that were special, different and fresh. They were very different from what was on the web in the mid 90s.
I'll start with a statement like this, not to show off my contribution, but in order to stress that -- although I consider myself to be an early adopter -- I came late enough to enjoy and prosper from the "benefits of civilization". There was a pre-existing environment; a structural, visual and acoustic culture you could play around with, a culture you could break. There was a world of options and one of the options was to be different.
So what was this culture? What do we mean by the web of the mid 90s and when did it end?
To be blunt it was bright, rich, personal, slow and under construction. It was a web of sudden connections and personal links. Pages were built on the edge of tomorrow, full of hope for a faster connection and a more powerful computer. One could say it was the web of the indigenous...or the barbarians. In any case, it was a web of amateurs soon to be washed away by dotcom ambitions, professional authoring tools and guidelines designed by usability experts.
I wrote that change was coming "soon" instead of putting an end date at 1998, for example, because there was no sickness, death or burial. The amateur web didn't die and it has not disappeared but it is hidden. Search engine rating mechanisms rank the old amateur pages so low they're almost invisible and institutions don't collect or promote them with the same passion as they pursue net art or web design.
Also new amateur pages don’t appear at such amounts as ten years ago because the WWW of today is a developed and highly regulated space. You wouldn’t get on the web just to tell the world, “Welcome to my home page.” The web has diversified, the conditions have changed and there’s no need for this sort of old fashioned behavior. Your CV is posted on the company website or on a job search portal. Your diary will be organized on a blog and your vacation photos are published on iphoto. There’s a community for every hobby and question.
This is why I refer to the amateur web as a thing of the past; aesthetically a very powerful past. Even people who weren’t online in the last century, people who look no further than the first 10 search engine results can see the signs and symbols of the early web thanks to the numerous parodies and collections organized by usability experts who use the early elements and styles as negative examples.
Just as clothing styles come back into fashion so do web designs. On a visual level things reappear. Last year I noticed that progressive web designers returned to an eclectic style reincorporating wallpapers and 3D lettering in their work. In the near future frames and construction signs will show up as retro and the beautiful old elements will be stripped of their meaning and contexts.
In the past few years I’ve also been making work that foregrounds this disappearing aesthetic of the past. With these works I want to apologize for my arrogance in the early years and to preserve the beauty of the vernacular web by integrating them within contemporary art pieces. But this is only half of the job.
Creating collections and archives of all the midi files and animated gifs will preserve them for the future but it is no less important to ask questions. What did these visual, acoustic and navigation elements stand for? For which cultures and media did these serve as a bridge to the web? What ambitions were they serving? What problems did they solve and what problems did they create? Let me talk about the difficult destiny of some of these elements.
The "Under Construction Sign" is a very strong symbol of the early web. It reminds us of the great times shortly after the scientists and engineers finished their work on the Information Highway. Ordinary people came with their tools and used the chance to build their own roads and junctions. Work was everywhere and everywhere there was something that wasn't ready, links were leading to nowhere or to pages that didn't quite exist and there were signs on the pages that warned of broken connections and the lack of navigation.
Step by step people were developing pages into a functioning web and it became less necessary to warn us, especially using road signs, about missing information. But they didn't disappear. Instead, "Under Construction" images changed their meaning from a warning to a promise that this page will grow. The symbol became a hybrid of excuse and invitation. It could appear on an empty or properly functional site as a sign that the project was growing and being updated. Often you could see the newer sign, "Always Under Construction."
"Always Under Construction" didn't mean the site would never work but actually the opposite. It informed users that there was somebody who was always taking care of the site so it would be interesting to return again and again.
This was a very important message because it was crucial to really insist on the idea of constant development and change but the sign was wrong. The association with broken roads and obstacles on the way didn't illustrate the idea of ongoing development. Around 1997 the sign turned into a meaningless footer and became a common joke. Even the mainstream press wrote that the web was always under construction so, after a while, people stopped putting it everywhere.
Neither the "Under Construction" sign nor the idea of permanent construction made it into the professional web. The idea of unfinished business contradicts the traditional concept of professional designer-client relations: fixed terms and finished products.
There was some follow-up though. The phrase, "This site is currently undergoing redesign" became an elegant substitute for blinking road lamps. New ways to show the project was constantly updated appeared as well: current news on the first page, a "Last Updated" notice, or the ridiculous -- but still very popular -- solution that creates a magical effect of actuality and telepresence: put a clock on the web site showing the current time.
So what's with the very idea of web construction? Is it still around and how does it show itself today? I'd say yes. The "Under Construction" signs have unexpected followers, the "Verified XHTML" buttons. You can see them on more and more pages of modern web users.
They are there, (to quote the W3 Consortium), "To show your readers that you have taken the care to create an inter-operable Web page." In other words, the new sign says the developers of the sites are taking care to reconstruct the web to meet new standards and to bring the "world's biggest trash pile" into a faultless, clean and clear code environment.
I'm not a fan of this development but I do like the appearance of the XHTML buttons. They manifest the power of end developers and show the great intention of participating in the global construction or reconstruction of the whole environment simply by making your own site.
The Starry Night Background
Another heroic element of the vernacular web is the outer space background, also known as the "Starry Night." Ordinarily it's a black, dark blue or purple image tiled through with light static or blinking particles. It was very popular with the first web makers probably because there were a great number of science fiction and computer game fans among them.
Their desire to make the web look like the futuristic backdrop of their favorite pieces was justified. Not only by their taste but by the hope the new medium was offering. The Internet was the future, it was bringing us into new dimensions, closer to other galaxies. So the look of the internet had to be an appropriate one like in Star Crash or Galaga. It had to be like the inside of a computer or somewhere out there. Space wallpapers made the Internet look special. This was obviously a space with a mission that other media could never accomplish.
A great feature of the outer space background was that it could be just a two colors, maybe half a kilobyte in file size, but it would instantly give a futuristic mood for your page. So a bandwidth problem was solved as well.
However, the tragedy of outer space backgrounds is that, although they are magnificent, they don't fit with any concrete idea. They never did. Scientific texts, personal home pages, cinema programs, pathfinder image galleries, it's always wrong. Even the starships don't look authentic because it's wrong to hang pictures in the sky and there are no letters in outer space. Even if there were letters in outer space it would be impossible to read them. The dot over an "i" could be a star or a % sign and as for meteors...they're just too easy to confuse.
If you ever designed anything you know that an outer space background only looks good if nothing else is placed on it. If you were ever asked to redesign a page made at the end of the 20th century the first thing you did was remove the starbck.gif.
One of the latest, and thus documented, star removal surgeries happened in 2004. Here you see the 90s look of an online video shop.
One of the last survivors is http://www.kinoservice.de, a weekly updated website with the cinema programs for Stuttgart and Frankfurt. Every time I type this address I'm afraid that I'd find it remade without the stars.
Day by day the hope for an extraterrestial web future was giving way to the present reality of newspapers, magazines, electronic offices, online business, and other serious intentions. "Starry Night" backgrounds reduced proportionately; from being a symbol of the future they were turning into a sign of the web's early years. Its meaning shifted to the opposite: from future to past.
And it reminds us of the army of amateurs who, like Anni und Jens made a few pages in the last century and then forgot about them.
This is a very strong and recognizable association. I recently came across a professionally made promo site for the Renault Megan II Car of 2004, and it plays around with the spaceship design of the car. It looks like the work of a Renault fan and not a corporation because the use of stars on a website -even stars with Flash- stands for amateurs, not outer space.
Since stars shine outside of mainstream web culture they fit well with subversive or alternate projects and easily support the prefix "anti". Take the unamerican.com site for example, it's a sticker shop and antiamerican ideas portal. Stars give weight to this concept by placing the author in outerspace, viewing the whole picture, being objective.
And my projects page at the Merz Akademie, where I teach, is heavily decorated by outerspace motifs to stress that this is entirely my space and has nothing to do with the corporate identity of the institution.
Free Collections of Web Elements
Outer space backgrounds aren't the only images we have from the amateur web; paper, glass, water and wood themes came later. Background collections were formed and images were used to set different tones and celebrate different occasions like weddings, Christmas or Halloween. Themes for web sets vary from music to X-files and victorian berry babies. I could pay a compliment to each one. Collections of web graphics expanded to include buttons, bullets, dividers, animations and "Welcome to My Page" headers. They were a source you could use to build, structure and decorate your site.
Looking back through these early collections of web graphics you recognize some images that made it into a lot of pages and became famous: rainbow dividers, the "New!" sign and Felix the Cat, a cult figure and perfect animation.
Some elements and sections of these free collections remind us of the historical peculiarities of the early web. For example "back" and "forward" buttons are part of the design set for non-professionals who ignored the corresponding buttons on the browser. Indeed, how could you delegate such an important navigational issue to the browser, an application that had a new version released every six months!
The same is true for so called "bullets", the small images used to replace the standard html list elements. It was a historical feature of the amateur web to prefer expression over structure. Early web makers were inspired by the possibility of using images and gladly substituted dull lists with spectacular graphics.
As we're reminded by the various "Best Viewed With..." buttons, the choice of browser was a big aesthetic and philosophic issue for web makers.
Another important problem for Russian speaking Internet users, or more precisely writers using Cyrillic script, were the numerous character encodings. On the first page of a Russian site you had to choose the appropriate encoding system. These encoding buttons were "a land of opportunity" for designers and a lot played around with them making their own modifications.
In 1996, the soon-to-be #1 Russian Web Designer made 20 encoding button sets for different backgrounds and tastes. Within a few months they spread to countless .ru domains and became naturalized in the Russian web landscape.
They had a short life. By the end of 1998 the encoding choice became automatic. Buttons disappeared from the pages and even the legendary collection itself has vanished into history at archive.org/.../free/buttons/
The great MIDI collections remind us how the web sounded in the mid 90s but more about that in the MIDI chapter.
Free collections are the soul of the vernacular web. Lots of people were building their pages with free graphics and lots of people were making collections. The many-to-many principle really worked. Making your own site and building collections was a parallel process for a lot of people. The early web was more about spirit than skills. To distribute was no less important than to create.
It's only a slight exaggeration to state that, because of the modular nature of web page construction, even those sites that never contained a web graphics collection were, in themselves, collections. Every element on the page, every line, figure, button and sound was on its own and could easily be extracted, if not directly from the browser then from looking at the source code to find the URLS of the files.
As soon as users divided into designers and clients free collections lost their attractiveness for both sides. Around 1997 professional web sites were distancing themselves from the amateurs with the complete opposite of modular design. Graphic designs victorious expansion on the web had begun. (It was so fast that a lot of designers and researchers believe that web design is a junior member of graphic design). Designs were produced in Photoshop and later adapted for the browser. A page was created as a block then sliced into pieces. These pieces can't be considered as modules since each piece only exists in relation to its neighbour. Extracting or reusing the pieces is meaningless and undesirable to the authors.
A very typical example is from the Mobile Telecom site, made by Artemy Lebedev in 1997. It's a picture created and sliced in Photoshop.
http://www.artlebedev.ru/portfolio/clones/mtelecom/ Actually, it's one of the first corporate sites in Russia made by a professional. It became famous and the design was stolen many times. Lebedev has a museum dedicated to the clones of this piece. It's a very curious case, I think the people who stole the original design saw it more as a template: a guideline of how professional sites should now be created.
During the late 90s people were deleting links to the collections of files they had made or found. A lot of collections still exist because they weren't removed from the servers but they're difficult to find. So how can you find them if they're not linked? My favorite collection is no exception, there's no link to these pages so I better make one here.
On the other hand it would be very wrong to generalize and say that free collections are a thing of the past. If you search for "my collection of web graphics" you can still find a lot of special collections though not necessarily retro ones (btw "my" is a very important key word, leave it out and you'll be sent to commercial pages). They're upgraded and updated and there was even a moment of revival in 2001 when the section "God Bless America" was added to the private and public libraries of US users of all skill levels who wanted to demonstrate patriotic feelings on their home pages.
And a fresh market for free button makers is the "Verified XHTML" sign. The variety is still small but constantly growing and variations are needed to fit new design styles.
There are also examples at http://www.gifsamlung.de/, http://juanna.ch/, http://gifwelt.laureon.org/, http://gif.10000.ru/. They show that some have managed to bring their hobby to a higher level. Their libraries are huge and alive, life is in full swing in their forums and guest books. These are valuable sources for archivists and those who still prefer to build modular websites using available elements. Like a couple of London based media producers who compiled their wedding web site from apropriate graphics.
In 2004 British designer Bruce Lawson made a contribution to CSS Zen Garden (a collaborative effort to prove that CSS is a standart of web beauty). His GeoCities 1996 theme build of public domain gifs is a perfect reminder that real spirit will find its way around standards.
The World Wide Web was constantly developing and when we say it looked different 2, 5 or 10 years ago we should also say it was conceptually different. The competence of early adopters, passionate amateurs and ambitious professionals, the dotcom hype and the mass distraction of the second wave (i.e. the blog) were all adjusting the way the web was built and interconnected. The way it looked was derived from the underlying architecture.
Let's forget about the visual appearance of the vernacular web and think about how it worked. What were the principles of its growth? The obvious answer is links. A lot of links. Links on every page.
Ten years ago every web site had a section of external links because people felt it was their personal responsibility to configure the environment and build the infrastructure. The many-to-many principle showed itself in linking strategies as well. A site was not complete without links to other sites.
On some pages links were gates to additional information, on others to unrelated information. The way you looked for information was time consuming but rewarding. By following the links you could find much more than you were looking for.
The vernacular web was fascinated by the power of links and often ran to extremes. Sites composed of lists of links, long pages of unclassified and annotated links, webrings or published bookmarks.html files from the Netscape browser.
Since the late 90s linking wasn't that hip any more. Search engines, portals and catalogues took over the linking responsibilities making searches faster and less surprising. In the quest for order and hierarchy the web changed completely. Sites with no external links at all became the norm and now constitute the facade of the mainstream web. Users jump back and forth between search engines.
Links -- the once typical means of conveyance -- have lost their infrastructural importance.
In todays web blogs compensate for over precise search engines by delivering a constant stream of surprise links. It's an interesting evolutionary paradox when you remember that old-school link collections were created to compensate, through human intervention, for the rough search engine results. In the end both cures delivered the same: a link to an address new to the user; an unknown topic, a surprise, an action, a deep web.
The vernacular web is not silent. Expressive pages are usually accompanied with music in the MIDI format. Before the MP3 hit the net, when bandwidth was precious, MIDI was the only option if you wanted to include a full song on a web page. Even those who would only test their website on their local hard disk noticed that a 75 MB WAV file of uncompressed audio was difficult to handle. This was the driving force behind MIDI and it's still going on today. Granted nowadays Macromedia Flash, for example, offers ways to use high quality audio with almost the same bandwidth as a MIDI file it has the disadvantage of being more difficult to use than the huge amount of MIDI's readymade heritage.
Because, similar to collections of free web graphics, collections of MIDIs are widely available. Due to their quality and mostly fan based production MIDIs are generally considered free to collect, use and share. Audio files never made it to this status, they're clearly the intruders from a world outside of the web. They come from CDs and the radio while MIDI gives the impression that the web is its natural environment.
But MIDI collections differ from graphics collections: supply exceeds demand. There isn't the same tradition of composing music for a web page as there is for GIF images. Instead, popular songs are adapted to this format. A MIDI file is usually considered of good quality if the adaptation gave a somewhat faithful reproduction of the original, given the limitations of the format.
This means that you can't identify web music by genres or styles that "came from the web" but by the way it sounds and, although it sounds different on every system its played on, it will always sound trashy.
How did it happen?
The MIDI standard was originally created in 1983 to allow data exchange between electronic instruments like synthesizers and samplers. It featured 128 standardized instruments (like a grand piano, steel guitar plus a drum kit), each assigned a fixed ID number.
So a defined instrumental palette is part of the standard. A MIDI file itself does not contain the exact recording of a sound. It only describes what instrument should play a certain note at a certain time. How it actually sounds depends on the synthesizer. In the case of web music a sound card or a software synthesizer, like Apple's Quicktime, is in charge of replaying the tune. It can be compared to the way HTML describes how a web page should look and leaves it up to the browser to render these instructions.
As all the instruments were standardized in 1983 the sound effectively goes no further than Italo Disco. There will never be any new and exciting sounds, only updated versions of old sounds. New sounds would only break the compatibility with all the existing MIDI files. Software vendors can't change the "trumpet" to a "Neptune's kinda honkashizzle" because, on the web, you can find all kinds of MIDI files that use the trumpet in many different ways. In this case the only solution is the lowest common denominator. The trumpet sound must fit into James Brown's "Sex Machine" in the same way it fits into "Ride of the Valkyries" by Richard Wagner. It does this by not really fitting into either. At least that's equality.
The result is that most of the time MIDI files give the impression of somebody playing hit music on an electronic organ in the privacy of their own home. In reality this happens at village weddings or the annual gathering of a rabbit breeder's association.
It's hard to imagine an easier target for usability experts. It was found that MIDI was distracting and considered annoying by most users, especially if they were listening to a CD while browsing the web.
Only very rare MIDI files were composed especially for web sites. Michael Samyn, author of legendary Home for Netscape1.1, wrote minimalistic tracks for various websites in 1997 and 1998.
Quite recently in the end of 2003 the "Zombie and Mummy Theme" for the online comic of the same name was produced.
It's a great melody and also sounds good because the author took the challenge to fit the tune into the possibilities that MIDI offers. It's a "classical" melodic composition without effects and all the instruments were chosen by their name, not by their sound. If a "xylophone" is needed it's wise to select the "xylophone" even if the "marimba" might sound more like a "xylophone" right now. The tune was then tested on many different platforms and adjusted accordingly, just as is done with HTML code. This insight came a bit late however.
At the moment, the new fashionable browser Firefox doesn't play MIDI on Windows at all. Background music isn't considered to be valuable enough for the developers to fix this bug with the priority it deserves. So MIDI seems to have no chance of survival in the third millennium unless somebody feels that special satisfaction when the sound card tries hard to reproduce a touching passage in a Brian Adams song.
As the W3 Consortium puts it: “HTML frames allow authors to present documents in multiple views, which may be independent windows or subwindows. Multiple views offer designers a way to keep certain information visible, while other views are scrolled or replaced. For example, within the same window, one frame might display a static banner, a second a navigation menu, and a third the main document that can be scrolled through or replaced by navigating in the second frame.”
Despite this reasonable description of frames, (one that even appeals to designers), in mass consciousness they still belong in the amateur world. In the latter part of the 90s they were used with enthusiasm in both the professional and vernacular web and I think they belong to this period. I wouldn't even mention them in the context of this article if not for two important things.
Firstly, frames are really the peoples subject. They're a unique component of the Hyper Text Markup Language and everyone has something to say about them. Frames provide a common ground for professionals and amateurs, early adopters and newcomers. I don't know how it happened but anyone who's seen the web has an opinion. Everyone's experienced them and has a ironic comment. Frames are part of the web's folklore.
“Should you use frames?” This question was submitted by the editor to designtimeline.org, and had one of the greatest number of responses. In a thousand years when the database is decoded by aliens, (or archaeologists), they'll conclude the web was actually just a lot of frames.
Secondly, frames create a very recognizable visual pattern. In general when graphic design makes reference to web design the frame layout is commonly used. (For example: the print ads by Amazon or budget airline ticket booking forms in a newspaper Travel section). The division of the surface into frame-like segments stands for the web in the same way a score display stands for video game screens or a blinking cursor on the command line stands for a hacker in a Hollywood movie.
In 2003 the students of the Merz Akademie celebrated the First Ten Years of the WWW by creating an exhibition of objects that symbolized the landmarks of the web's history. The tribute to wallpapers consisted of a huge board of real wallpaper, (from OBI), arranged in a frame style layout. Even in this simple construction it was clearly the skeleton of a web page.
Although frames aren't widely used anymore they remain a very natural web design element that are even more recognizable than the classic table layout.
As you know, multiuser Unix machines use "~" as a shortcut to the "/users" directory and in the beginning all users were the same. The tilde in front of names and nicknames manifested the power of machines and the system. You were a user, a guest, something peripheral and only the stuff that followed the tilde belonged to you. You had no influence on the things in front.
The tilde showed hierarchy and made the relation of users to the internet transparent. A quick glance at the URL and you could see the provider, university or institution that granted access.Getting rid of the tilde was important.
In 1997 I had a job in a design studio in Moscow. Besides money and a few other things, (like a free internet connection), they promised to host my files on the studio server without the tilde in front of my name.
After a year of being www.cityline.ru/~olialia I became design.ru/olialia. They dropped the tilde and I became part of the team. Drop the tilde and your relation to the words in front isn't that clear anymore.
Back then the next step, (now the first step), was to register your name as a domain. Technically you're still the same user on a server and your rights are still within the boundaries of a folder but it looks different: your "nick" is really a "name" recognized by the high level DNS.
And don't forget that a registered domain promises success in business.
Today, having a tilde in front of your name is especially problematic because Apple computers don't have it on their keyboard*. To type "~" you have to press Alt and N at the same time then release these keys and hit the spacebar. Even those who know the secret never remember it. This complication makes the old fashioned tilde mysterious and sweet like a forbidden fruit. It will soon come back as a sign of being cool and competent.
Actually, the really cool guys never renounced it.
I asked my co-author, the last on the list, "Why are you behind the tilde on a-blast.org when it's your own server?" And the answer is, "The tilde indicates that I am a user on a server computer. If I belong to a server I show where I am and I also talk about my past. Interesting relations are possible in the URL: my private page on a project server, one user in a community, the friend of another friend. This information is available to people that can "read" the URL so I make sure it contains some interesting information. And the word after the tilde is my Login Name. Through this I demonstrate that I can login as well, that I know about FTP, SSH, rsync etc."
You see, today the sign for a user can be read as a sign for being more than an ordinary user.
*Seems to be not true for all Apple models.
Simon Biggs wrote:
> One small correction, but Apple computers do have a tilde (~). There it is,
> typed on a G4 laptop! Bottom left of the keyboard, uppercase above ` on an
> English machine.
Welcome to my Home Page
The welcome message is for websites that exist for no other purpose than to say hello to the world. They're extremely personal and truly amateur pages where holiday photos, a CV, free wallpaper collections, recipes, links to "other great cat sites" and "The History of Status Quo" form a pile of mixed up information.
Although it's supposed to be just a welcoming message, for experienced users it's a warning that the rest of the website will be of the same informational value.
My surfing experience shows that there's no real correlation between a welcome message and the quality of a site. In fact, the greeting appears on both useless sites and the very rich. Though I will agree that a lack of structure and higgledy-piggledy content is a characteristic feature of amateur websites.
But in no way is this a negative feature; especially in today's web. Instead, it shows that a real person created the site and not some marketing department or a content management system. This gives the information authenticity and value and the experience of ten web years has proved that the devotion of one amateur can be worth a dozen specialists on the payroll. For example: fan sites are richer and more up to date than the official sites of stars ( and when a stars is not really big, fans' sites are the only hope to get to know anything). Technical manuals, (with how-to's or tips), made and published by actual users are often more helpful and free of marketing blather.
And there are instances when you would certainly prefer to deal with real people online: local shops, small businesses and hotels.
When you see a site made by the hotel owner, where she writes about her hobbies as well as the hotel facilities and also makes a portrait gallery of local cats and dogs, you think about the high level of personal service at this hotel and -what really makes a difference- you expect that your online order will go directly to the hotel and not to a travel agent (you'll find out if this assumption is true when you arrive). Don't forget the ingredients for amateur productions are not a secret and they can be imitated and faked so don't trust every amateurish looking site.
The "Welcome to my home page" style is attractive and there are situations when it works the best, occasionally there are no alternatives even if the project isn't a personal home page.
A few examples:
The promo site of BIFI, the producers of a popular German snack, is one of the greatest imitations ever. To really appreciate it you should know the BIBI tv spots; they're a series of episodes about an undefinable factory with bizarre employees. Zomtec.com is the factory's homepage, obviously made by the guys from the tv spots, obviously in their free time. They describe how they make mouth wash, they proudly present their private homepages, publish news that's rarely connected to BIFI and hoist the BIFI banner. This is a site for crazy folk by crazy folk. To stress this fact the designer used clumsy framesets, buttons, backgrounds and animated flags. Everything that's fun on the web. The site's constantly updated and a little while ago they made a Flash version. It really looks like somebody's first attempt. It ridicules itself.
The site of Wise County Sheriff's Department in Texas is developed and maintained by Lieutenant Joy and Sergeant Huffman. It's made in Front Page 2000. There's a picture of the Sheriff on the home page that connects to his email address. There are a lot of funny graphics on the page and plenty of important information for the county's citizens. Although the Sheriff's site looks very unserious and has all the common illnesses associated with amateur sites -like a navigation system copied from another site and adapted to the needs of the police department- it puts across its message in the best possible way: your Sheriff is here, among you and for you and he knows there are better ways to spend taxpayers money than giving it away to a design agency.
The county has a young, new Sheriff this month and I hope he won't try to reorganize and professionalize the site.
This is an invitation for young, informal activist groups to get active online and publicize their activity. Here the touch of a design agency would really be wrong and it's right to appeal to the native language of the web using a design that looks like the first draft of a student's multimedia project as young designers M. Stolz and D. Gestricht proposed in their draft.
Ebay's another good example because it lets the user play around with html tags within the auction descriptions. People start to improvise and the improvisations look unprofessional and casual. It adds an important, spontaneous flavor and generates a flea market atmosphere.
Another case, though not really from the web. In January 2005 Cory Archangel, an artist from New York, opened his show called "Welcome to my Homepage Artshow". It's a good name for an exhibition of computer work made at home without a team of programmers, designers and managers. It sounds naive but stresses an opposition to complex and expensive media art market productions. The "Welcome to my Homepage Artshow" has a good DIY meaning.
There's another reason why I'd like to foreground the "Welcome to my Home Page" style, and the vernacular web on the whole, as a web design tactic for today: it hasn't discredited itself in the dotcom years and the broadband boom so it's not associated with fleeting transience, superficiality and an absence of humour.
In 2004 the art.teleportacia gallery organized a 1000$ Page Aaward to attract attention to nonprofessional web making, to motivate people to do their own pages and honestly -above all- to see some pages we hadn't seen before.
And there were some nice surprises. Among the portfolios, blogs and web art pieces we found some "welcoming" pages. One of them really charmed us.
Pierre Ysewijn, a Doctor of Psychological and Educational Sciences from Belgium, (living in Switzerland at the moment), put a lot of effort into the welcome message on his personal home page. Mr. Ysewijn welcomes guests with a video clip in either English, German or French. The greeting's spoken by a real person, directly addressing the visitor. It's a very honest start to communication. You can see what Mr. Ysewijn looks like, how old he is, how he sounds, how he presents. The video puts across a lot of personal information and it upgrades the "Welcome to my home page" into the broadband age. And! For the first time it becomes more than welcoming. Finally, without a doubt, this is a welcome message that became content.
As you would suppose, at the very end of the page comes the Mail Me button. It's not necessarily a picture, it could be just a text link or not even linked text. The important thing is that it worked.
When the web belonged to amateurs it belonged to the people. You knew that behind this page and email address was a person you could contact with a question, admiration or an insult. And people did.
In time the feedback elements on private sites became more modest but they haven't disappeared. They're still present. What has been lost is the custom of sending feedback.
There are many reasons for this but primarily it relates to the above mentioned professionalization and automation of being online and the transition to more sophisticated forms of interaction and communication: filling in, ordering, updating, repeating passwords, contacting support, tracking, informing info@ then proceeding to the check out.
And of course the reputation of email communication has been heavily damaged by Spam. Today if you're writing to somebody you don't know you run the risk of having your message diverted by the junk filter on the server or you can expect to be flooded by Spam after leaving your email address on an unknown site.
The once fascinating option to establish an immediate contact with the author of a site was recently supplanted by blogs. Instead of writing to the author, "Cool site!" you'd be better off putting the note in a blog. It will bring more people to the site and add more notes to more blogs. The counter will show hits but none of the visitors will say anything to you.
Getting emails from visitors to my site is something I really miss, more than starry night backgrounds and clumsy framesets. I know that from time to time the web will look and sound like it did ten years ago. Animated gifs will not be forgotten and at Christmas Jingle Bells and Celine Dion in MIDI format will be ringing on sites around the world but they will not move you to send an email saying, "What trash! Merry Christmas!" That's gone and I don't think designers can do anything about it.
Peter Luining: I'm: she told my name already. I'm Peter Luining I studied philosophy in Groningen and after my study it didn't work out to well with getting publications, so I then started to mess with computers around text editors and started to do text animation and at some point a friend of mine proposed to show these animations. At this point I became apart of the VJ scene in Amsterdam. This VJ work was not really satisfactory. I really put a lot of time into the animations and then I started to do my own videos and then at a certain point I discovered the internet. I think it was 1995, that was the first time I saw the internet, and experienced the easy interactivity, and the large amount of people you could reach on the internet using HTML and sound files.
I was always interested in sound and interactivity. The ease of being able to put some sound on a site put some links on a site; you clicked on a link and then you had more links, and these were the basis for the first primitive sound animations I made. These are some of the first interactive things I did with the internet.
I think another important note here in this story is that when I started to do things on the internet they were autonomous, so I didn't earn money with it. Also it is important to know that when I started to do these autonomous things I started to forget about my philosophical training and I favored working from my intuition, feeling, and what I knew from art history. So I'll just start with some early works of mine.
I'll start with a piece I did for the Life Saver site in 1999, for the VPRO. This site is still online. This is a Flash piece; you have to click on these blocks.
My work developed further sound and interactive pieces.
After that period I developed more and more of these kinds of works, with more interactivity on based on the internet. At a certain point I did a large assignment for the Department of Justice in Holland. This was sort of an anchor point in my development. With this assignment I started to think about the material and the code that I was working with. This led me to develop a browser. This is a browser that translated HTML code directly, each character into ASCII code, and then played in sound the ASCII code. You type in a URL. What you see here is the number of characters of the URL being converted into ASCII and then played in sound.
I will now start with the history of Flash. I will start with some pre-historic nodes. First you could say the father of Flash is Jonathan Gay. He was a programmer and he worked on several games throughout the 80s and early 90s. He also worked on the Aldus project, which was a very early vector based program. He founded with Charlie Jackson a company called FutureWave in 1993 which was really focused on making a drawing program for a pen computing OS, that they believed would be, at that time, the future.
At this time there was already a company called Go, that were developing software for an operating system aimed at pen computing, like Personal Digital Assistants (PDA's) now days you have them everywhere.
This is the interface; I couldn't get anything about this program online. There are no pictures I just have here a picture of the interface of the Penpoint OS by the Go Corporation which promised to be the next greatest thing. This was the first commercial device it's called NCR3125, which used the Penpoint OS.
The company FutureWave worked on a drawing program for this operating system. The application was called Smart Sketch. But already in 1994, AT&T had taken over the Go; here it is, the AT&T EO Personal Communicator 440 and it ran the Penpoint OS, but by the time Smart Sketch was ready AT&T pulled the plug, and Smart Sketch the vector graphics program was left with no market anymore.
So Charlie Jackson and Jonathan Gay were very stubborn and thought they would port the software to Mac OS, they wanted to make the Smart Sketch program Mac OS and Window OS compatible. By this time they were competitors with the Adobe Illustrator program, which is still, I think, the most important drawing program. But stubborn as they were they kept developing it and they really transformed it into an animation program. Luckily for them, in the fall of 1995, Netscape was developed with the first API so that people could write programs for Netscape. Before that you had Java, but Java was very slow in animations. Jackson and Gay really changed Smart Sketch into a very fast and swift animation program with vector graphics, this was way faster than Java.
They then changed the name from Smart Sketch, to FutureSplash Animator, I can show you, it looked like this. It looked effectively the same as Flash. The FutureSplash Animation was quite successful right from the beginning. MSN used it and also Disney online, and it was shipped in May 1996 and in December 1996 it was then sold to Macromedia and re-branded as Macromedia Flash.
Here I'll just show you the interface, you can hardly see anything different, the only thing that changed from the FutureSplash Animator was the file format, which was called SPL in the first version and it became SWF. If pronounced it sounds like, "swif", which stands for Shockwave Flash Format.
Okay, now to my own experience. I started to work with Flash in early 1997 and one of the main reasons for me was, at that time I was working with sound and animation, and it was really the compatibility between Mac and PC; at that time there was no talk about Microsoft Explorer, Java was really slow; with this program the ability to really create something on one platform that looked the same on another, was one of my main reason to try Flash.
Another reason was that it was quite easy to use. I will show you how easy it is to do something with Flash.
I'm opening Flash 4, for people who are not really into Flash.
You can insert buttons, first I set one button, then I open the library and set another button, and then I go back to the scene. You drag this to the scene. I make another layer. Okay I'm going too fast here I think. I think I will make it blue, a blue block. I drag it over here. Then you can insert a "keyframe" here. Then insert a keyframe over here. Then you can really start to animate this thing. Just move this to here. And then you animate this one and move that to here. And then you can give the command, "motion tween", by that you create motion between here and here. If you play it you have your animation.
To show how very seriously easy it is to animate something even further. Insert a keyframe here; insert a blank keyframe here and then you go to...
Computer: YOUR BATTERIES ARE FULLY CHARGED
Peter Luining: Okay, my batteries are fully charged. It's a cool voice.
We'll do some more with sound effects. We go to the standard sound library and we'll do a simple sound effect. We just drag and drop that on this point, and then we can animate it and now we have an animation with sound if we play it.
This is how easy you can do something with Flash. I just wanted to show this.
Another thing about Flash that was really quite new was the speed. Because it was very small it compiled very quickly. It also had unique streaming capabilities from the start.
Another thing and perhaps more important was that Flash had right from the beginning small communities of users that were very helpful. If you used Flash it was important to share. It was really sort of open source, not like UNIX, Flash wasn't in this sense open source, but it did have communities and people sharing their code, and that was really helpful. Also code, if it was not compiled code was called FLA, spoken like "fla". These small communities grew bigger and bigger up to today where this sharing is still very important.
Right now I am going to one of the biggest Flash sharing sites called FlashKit. I'm going to go now to the open movies section to show what is shared here, and here you can see a bunch of open source movies, 753 animations; there are applications and interfaces. Here I will just take one interface, I don't know what will happen, but you can look at it, ah it is 5 megabytes, so I will stop this and go for something else. People can also rate how good something is. Maybe this is interesting, "Islam At a Glance", this is a small movie; it already runs, this is an interface, but like I said you can download the open source movie, you can extract the sounds etc.
Another thing about Flash that is important is that Macromedia gave away the definition of Flash in October 1998 in a response to other competing formats, so that from this date, October 1998, all types of small Flash type programs came to the market, and reinforced the openness I described earlier.
The openness of the code really launched a series of programs that backed the industry. Another part of this industry was the Flash decompilers. Of course it was easy to get source resources and people were helpful, but there are always people who want to get it even easier and just want to rip off particular sites to get only that code. Within this context many Flash decompilers were built by Flash hackers and began to arrive on the market. As Flash grew more complex, by the use of ActionScript, which is a scripting language for Flash, many people built tools to get that code, and put those tools into the market.
One of the first decompilers was by Burack, it was called ActionScript viewer in which you can decompile the ActionScript, but before this he made commercial tools. He made Swifty tools that were open source and you can use to open up SWF code with it. These really appeared on the market right after Macromedia gave away the definition of Flash.
The latest tool in this market is Sothink. This is a Chinese company that made several different Flash formats. I will demonstrate how easy it is to use these tools. First I'll open up Quicker, the interface looks nearly exactly the same as Flash itself. It extracts everything and anybody can hack into the code.
Now I will go to this site, here is a game site. Ah, lets take this one. This game we will hack. Also Quicker gives you the capability to add a button to Explorer and that makes it very easy to download this "Breakout" SWF file. Now it is downloaded to the directory SWF on my C drive. Then you just import this, and also there is a warning because this is illegal. So you get the warning, "The file has been protected by its author, continue importing this file anyway?" and then you just say, "Yes", and now it is imported.
Now what you can do is change the name from "Breakout" to "decade of web design" and now you can preview it. Now the "Breakout" is gone. And we can hack the game even further by changing the background for example and we can make it slow; I'm just doing some very easy modifications. Change the frame rate to be very slow.
So this is also a part of the very open community.
Thinking about the downside, this is very open community, and easy hacking of code lead to an enormous use and abuse of people who just took the things they really liked, using only particular aspects of the code. So you really get a lot of stuff that spreads very quickly, even if it is bad design. I will now show you some sites from the early Flash period which seem to be annoying but...
This is how standard Flash files used to look and sound in 1998-99.
Of course there had to be an intro.
And after navigating this thing we are in the "Showroom" of this site.
Here you see the cool effects.
Okay, that's one site.
Then you had a development into gradients. So everyone used gradients.
Again, the intro, which now has the option button "Skip Intro".
Here Flash became very dominant and some experts like the famous Jakob Nielsen really were annoyed by Flash, and feared that the whole Internet would become a crazy un-navigatable mess. And through this came his famous article in 1999, Flash: 99% Bad. The point Jakob makes is that [Flash] it makes bad design more likely, using as an example the Splash Page. This is where the "Skip Intro" button is located. Back then everyone made these cool intro pages that you couldn't avoid. And as early as 1998, someone already took the domain name skipintro and made a parody of this.
Another point Nielsen pointed out in Flash: 99% Bad article is that it breaks with web fundamentals like buttons, because everyone was designing their own buttons, and their own scroll bars. It really became a mess. Everyone wanted to use Flash, commercial companies wanted to have Flash, and everything was becoming Flash. But luckily for Nielsen designers became aware of this and started to use Flash in a much more subtle way.
Flash also became more refined because of new tools in Flash 4 and 5 especially with ActionScripts. ActionScripts were becoming more and more popular throughout 99-2001. You can see websites that began to make really cool things in Flash. Joshua Davis, mentioned here earlier, was one of these famous Flash Masters, or Flash Gurus. These superstars were the ones invited everywhere and they also shared their code because sharing your code is cool.
I'm just going to Praystation, which most of you know. Just clicking around. His whole site is made up of these kinds of effects. Here is a zip file where you can download the code if you want. So again this coolness and this sharing.
Also another special aspect of the Flash format is its vector graphics. Because it is vector based it is very easy to use in print. You can get very hi-res prints. So they also made very nice books.
I'll now go to Jared Tarbell, who I think won the "Golden Micha" at the Ars Electronica, for web vision, or something like that. Here is another very cool graphic, and of course it is downloadable.
Flash really developed into a culture. There are Flash festivals and conferences where the stars are shown. Flash Forward, I think is the most important festival is held every year and it is actually next week in California.
I don't have very much time, but I'd like to show some recent examples of Flash abuse. The first one is the legendary site, 010101, of the San Francisco MoMA. This site was changed one week after its release because nobody knew how it worked. They've changed it but it is still totally incomprehensible. This is also two years after Nielsen criticized Flash design. There is also a user-guide for this site.
The more actual example of Flash abuse is the Cassina website. Cassina is one of the most well know Italian furniture design companies, and even today it has one of these Flash sites where you can hardly enter the site. It starts with a pre-loader, and then there is this sound you can't turn off. Now you have to wait. Now I'm going to the English version, where I again have to wait, and now there is the English pre-loader. Finally we've entered the world of Cassina and another loader, and you can see how slow it is and we are talking about a 2005 site. Now there is a map, but where is the furniture? Ah, contemporary furniture design 2005 series. Click on that, and you get the building with the different floors, and it takes time and time and more time.
Okay, the last thing I will close with one of my favorite series xiaoxiaomovies, or the Stick Man and it is a whole series about stick man and this is done in Flash.
Okay I'm finished.
Matthew Fuller: Peter Lunenfeld is from the Art Center School of Design in Pasadena, and, you can see from his bio in the program, the editor of the much renown media works pamphlet series from the MIT Press. He is also author of Snap to Grid one of the first books that I saw as really trying to work through an aesthetics of this particular medium, and also editor of the Digital Dialectic. In order to plug the books massively we have his fourth coming book Info, Techno, Demo with visuals by Mieke Gerritzen, coming out this autumn from MIT Press. Okay Peter.
Peter Lunenfeld: Matthew and Geert I'm very pleased to have a blazer on so that I look kind of like a demented English public school boy or my neighbor Michael Jackson. Maybe he's innocent.
So, here we are at the first history of web design. So why not start with a quote from the first historian, Herodotus. "Men trust their ears less than their eyes", which he wrote in the histories and is also the first advertising line for PowerPoint.
Following along with what Geert and Matthew were saying I'm going to problematize the whole question of a first decade. So the title of this is 19?? To 20?? The Long first decade of web design.
I think that we all agree that any history of web design should start with a picture of Tim Berners-Lee. I think any historical talk should start with a black and white picture. For those of you who need color, there you are. And it's suppose to run from Tim to I don't know Joshua Davis. I really like the recursive nature of this; I'm speaking on a podium showing a picture of Joshua Davis speaking on a podium showing a picture of Joshua Davis. Here's another one screaming. I like that.
So basically this history we're here for is from the first screen shot, this is actually 1993, this is the first recorded screen shot that we have of Berners-Lee's browser to Praystation or whatever you want to fill in the blank. Sign post along the way of course would include things like the financing by venture capitalist of Netscape and the perverse fun of the Webbys. We're going to have to have a diversity from the information overload of the original Yahoo! home page, to the information degree zero of Google. From net artist like jodi.org, here's "Backbone" to the dotcommers of Razorfish. I couldn't quite figure out what I was going to represent Razorfish with; this is a typical kind of overload, a specially designed table from (Nilus?) in Philadelphia for their San Francisco office. Maybe this is better. This comes from scripophily.org, which sells historical artifacts from the stock market, and they say beautifully engraved certificate from the Razorfish Company, this historic document was printed by the United States Bank Note Corporation and has an ornate border around it with a vignette of the famous Razorfish logo. So in other words it is now of course utterly valueless except for collectors of bank notes and various forms of commercial script.
This history is going to run from twisted copper to wireless broadband, from primitive gifs to complex animations. Over the next two days, other speakers may offer you detailed histories of the evolution of the medium. They will follow Berners-Lee's development of the web as a means to distribute physics papers at CERN, through the release of the first alpha version of the NCSA Mosaic browser for X-Windows in 93, and then on to the frenzy around the spinning off of Mosaic's development team, lead by Marc Andreesen, to form Netscape in 1994. They will discuss with insiders' knowledge the browser wars, which I've already mentioned; the successive releases of HTML, XML and XHTML; the move from static page design and tables to Cascading Style Sheets (CSS); the often invisible, and I do hope this comes up, but no less crucial design features that enhanced searchability and ranking. I think that that is something that almost never gets discussed in terms of web design itself, but as we all know those are things that absolutely have a huge impact on how a page lives in the world. There are debates over liquid versus fixed layout schemas; and of course that perennial favorite, the use and abuse of Flash.
All of these and more did indeed characterize the first decade of web design that was advertised as the theme of this conference. But, I'm going to propose a different periodization of the history of web design. I posit that the bounding figures are not Marc Andreesen and whomever may be the hot web designer of moment, but rather Mikhail Gorbachev and Osama Bin Laden, and that we are talking about a long decade, the twelve years from 1989 to 2001.
Before I get to Gorbachev and bin Laden, though, I'd like to talk about someone far lesser known, a girl named Paris. In contrast to these giant historical figures I just mentioned, Paris is quite small, she's only around thirty centimeters, just shy of a foot.
Paris is an I-Girl, and the "I" stands not for internet, as it so often did in the 90s, but instead for "International". The I-Girls are "globally hip dolls with names such as Rio, Sahara, and Aspen," who "come with trendy clothing and accessories... everything needed for fun and intriguing adventures all over the world." The reason I bring her up in this context is that Paris is a web designer, complete with a laptop and other techno accessories.
Now the I-Girls are not Barbie, and Paris was only in release for the Christmas season of 2002, but I put her forward as almost as much justification for this conference as any other would. By the way they no longer release images of Paris so if you're searching for her laptop its not there. This is another I-Girl I don't know if it's Rio, Sahara or Aspen, which aren't those names for porn stars? Her manufacturer, the Lanard Toy Company, has a global reach: corporate headquarters in Hong Kong, production facilities in mainland China, a design studio in Southern California (a short drive from BMW's Designworks and Nokia's Design Studio), offices in New York and London. In short, Paris is not an inside joke for Webby winners, but rather the result of a reasoned calculation that she and her profession would appeal to the aspiration of "tweeners" world-wide (tweeners being that key demographic between childhood and adolescence). Part of what I'll be discussing this morning is how the less-than-glamorous business of hacking together html code, gathering assets from clients, and interminable scheduling and roll-out meetings could be thought glamorous enough to compete with Malibu Barbie for the hearts and minds of ten year old girls from Athens, Greece to Athens, Georgia.
In short, what was it about the myth of web design, as opposed to its actual practice, that could create the incentive to produce Paris, the I-Girl? Posing this question moves us from the realm of history to that of meta-history. I'm working on my next media work pamphlet with the science fiction author and futurist Bruce Sterling. Its called shaping things and it's about industrial design. One of the things Bruce and I have been talking about in the development of this book is his concept of metahistory, which he defines as quote "a cultural thesis on the subject of what gone by, what comes next, and what that's all supposed to mean". For me metahistories are the sustaining cultural narratives we construct to give us sense of historical place and meaning.
Now, Sterling is talking about vast, historical sweeps, but I think there is room for what I would call micro-meta-histories, and that's what I'm about to offer here. Web design was the perfect profession for the New Gilded Age of the 1990s, offering the "creative individual" both aesthetic and commercial rewards.
Let's unpack this in reverse order. The first thing to remember about web design was that it was thought to be a profession with unlimited earning potential, however ludicrous that seems now. With stock options beckoning and high salaries for students just out of or dropping out of school, the Go-Go years of the tech boom offered plenty of jobs that also promised a "post-economic" future. This is one of my favorite silicon valley words; being post-economic means having made so much money that you no longer had to think about money. It was a dream at the time.
But web design also offered a chance to feed the aesthetic side, to escape the circuit board layouts of engineering and the financial spreadsheets of venture capital, allowing the individual to craft things and experiences at which others marvel. That phrase, "the creative individual," is also key, for who among Generations X, Y and M (the upcoming Mobile or Millennial generations) didn't, or doesn't still, fancy themselves "creative?"
The commodification of creativity, and its subsumption into the overarching economic meta-histories of the past quarter century, attached itself to web design. As one of the self-proclaimed early true believers in New York's Silicon Alley, the then editor of word.com if any of you remember that, noted about her first forays into designing for the web, "It was so new, so exciting. It was punk rock."
The entire meta-historical mythos of the black jeans wearin', funky haired coifin', free pizza-scarfin', Red Bull swillin', Razor-scooter ridin', XML codin', loft dwellin', option cashin' web designer, jelled so perfectly that mass market magazines put them on their covers, whole neighborhoods branded themselves as "creative friendly," Adopting Richard (Flora's) notion of the creative class . . . endless loft re-conversions. And half of the advertisers on the 2000 Super Bowl of American football (which features the world's highest advertising rates per thirty seconds) were dotcom companies. Half of which seem to feature their wild and wacky web designers and the fun they were having, and the money they were making, and the way they were changing the world.
Now given this level of hype and attention it is no wonder that more and more people wanted to get into this world, and something about the word "design" (again as opposed to "engineering" or "finance") appealed to a huge array of people from other disciplines, or, quite frankly, no disciplines at all. So English majors picked up Web Design for Dummies, people in the marketing department tarted themselves up as, you remember this phrase? "on-line content providers," and anyone with a computer and a friend who wanted a site built, decided to call themselves web designers. Now, this rebranding is entirely consistent with a lot of other cultural attributes - from the distinctly American fondness for self-creation, to the world wide flexibility of identity in the postmodern era, to, and of course this is really important, the democratizing impulse behind the development of the internet and the web and personal computing to begin with.
There is no denying that the expansion of access and opening of new modes of self-publishing and self-expression were part of what made the first decade of the web so exciting, but we should also remember that for many, this leap into design was also a leap into a void. For all the excitement of inventing the future and riding the economic and technological waves, legions of web designers frankly were not even sure what they were. They tried other names on for size, like "information architect", or "site developer", or even "experience maker" every once in awhile, a whole new set of ways to label and talk about, well, design as a process. They knew what the web was, because they used it, and read about how important it was in newspapers, and magazines, and heard about how it was changing the world from television and their friends, but "designer," the second half of their new names for themselves, well, that was fuzzier. Part of the problem was the ignorance or elision of whole habits of mind, bodies of discourse, and modes of practice that ensued when a generation of people simply adopted the mantle of Designer. It was graphic design in particular that seemed both the inspiration for many of these self-nominated web designers and the unspoken, because unknown, other of the field. For all of the print designers who went on-line, there were thousands more who had no training in graphics or type, and perhaps even more to the point, didn't even know that there were traditions and discourses from which they might learn.
The issue here is reminiscent of what happened to print designers more than a decade earlier with the advent of WYSIWIG printing and the rise of desktop publishing, but the added economic incentive (again, however farcical it seems in hindsight) encouraged an explosion of people who considered themselves designers, even if their understanding of processes and discourses of design were hazy at best. It was as if becoming a web designer was like becoming a parent: no licensing needed, just a little procreation. I think that the emergence of design as a mass preoccupation of this millennium owes at least some of its staying power to the democratizing of the design impulse. I admire the exclamation point that Mieke Gerritzen put on her book, EVERYONE IS A DESIGNER! but by temperament, I would have used a question mark.
By discussing the creative history of the web, like so many other inquiries into design, I'm going into what is in essence an interdisciplinary endeavor. As we've already alluded, the history of web design is partially an economic history. It is simply impossible to avoid the New Economy, its hype, and its downfall. We have to deal with technical histories of communications standards protocol, bandwidth issues, and the endless upgrades that bring on, what Simon (Pennig?) described to me more than a decade ago as "tool fatigue." That sense that they just keep coming at you. There are the social histories of on-line communities, and the digital divides between the electronic haves and have-nots. There are the legal histories of copyright and copyleft, pornography and censorship, privacy and access. There are histories relevant to communication, mass media, advertising, and cultural studies. And, as we'll be discussing soon, there is an aesthetic history of web design that includes strategies of information architectures, the dialectic with net.arts, and even the old divide between cool sites and sites that suck. I expect that we'll be hearing aspects of these histories and more from the assembled speakers over the next two days, and I'm very much looking forward to the overlapping perspectives that should emerge from such discussions.
Well, here's the tricky part, where I cede a certain primacy to the politico-economic histories of web design and return to those I-Men, the international figures of Gorbachev and bin Laden. Remember that Al Queda was forged in the battles against Soviet troops, and that those same battles contributed to the bankrupting and breakup of the USSR, so these two I-Men were mortal enemies. But it was their respective actions - allowing the dismantling of the Berlin Wall and plotting the destruction of the Twin Towers that delineate the long first decade of web design. I'm speaking of that period characterized as post-89 by people like Geert Lovink and myself. Now again, many here might object that the decade we're discussing begins in 1994, when the web moved from text-only to incorporating images, and runs the standard ten years to 2004 (roughly from Netscape to now). But if we're talking about 1989 to 2001, I'm arguing for a first decade that is twelve years long. Taking on the way historians characterize long and short centuries. The 19th century being a long century running from 1789 and the French Revolution to 1914 and the outbreak of the Russian Revolution. And the 20th Century being seen as a short century from 1914 to 1989. We should be proud of ourselves we've pack a lot of killing into a very short amount of time.
Now why 89? One reason, one justification is because that's the year that Berners-Lee publishes his first paper on this, Information Management: A Proposal, which "derives a solution based on a distributed hypertext system." It takes another four years to get to that image that you saw me start with. But I think that this is where it really begins. And to categorize the first decade of web design as coinciding with 1989 to 2001, allows us to start talking about it within a larger framework.
One unifying construct of that post-89 period was the belief that after the fall of the Wall and then the Soviet Union itself, not just communism but literally all other countervailing forces against market capitalism were vanquished, and not just for the moment but literally for all time. The market with a capital M was the Grail at the end of Francis Fukayama's treatise The End of History, the market was the solution for all questions, the market would bring peace and prosperity, and would free itself from the tyranny of the business cycle and evolve, and again however ludicrous it sound in hindsight, there were apparently rational people who believed that this market would evolve into an entirely invisible, frictionless, perpetual motion machine that would take the name of the New Economy. Nothing exemplified the New Economy more than the ubiquity of the web, and so it was that the creation of this new medium in the service of the New Economy that became one of the most glamorous signifiers of the entire decade to follow. We will return to the height of the bubble in due time, but I want to get to the crash. The most important index for the New Economy was NASDAQ, an American market heavy on high technology firms. The NASDAQ crested in March of 2000, and within a year had lost more than half its value vaporizing trillions in paper profits. The stock market losses for AOL, Yahoo and Amazon alone amounted to $300 billion. Which before the fall of the dollar was actually a lot of money. The slide into recession continued worldwide for the next six months, but it was in September of 2001 that the markets took their next massive hit, and the newness of the New Economy had its last bits of hype sucked out of it.
I'm speaking, of course, about the events of September 11, 2001. For Americans, at least, the faith in the market to overcome all obstacles suffered a fatal blow that day, not simply with the vivid reminder that history hadn't, in fact, ended, but also that all those high-flying young engineers, venture capitalists, and entrepreneurs in their Casual-Friday-Every-Day chinos and polo shirts were now being edged out of the spotlight to prepare for the return of the Blue-Suited-Wingtip-Shod-Flag-Lapelled grown-ups (think Vice President Dick Cheney and, most pointedly, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld). Just to hammer home this point, I've always assumed, and am now actually gathering evidence that Rumsfeld has never actually received or sent out an email. He always has someone print them out. He responds either verbally or writes on it and then they send it back out. He does not actually have an email address himself. Yeah he's a dinosaur in more ways than one, in so many ways; remember he held the same position in the 1970s under President Gerald Ford.
To close out this part of my discussion, I'd like to apologize if it seems my history is too relentlessly North American in its focus. After all, we are in Amsterdam discussing a worldwide medium invented by an Englishman working in Switzerland. But, if I overemphasized the US contexts here, I was not alone, and with historical distance, we can see that this first long decade is probably the last of such overwhelming dominance by the English language and American New Economy business models. The fact is that by 2005, the American and European markets are approaching saturation, with the coming decade's growth forecast for India and China. Mandarin looks like it might well overtake English as the most used language on the net, but I doubt it will become the lingua franca. The first, long decade of web design is also an era defined by low bandwidth. Anyone who wants a model of the future of web design should not look to Seattle, but rather to Seoul. Korea now has a higher penetration of high-speed access than any other country in the world, and the web designers of tomorrow should travel to Seoul today just to get a flavor of what kinds of techno-cultural policies foster the next round of design innovation and adoption.
I want to switch over now from this kind of politico-economics to discussing what one could say are languages of praise and critique. In August of 1994, Glenn Davis put up a page that he claims inaugurated criticism on the web. It was a simple idea: post a link to a web page, change it every twenty-four hours, call it the Cool Site of the Day or CSotD (pronounced SEE-sought-DEE). So here are the first seventeen days of CSotD. It is perfect that the claimant to be the first web critic should have been, in fact, a booster. Part of the history of web design has to include an analysis of its critical languages, the discourses of praise and critique the web design community developed. Sites like Boxes and Arrows and Kaliber 10000 (better known as B&A and K10K) have developed as lively relatively sophisticated spaces for discourse about web design and the community. Both feature the web's usual link-heavy resources of information, with B&A specializing in longer, essayistic approaches, and K10K offering a community hub and a place to show off tricks and secrets. SitePoint and A List Apart are just two of the almost endless sites worldwide that offer tutorials both technical and commercial (How to Deal with Clients is always a big topic). There are sites that deploy usability, as a club against what they see as "over-design," like Jacob Nielson's well-known useit.com and Vincent Flander's directly titled webpagesthatsuck.com. The list is pretty much endless, of course, because like everything else web-driven, web design can be perfectly solipsistic, with sites about the subject referring the user to other sites that then refer them back to their starting point.
What languages of evaluation, then, could we use for a history of web design? Again, we hit the question of interdisciplinarity. It's not the profit and loss statements of business, but that's a part of it. It's not the excavated discourses of the avant-garde that animated discussions of net.art either. Nor can we restrict ourselves to the technical languages of coders, hackers, and human computer interface gurus - the common dialect of organizations like SIGGRAPH and SIGCHI, and communities like Slashdot and Linux. Perhaps first and foremost, the languages of praise and evaluation were lifted from other design discourses, graphic design in particular, and mediated, or better yet, remediate on the web.
Now, this could have been a very productive remediation. Graphic design discourse had gone through a remarkable period in that same 1989-2001 long decade with the emergence of post-structuralism and deconstruction as important meta-texts to which the theory and practice of an important group of designers responded. Though later than within film studies and less notably than within architectural discourse, the turn to theory in the post-89 period was nonetheless critically important for the development of graphic design. These were heady times for graphic design discourse with the death of the author running smack dab into the emergent notion of the designer as author, full fledged wars about legibility (from Katherine McCoy and the student work at Cranbrook to David Carson's magazine Raygun), to the development of real design intellectuals in the US like J. Abbott Miller and Ellen Lupton, and the founding of magazines like Emigre by Zuzanna Licko and Rudy Van Derlans and Eye by the British design journalist Rick Poyner. But the kind of discourses that web design ended up appropriating was the most commercialized, the language of the Design Annual, the discourse of design journalism that concerned itself with the latest, the hippest, the newest, a language of the showcase and of promotion, rather than of any kind of real critique. Graphic design has always acknowledged its ephemerality, but at least there was a permanence to posters, napkins, and even annual reports (the sustaining bane of professional graphic designers everywhere). But a web designer (whether they embraced fixed or fluid layouts) was often left with only the most cursory "evidence" of his or her work. Sites morph, change, get re-skinned, and simply die off. Beyond Brewster Kahle's Internet Archive and its Way Back Machine and the occasional museum holdings, where will future historians turn? Well, I posit they will turn to the odd physical evidence of the kinds of books published by presses like Rockport, Rotovision, Adobe, New Riders, and Ginko. Books with titles like Web Sites That Work, Web Design Basics, Mapping Web Sites, Web Pages from Around the World, Webworks, the list goes on. So here's just three: Cool Sites, Hot Sites, both of those from the early 90s, and then from 2000 on a book with almost a perfect title for this kind of work, Fresh Styles for Web Designers, Eye Candy from the Underground.
What these books promise in the way of permanence, of course, they sacrifice in terms of interactivity, and discursive complexity. Words that keep coming up are "top... radical... experimental... inspirational... virtual sandbox... exciting... dynamic... creative... interactive... expanding... comprehensive... enabling... award-winning... fun." All of these words come out of just one book, Cool Sites, which promoted itself in just the same language it used to describe its subject: as "a status report from the far edge." To reiterate: this is not the language of critique; it's the language of hype. And, while there's nothing intrinsically wrong with hyping a new medium, eventually, the lack of complex responses comes back to haunt you. So many of the sites featured were, in fact, self-promotional sites for the designers, in other words what you had were books hyping the work of web designers hyping themselves. No wonder there is the quality of these kinds of publications being mementos before the mori.
The biggest of these books is a veritable doorstop. Taschen's 1000 Favorite Websites announces that not only is it designed for "style surfing" but also that it is "a snapshot history." Of all the books about web design it is both the worst, and somehow the most appropriate. It is the worst in that it offers no commentary, the work stripped of even the language of hype, so that the sites just jumble together with no aesthetic, technical, or critical apparatus to help guide the reader. The layout is abominable, page after page after page of rectangular screen grabs on a white background, a visual schema that reduces to a uniform dullness what innovation or enchantment these hapless sites might offer on the web itself. As for the criteria for inclusion, who can say? Advertising sites, art sites, fashion sites, industrial sites, self-promotional sites, they're all just thrown together in one massive lump. But let's invert the claims for this book as snapshot history, positing that instead it is snapshot evidence, grist for the historian's mill rather than the result of any sort of historical investigation.
I want to close with a warning, not to those who would design the future, but instead to those who would write about the past. In 2000, Los Angeles finally hosted its first major symposium on net.art. This was quite a bit late, as the net.arts boom had been happening in Europe, especially Eastern Europe, for a few years, and the Dotcom Bubble had also increased the fever in the Bay Area's Silicon Valley and New York's Silicon Alley. But finally in 2000, at artist Natalie Bookchin's invitation, an eclectic selection of artists, collectives, and activists came to net.net at LA's Museum of Contemporary Art. It was the trio of Alexei Shulgin, Vuk Cosic, and Olia Lialina who defined the event. They put on a quintessential post-89 show, demonstrating how important net.art had been to post-Soviet Russia and Central Europe and bringing a distinctive techno-fatalism to bear on the proceedings. But I did notice one thing. Here were these artists commenting in 2000 on a scene that had coalesced fewer than three years earlier, surrounded by adoring, fresh-scrubbed, West Coast art students, and what was the message? It was the same one that Andre Breton spread during the 60s about the surrealists in the 30s, and the same one that Situationists spread about the 60s in the 90s: "You should have been there, it was great, now it's over." That Shulgin, Cosic, and Lialina spoke with such nostalgia, so quickly on the heels of their own "brief moment in time" (to cage a Situationist phrase), struck me as odd at the time, a cutting off of possibilities rather than an opening up of them. I'm not here to argue today about the history of net.art, but I will say that we face a similar danger, that in historicizing web design, we might end up proposing that we now live in the afterglow of its heroic moment. Having lived through the first decade of web design, however you want to cut it, I would caution early adopters to show some humility, and to say, that at least for myself, the most useful histories of practice are the ones that contribute to the future of that practice. Because what's coming ought to be better than what's left behind.
Thank you very much.
For the entire content follow the link to Adrian Mackenzie Text
Matthew Fuller: The next speaker is Franziska Nori, from the Kulturbüro digitalcraft.org, which from 1999 to 2003 were responsible for the new media and digital culture department at the Frankfurt Museum of Applied Arts. digitalcraft is quite a special organization, in that when we were researching this conference we were looking for Museums that were actively archiving and reflecting upon web design in a systematic manner. And one of the things we found is there is actually very little of that kind of work done. Peter mentioned Archive.org already, but in terms of reflecting on web design as a practice the digitalcraft project is really almost unique in terms of trying to gather, in a reflective way, examples of web design. digitalcraft also has a reputation of taking on other tough jobs such as having conceived the first show(s) on computer viruses and another show recently on mp3. So I'd very much like to welcome Franziska here to represent their work and to talk about some of the issues related to the question of a systematic collection of web design, and I think in the Stedelijk Museum here, again this is a question very pertinent to the role of the museum in relationship to digital culture, so Franziska.
Franziska Nori: My talk today will address the issue of establishing collections of born digital work (work of digital origins) within the museum context. I would like to use the concrete experiences of the digitalcraft project made at the Museum of Applied Art Frankfurt to raise some critical questions about the general changes that a museum faces in a communication society and that we would need to reflect and act upon. I structured my talk the following way: first I would like to give you an overview on the whole of the digitalcraft project. Then I would like to briefly describe the approach that we chose for the collection, especially looking at the web design collection, subsequently sketch some of the aspects concerning long term storage, and finally to define some distinction criteria which distinguish our project from other museum or institutional projects .
The digitalcraft collection evolved from the context of the Museum für Angewandte Kunst Frankfurt, a museum with an over 150 year old history. The museum has traditionally five departments devoted to the various expressions of craftsmanship throughout cultural areas and across epochs. Traditionally the collections served as repositories of exemplary pieces to be shown to apprentices by their master craftsmen and to a broad public to admire the variety of crafted items displayed and therefore re-contextualized within the museum.
In 1999 the former museum's director, James Bradburne, postulated a paradigm change for the institution "Museum", reacting to the evident crisis institutions go through if looking at general attendance (number of visitors), their average age and the duration of their stay. The broader change management foresaw also the implementation of a new department, which was called digitalcraft. Over a time span of approximately three years, digitalcraft's mission consisted in defining aspects within digital culture to integrate in the established museum's work and finding adequate ways for its mediation to a broad public.
The tasks we started defining for our project sprang from the traditional assignment inherent to museums: researching, interpreting, collecting, preserving and exhibiting. But the challenge consisted in re-defining these activities within the framework of the contemporary information society and its changing demands.
Museums do have the purpose to preserve and present historical objects, fulfilling their function as part of a cultural memory, but in the society of information they find themselves facing an entirely new set of questions, regarding the culture of new media and internet. How can we collect contents that are ephemeral and transitory, which by definition are in a constant process of modification like for example web sites or net art projects? What criteria should we consider in order to decide the relevance of an object in terms of cultural history? How should digital objects be permanently stored in the face of the rapid innovation time of software and hardware? How will we document social aspects like interaction and or communication streams? And finally, how best to present digital artifacts and media-enhanced communication phenomena to a museum public.
Back in 2000 we were confronted with the challenge of creating such a digital collection without any analogue comparison to an already existing museum project. We started a process of trying different solutions, in terms of technology as well as in terms of approach, learning by making mistakes and modifying them. Because we worked within the context of a museum of applied arts, the focus was on digital applied arts, on objects of everyday life, so called examples of digital artistry, objects that combine form and function. Beyond that, we investigated phenomena that applied to the production process itself, reflecting upon changes of conditions and circumstances for it, as well as on phenomena in the fields of skills and tools used for manufacturing digital craft.
The collection comprehends the following sections:
- Germany's first online community (Internationale Stadt Berlin)
- Computer games and emulators
- Designer' web sites
But due to the conference's scope, today I will mainly restrict my talk to the web site design collection.
A further challenge we undertook was this department called digitalcraft, outside of its original context. We conceived exhibitions dedicated to single phenomena of contemporary digital culture, such as the "I Love You" exhibition you already mentioned, focusing on implications of hacking and computer viruses; or the exhibition "adonnaM.mp3" which analyzed the phenomenon of peer-to-peer and file sharing, or with a project called "Digital Origami" which presented the so-called demo scene.
Further we had to design the whole infrastructure of the Museum of Applied Arts to actually act and start a project with the scope of digital culture. So that meant a total infrastructure of access in the public area of the museum. That meant of course web sites; that meant wireless access; WAP text objects definitions, all that sort of basic work.
Another of our assignments also consisted in creating a database and a content management tool for the over 60.000 non-digitals objects owned by the Museum of Applied Arts. This experience was fundamental for the creation of the future collection of "born digital" items.
The digitalcraft site currently provides access to the following contents:
The web design collection, (the one we are going to focus on a little bit today). This contains a selection of 50 browsable, completely active web sites, which part of them aren't retrievable anymore on the internet. Archived with all their technical applications, stored on the project's servers, complete with their metadata descriptions)
Then we have 100 sites, in the form of a commented link list that we rated, and visualized with 3 screenshots each, and last we have a feature of the month, which contains approximately ten designer features.
The second section is dedicated to computer games and emulators. We included 170 games and so called ROMs for different console platforms and mobile phones as well. Further all emulators for major platforms like Amiga or Nintendo or Commodore were all integrated with technical descriptions.
A Further section is devoted to the Internationale Stadt Berlin community, and this is actually a totally different set of challenges. Here we were looking at a community platform, with chat, with personal sites, with all different sorts of communication strategies involved as well as presentation of own work. So that is a whole different challenge when looking at archiving and storing.
A Further section is a documentation of the three years lab activity. We had two labs established in the museum with learning programs for adults and youngsters. The programs and exemplary results produced by the labs are documented in the site. All the exhibitions we produced including all catalogue essays and images are documented on the site as well.
So lets look a little closer to the web design collection.
During first research phases our team monitored the international web community (through sites like K10K, linked-up, etc) analyzing their selections, observing trends, examining the vocabulary used for descriptions. One of the difficulties concerned the need to create neologisms to describe new aesthetic phenomena inherent to web design: we wanted to avoid the "cool" jargon that Peter already mentioned, that the scene is still using, and capture the singularities of style and functionality.
To structure the web design collection we chose a sub-division in categories related to the original function or field the projects came from, and within each category an alphabetical order. Potentially also other structures could have been chosen, like chronology, nationality, or more intuition and association based like for example keyword clouds.
The digitalcraft collection was classified and selected the sites under these ten categories:
- Independent projects
Dealing with expressions of contemporary art and culture and therefore working with the complete lack of historic distance posed a variety of challenges: the responsibility to operate a historically relevant selection, for instance. A further difficulty lied in defining defendable strategies of selectivity when it came to the enormous quantity of current digital production and the ever growing flow of information.
The method we chose was based on manual selection, collection and metadata treatment of all items. We explicitly did not employ automatic harvesting (like search bots or spider software) to capture material from the web. We selected with the goal of defining unique artifacts that would be of value to current and future scholars, researchers and designers. An advantage of a man-made selection is that exclusions based on technical limitations that spider software for example provokes can be avoided through additional post-processing. Which of course requires a lot of time a lot of manpower and if possible foundation funding.
Therefore we were able to collect also dynamic sites instead of excluding them as the Archive.org has to. But the main benefit of manual selection is the critical treatment an editorial team adds to each item collected.
The downside of a manual selection (operating on the principle of exclusion /inclusion) is the risk of underestimating the historical or scholarly value of certain items, which is in general a problem when collecting contemporary cultural products.
Transparency of argumentation can be one of the possibilities to counterbalance this risk.
Therefore, as one measure, we started programming a rating system, a browser based tool, which would give users on the internet the possibility to rate the comments that we were doing and on the projects of their colleagues. The consideration here was to maintain the status of competence central to a museum institution but at the same time applying democratic principles of public participation, which is characteristic of the internet. The explicit intention was to open a forum stimulating the public debate on the issues we addressed.
Some of these criteria we applied to select items for the web design collection were:
- Originality and uniqueness of concept
- Quality of visual representation
- Design solution in relation to usability
- Design solution in relation to the content and context
- Technical innovation
- Inventiveness in navigation
The criteria we based our selection on evaluated the following aspects of the sites:
As you might find yourself these are quite soft evaluations. It is not something rigid so there is a lot of subjectivity in this. Therefore it was important for us to find a way of contextualizing in giving a description to each item, which was possible to be discussed with time passing by.
We monitored the web to retrieve sites within their functional context. We selected particularly interesting examples of current web design instead of commissioning the sites for our collection, as for instance the art museums SFMOMA (with its e-Gallery) or the Walker Art Centre (with Äda Web and Gallery 9) did and still do.
Benjamin Weil (curator at the SFMOMA) for instance commissions single net.artists to produce work for the museum. In close collaboration with the artist, museum staff creates a documentation of the piece, interviewing the author and therefore creating a notation of the piece through technical descriptions, descriptions of functionality and of the artistic intention. This way a "map" of the work results which can be preserved along with the usual metadata categories in the museum's permanent archive.
Peter Weibel as well employs a similar method to ensure that artwork done for the ZKM can be re-constructed by future generations. He explicitly demands that artists produce a full documentation of their work. The accuracy of this method and the human work involved is quite complex and rooted in anthropological fieldwork as well as in strategies historically applied when documenting land art, happening and performance art.
In terms of collecting digital object of every day use, like we had to do, I believe the aspect of retrieving from an autonomously developing, extra-institutional context is crucial in order not to eradicate the close relation of the sites to their original function.
We were looking for a clear way of structuring the collection in its several levels to permit users an easier access to contents. So actually here I'm not showing you all of the layers of our collection, which you are welcome to visit online anyways. We chose to subdivide the collection creating categories and did not opt for a more intuitive navigation as Äda Web for example did.
A further project was the "Wayback Machine" of the Archive.org that's an internet archive initiated in 1996. As of January 2004, it stored around 300 terabytes of data, which include more than 1,200 short films (in MPEG-2 and MPEG-4 formats) and more than 30 billion web pages, which for us was something not even approachable. The site has an enormous success within the user community. 5 million visits a day are the average. However using the archive is not such an easy task for researchers. While there is plenty of data to look at, there isn't an easy interface for accessing it.
Unlike the Archive.org we could not and did not choose to collect everything produced for the web. We opted rather for a manual selection, metadata treatment and critical comments on all collected sites and for an easy to decode interfaces. We relied upon that the explicit added value that museum repositories may provide lays in the additional information published along with the item itself, permitting an evaluation and contextualization in terms of scholarship over time.
A further characteristic of the digitalcraft collection is that it does not limit its scope to a strictly national production, as for instance National Libraries do. Our outreach covered the globality of the internet but restricted its scope to the discipline of the museum for which we developed the collection: craftsmanship and applied arts. A further key issue concerned permission when collecting web sites. Unlike what the Archive.org does we followed the library model seeking the permissions of domain owners or copyright holders when gathering content for preservation.
So although this is now going to be even a little bit more technical I have to address some aspects concerning long-term storage and long-term accessibility to the digital resources.
The basic problem is that the pace at which technology renews and outdates is enormous. Hardware platforms, operating systems and browser versions outdate fast. Programming languages, formats and software applications become antiquated making the accessibility of digital projects a real challenge.
Some main technical concerns to consider in formulating a preservation strategy are: durability of access to the contents for example old computer games can not be played anymore if the original console is not preserved and therefore the tape cannot be read. I mean we all have lost our old game computer consoles. Maybe in the cellar, maybe we gave it to our little brothers and mainly the problem is, if the console doesn't work anymore there is no way to access it. So one solution here is collecting and preserving old hardware along with all related software, which implies an enormous amount of financial and manpower resources. There is a museum in Germany the (Computerspielemuseum Berlin for games and the Nixdorf Museum Paderborn for old hardware) they tried to do that. They tried to preserve explicitly hardware. And speaking with colleagues they make clear that this is an effort, which is totally getting out of hand. So a second solution rather relies on the principle of emulation. It is relatively easy to emulate hardware, but it is more of a challenge to preserve functioning software. There have been lots of conferences with international colleagues addressing exactly these sorts of challenges. In case of a web site collection designed to endure over several decades it would be crucial to preserve the various operating systems versions, the specific software, all plug-ins along with the sites to insure their operability. In case of the games digitalcraft started collecting emulators. In parallel we established a partnership with the University Freiburg, in Germany, to create a collection containing historical and contemporary hardware emulators, browsers, plug-ins and various software for the means of long-term storage.
So the second point is the physical deterioration of storage media. If data is stored on storage media like CDs, DVDs and DAT tapes etc. we have to keep in mind that they have an approximate life span of 5-7 years even network servers and hard drives do not last that much longer. A constant migration of data is necessary to preserve accessibility to the content. We for example created a double back up by copying all data on DAT tapes, as well as on their servers. But mind you our project was only functioning for three years. So we didn't have to migrate over a decade as for example the Archive.org has to, because they started way earlier than we did.
A third point is durability of access to the repository. Old databases can't be accessed after approximately10 years. Also for the database systems constant migration of data might become necessary. Therefore we based our technical implementations in open source technology relying upon an integration of MySQL and PHP for applications.
The second last point is interoperability and compatibility with other repositories. So what are you going to do if you're looking at sharing data and knowledge with other colleagues of other institutions if they use different platforms? Hardware and software standards are necessary to share data with other institutions. Here again the use of open source technology seems preferable as well as the implementation of well-known standards.
(And standard is also a crucial issue when looking at metadata. Metadata is cataloging of information describing the single item. It is necessary to adapt, or it would be better to adapt international standards for description of each item such as CIMI, Dublin Core or AMICO.)
The initial collection, consisted in a link based commented list. This is how we started. The ephemeral character of the web meant that sites were in constant change or even disappeared, making a long-term collection practically impossible. Consequently, the collection was rearranged in a second phase, following the principle of long-term data storing. To insure methodical registration and broad documentation of all items, we developed a catalogue of 34 description formats in accordance to existing standards.
We contacted the designer /copyright holder asking for the authorization to collect the site. The holder was asked to provide us the web site's data and to fill in a questionnaire. The data was either being mailed to us (via email, CD ROM or FTP access) or we download it using special software. Afterwards, we mirrored the site on our web server and made it accessible by placing a link on the digitalcraft.org site, therefore creating a redundancy for security reasons.
digitalcraft aimed to preserve the full functionality of the collected web sites. To achieve a nearly full browsability, we needed to preserve all functionalities through their scripts. As far as the page was connected to a database, an offline version had to be made and absolute links needed to be adjusted. That is something the Archive.org cannot do because they are doing it in an automatic way.
The technical requirements we asked authors for were:
- the index html
- all image files
- all text files
- all flash files (in case they used them) or similar
Elements like databases and chat functions connected to a site were excluded in this, at least, phase of our project.
Mainly archiving projects are in the purview of National Libraries. The efforts primarily concentrate on the preservation of digitized, only recently also on born digital material, all produced in the surroundings of academic and scientific research. The taxonomies, thesauri and metadata standards existing today largely derive from efforts made by libraries more than by museums. In Europe the European Commission started as early as early as the mid 80s to address issues of digital preservation of cultural heritage. A variety of transnational projects for metadating, inventorization and cross platform accessibility have produced quite good results.
Since the end of 2002 a project called "Archiving the Avant-Garde" has been initiated, in this case patronized by the Berkeley University, trying to constitute a consortium of especially American institutions to find common standards for preserving born digital material.
Except some rare examples all in the area of contemporary art, the reality within the museum world generally looks different. Museums are still undertaking great efforts to digitize their large non-digital collections and sometimes misunderstand these efforts as doing justice to digital culture. Only recently museums have started implementing media art into their collections and exhibitions. It is not that long ago (I am talking of the last 20-25 years) that photography has been able to finally achieve a status of museum collectable; video art (with it's by now 30 year old tradition) only recently started to, not to mention so called new media or digital art.
Projects like Äda Web or Gallery 9 are all in the area of art and net.art, are very valuable examples of how to integrate latest expressions of art into traditional museums work, experimenting also with new notions as for example online curation. Web based art, though, has an added problematic in comparison to for example web design, it often springs off of a net activist intention, which by definition is reluctant to be integrated into an institutional context as museums are. There are some fine articles written by actually Olia Liliana, who is here and Natalie Bookchin exactly about this problematic.
But still, there are no museum projects, which methodically try to undertake the challenge of collecting digital objects, especially in the area of web design. Maybe the only two projects worth to be mentioned here is the runme.org repository, an art database based on private initiative, although the founding members rather describe their mission to serve "art development, rather than for its storage" and secondly the project "the Database of Virtual Art" headed by Dr. Oliver Grau at the Humbold Universität Berlin.
To conclude, my question is why engage in the preservation of digital objects if it is so much of challenge, and I think Peter already mentions this problematic as well.
Most societies create their identity through the awareness of their historical background. Museums and libraries engage in the preservation of artifacts and manuscripts. The purpose is to create repositories for researchers, historians and scholars, contributing to the process of generating the collective memory and a "sense of historical place and meaning" as Bruce Sterling expressed it.
The importance of public collections lies in facilitating the contingency of studying and interpreting the past and therefore assuring the possibility to generate visions for the future.
Researchers are increasingly concerned with the possibility of a "Digital Dark Age", a period in the not so far future when manuscripts, digital epistemology (mail communication) and artifacts will not be retrievable anymore. Ever more scientists have noted the importance to preserve these ephemera to provide context to events, scientific and artistic concepts and media enhanced human networks.
As the European Community has already declared digital preservation of cultural heritage being of general political interest, it now is the turn of national cultural politics to act, to ensure that not only national libraries but also museums realize these targets. Institutionally supported projects mainly arise in regions, which have already recognized that their economical dependency increasingly shifts from an industrial to a service oriented economy. In a broader scope media culture contributes developing new skills in a population that is less and less dependent on the production of primal resources and object oriented goods. Ireland is a very good example of how a precise political strategy has favored the implementation of new sectors in the local community creating wealth. Matthew is laughing (because he knows its reality could be even better).
If museums nowadays would lead a more self confident discussion about their role, especially within the contemporary information and communication society, they would have to recognize the great potential which lies in operating a change management in terms of redefining their social function and mission.
The so-called digital lifestyle will produce a large change of expectations by contemporary users of museums. Users will consume art either on site (in a physical space) or in the virtual space and maybe integrate and export parts of it into their personal life.
Museums could act as a main content repository; and the question here is, what if museums provided Digital Rights Management services for authenticated digital contents? How about a museum as competence center and application provider? What if museums and cultural archives would start to build up distributed knowledge systems? Could a distributed system like a peer-to-peer network complement an already existing centralized information archive? Could museums work as open discussion platforms, acting as moderators between trans-disciplinary discourses and experts?
So actually my last question is should we not act on this before Bill Gates does it? Or before the last public space is virtualized, commercialized, and privatized?
Geert Lovink: Danny O'Brien is the editor of a newsletter that looks into new media scandals, rants, and the latest in hi-tech industry in the UK. The site is called NTK.net, Need To Know, and besides that he is also a columnist and this is the way he makes money. His real passion is to look into the scandalous parts of the industry. This is really very dense literature so if your English is not so good or if you are not really into UK slang or hi-tech slang it is a tough read. But once you're into it, it is really hilarious and enjoyable. So Danny.
Danny O'Brien: All right, my name is Danny O'Brien thanks for the introduction. I've edited a thing called Need To Know, which as Geert has said is almost completely incomprehensible. Even to me.
One of the things we regularly get from people is, "I love NTK. I subscribe to it. I've forgotten how to unsubscribe to it. And I really like it. I don't understand half of the things you say." But fortunately it is always a different half. So we've never actually eliminated anything.
What I've never confessed to these people is that I don't understand half of it. Fortunately I have a co-writer and he writes the stuff I don't understand.
I have two pr... well actually I have many problems, but I have two problems here today. And I hope to make them your problems as well. The first one has to do with web design. Okay, this is NTK in 1998, actually that is as far as the internet archive goes as far as copies for this.
I think you can see my first problem here; this is the height of our web design approach in 1998. Aaah it is fairly rough even for 1998. What you see there is a table and my inability to turn off the borders of the table. Now that's okay, everything was fresh and new in those days.
This is today, and you see my other problem here. We've changed it slightly. You can see we've... I've worked out that border equals zero, and I've put in some nice color here. We received a lot of letters about that. The week we changed that I got hundreds of emails from my cutting edge web designer audience complaining bitterly that things have changed.
And this is one of the things I want to pick up in my talk; is that I think all of the speakers in this section have talked about how the media presentation of what web designers are, and what this culture is, is very much at odds as to the reality of the situation. And also often the dialogue that web designers have with researchers, and with fellow web designers, you know; how wonderful this career is, and how marvelous things are going; you know, it is only a matter of time before I really breakthrough; is really at a counter point with what they are actually thinking, and what they are actually crying to themselves in bed.
At NTK we like to see ourselves as a sort of receptacle for those tears, which are sent as Attachments.
The program that Roz very beautifully described, Attachments, prompted such a response by our audience that we set up a separate website for it called Everyone Hates Attachments. This consisted of an interactive chat type forum, (we got a bit better at this kind of stuff), in which people would go online and complain about this TV show as it was happening. So people would be going to the site, and people would be actually saying, "that never happens! We never sleep with other people at work, or each other, or the cat, or anything that is going on in this particular show".
So there was a genuine irritation with what the media was presenting. And also I think, as both the other speakers have mentioned, a great hiding of what was actually going on.
So the other problem I slightly have is that in discussing work, very few parts of NTK were actually ever about work. We always either just pulled scorn on the work that people were doing, or uncovered things that were completely parallel to work; other things that people were interested in, TV and so forth. The only time work ever really impinged on NTK was when everything went wrong. Then people would send us screen shots of disastrous web site crashes. Or when companies would collapse.
The Dotcom bust was greeted with a huge round of applause from our readership. This was peculiar for a number of reasons. One of course was that they were all employed in this environment. And two, often, when, companies collapsed, or database systems fell over, or all of these things the people emailing us were the people who were working on those very projects, going "ha ha, look what's happened!"
We were sort of this weird, saturnalia of the new media. I want to spend a bit of time looking into that for this talk and discussing exactly what the reasons for that was.
Obviously, part of the reason is; this is the funny side and this is a way of releasing all of these pent up frustrations with the contradictory nature of the business. But I actually think there is something else here. I think that there was something in the manner, in the way web designers thought that actually had coping mechanisms for this; who were actually developing a way to cope that didn't really fit in with the bohemian ideal that other people were forcing on them. And these people actually drew from a much longer cultural tradition of coping than just within this decade, plucked from three or four different cultural influences that came through NTK.
I will try to explain at least 1% of the 50% of NTK that no one understands.
At the bottom of every NTK, since 1997, we've had this little catch phrase here, which is kind of the thing people put on t-shirts and so forth, it says "Need To Know: they stole our revolution, now we're stealing it back." This is older than NTK, this dates back to about 94, 95. A time before anyone really has any idea that a revolution was being taken away from them. This was before the Dotcom boom, this was before the capitalization of all of these ideas, and this is really even before the web. This was an idea that there was a revolution going on. There was a "they", a numinous they, that were taking the revolution away, and in some way we had some way of getting the revolution back from them. I guess explaining that point is the point of what I am going to talk about today.
Okay, lets go back a bit. The rest of the speakers in their work and also in the book that Geert cited No Collar, talked about a discontinuity in the way people saw themselves, this moment where the past was geeky, but this is cool. This is one of the things, if you've read Roz' paper; she talks about this: that new media workers were clearly trying to identify themselves away from the previous workers in this area. This (other here) was very geeky. But They weren't doing geeky things. I may be stringing pointy brackets together but what I do isn't geeky. It's something else; it is a creative endeavor.
I want to go past that particular discontinuity, because a lot of the stuff that NTK rather subconsciously draws upon is a little before that.
You'll pardon me if I do a little bit of ancient history here. This is actually ancient Greek history. This is the front cover of a zine from 1964. This is the cover of Principia Discordia and if you can read it [the screen], it is introduced as "how I found Goddess and what I did to her when I found her". This is a very interesting bit of apocrypha, the secret material of the geek culture.
Has anyone heard of Principia Discordia, stick up you hands. You see a tiny tiny 3% here. This is actually a religious document. The Discordian religion started in the late 50s early 60s in a bowling ally in Yorba Linda, California, which the Goddess Eris, the Greek Goddess of Discord, appeared to two, I guess, bohemian types and explained to them that they were going to teach the world how to balance the nice orderly world, which is all around them, with the absolutely chaotic world that underlies it.
You can see what an appeal this has for geeks, who have to constantly structure their lives, knowing that there is this boiling iceberg of horror underlying almost all of their web sites. It is absolutely true that this is a tiny book that was exchanged via, at the time, a very early cultural exchange, which was mail art. Mail art was where people would copy the work they were doing and then send it to other artists. Principia Discordia is kind of a compilation of several artist scattered, not only over the United States, but also across the world. They poured all of this into a shared environment using the technology of the time. Principia Discordia, the first edition was actually a Xerox, well mimeograph in fact, made on Jim Garrison's photocop... mimeograph. Jim Garrison being the guy who investigated Lee Harvey Oswald's assassination of John F. Kennedy.
This is a very important status in the world of the Discordian, because Discordians also were very much into conspiracy theories. They were one of the first people to pursue the whole multiple shooter theory, and it is a tentative Discordian item of faith that there were at least 30 people trying to shoot JFK. This group of people has a belief that a lot of people have about conspiracy theories; they use them as a comfort. And for a lot of people Discordianism was a comfort. Is it a religion or is it a joke? It is really hard to tell.
One of the later... you may be more familiar with this. This is The Church of the Sub Genius. Has anyone seen these images? This is something that was actually picked up by the same people and had a much larger influence on the ideas of design in the 90s, which we will come to a little bit later. There is continuity with here. People tend to differentiate Principia Discordia with The Church of the Sub Genius by saying The Church of the Sub Genius is a joke pretending to be a religion, whereas Discordianism is a religion pretending to be a joke. I know a lot of programmers who seriously do believe in Discord and the guidance of Discord.
So what is the point I'm trying to make here? And how exactly does this lead to web design and work? Very good questions. Well for one thing this is a very tech lead design idea and a very tech lead idea of self expression. Also the technology came from work. This is the important thing.
Jim Garrison didn't know he was starting a religion on his mimeograph. People were creeping into his office, mimeographing the stuff and then creeping out. And Jim Garrison was a paranoid guy, so that must have been hard to do.
Also there is this idea of a shared complexity. A contribution where all of these people, partly because of the illegitimacy of how they maintained this reproduction, couldn't put their names to it.
It is very hard to find out who is behind the Principia Discordia in the same way as a lot of religious apocrypha. And that give it a certain force and it also gives it a complexity because you have all these different people adding stuff to the document. The team is bigger than an individual art project.
How well known was Discordianism? Hopefully I should be able to illustrate this.
This is a great book. This has just come out. This is called Revolution in the Valley; it is by the early geeks who built the first Mac. Here we are [points to dorky picture of Apple designers], you can see this is slightly pre-cool. We are now coming up to around 1984. There are a number of great stories here about how the Macintosh was first made. The Macintosh was really the first designed computer in the sense of not being just thrown together with bits of wires.
My wife pointed out something here that is very interesting, which is a chapter called Gobble, Gobble, Gobble. This is talking about Steve Jobs who is an interesting figure in geek culture, as I will go into in a sec. I'll just give you this quote... "Steve was very protective of his Mac designers who were pretty much incapable of looking after themselves and would be working all night designing this first computer culture artifact that had elements of design". And he also defended them from the "Straights". This is the first time really that the idea of the Silicon Valley geek was a precious artistic person who had to be protected from the Straights. Before this point, the Straights were the geeks. And this is how Steve Jobs in his inevitable subtle way managed to do this.
Someone comes up for an interview for a management role, and Steve has promised; the geeks are worried, "we get some sort of authoritarian manager who'd wreck the unique spirit of our team. We expressed our concerns to Steve."
It is always "Steve",
"He promised we would have a big say in hiring the new manager. He said he would personally protect us if the situation like the one we feared ever arose."
One of the ways he did this was he brought them into the interview situation.
The guy comes up for his interview,
"He was extremely straight laced, and up tight, and was dressed more like an insurance salesman than a technologist."
So technologists already have this weird dress that is different than the Straights.
"I could tell Steve was losing patience when he started rolling his eyes at the candidates responses. Steve began to grill him with some unconventional questions. 'How old were you when you first lost your virginity?' Steve asked. The candidate wasn't sure he heard correctly, 'what did you say?' Steve repeated the question changing it slightly, 'are you a virgin?' Burrell [Smith] and I started to laugh; the candidate became more disconcerted, he didn't know how to respond. Steve changed the subject, 'how many times have you taken LSD?' The poor guy was turning various shades of red, so I tried to change the subject and ask a straight forward technical question."
This is one of the geeks talking.
"But Steve got even more impatient when he started to give a long winded response. 'Gobble gobble gobble gobble gobble', Steve said, making turkey noises. This was too much for Burrell and me and we started cracking up. 'Gobble gobble gobble gobble gobble', Steve continued."
And eventually at this point the manager realizes that he probably won't get the job.
What you see there is the Turkey Curse from Discordianism. To perform the Turkey Curse, Geert you have to stand up for this I'm afraid. Stand up.
"You take a foot start, if you were John L. Sullivan",
I have no idea what that means, perhaps preparing for fisticuffs?
"Face the particular grey face you wish to short-circuit",
This is the 60s remember,
"Or toward the negative aneristic vibrations."
This is someone who is slightly too organized. This isn't you Geert I just needed someone who wasn't going to hit me.
"You make motions with your hands as though you were a mandrake feeling out the giantess, chant loudly and clearly, 'Gobble gobble gobble gobble gobble'."
Thank you, do it back to me, just so I don't...
Geert Lovink: Gobble gobble gobble gobble gobble.
Danny O'Brien: Perfect! I am cleansed.
Steve Jobs is the first example of a manager who understood the geeks that he was dealing with and then exploited them to the hilt.
Steve Jobs holds a strange kind of Angel/Devil figure in geek history. To give you an example the classic thing that excited people about Steve Jobs when he started, and turned them against him shortly afterwards, was one of his little adages he would have around the office. This was the one: "real artists ship". Ship in this sense means writing code and shipping on time. So here we have this interesting almost Svengalian blend of work and your dreams, geek dreams. You're an artist; you're a geek. Everyone else thinks you're a straight laced gobble gobble gobble, kind of guy. But you're not, you're an artist. And you're an artist who's working with me to create "The Great Work". This secret artistic project; this shared project that we will do together; this is why people loved Steve Jobs.
The reason why people hated Steve Jobs of course was that he was utterly exploitative. The people who worked on the Mac project were paid very very small salaries. And when Steve Jobs was finished with them he just discarded them. A classic example of this was from Steve Job's partner, Steve Wozniak, who when Steve Wozniak, after quite an awful accident decided to leave Apple and start his own little start up in Silicon Valley, Jobs denied him any suppliers. He went to all of Apple's suppliers and said don't deal with this man he is a traitor. Basically it is a rather tragic story Revolution in the Valley because it describes these engineers who were inspired to do great things by Steve Jobs. But at the same time when everything went wrong, when they were burnt out, effectively they were just thrown away. At the end of the book there is this awful tension that you see cropping up again and again, of the engineers trying to rationalize what is happening to them.
This happens again and again. One of the interesting things about the pre-1994 tech culture is that the booms were very short in duration and also periodically. In that they happened every ten years which means that you can have a boom/bust cycle, within your life time three times, three or even four times. The example here is that both Steve Jobs and Bill Gates came across in the 1974 boom, but they were also still quite young people in the second boom, the 1984 boom. Let me give you an example.
Danny O'Brien: This is Bill Gates in 1983, in a Teen Beat photo spread, as the young aspiring love interest of all decent 16 year old girls. [Note from Danny: actually, it's not. See http://www.snopes.com/photos/people/gates.asp for its true origins]. Maybe it is a product of the time that this wasn't in anyway freaky. And I think one of the reasons I now really... this is going to stay on the screen for a very long time because I don't have another slide, so avert your eyes... This wasn't weird because Bill Gates was relatively young as with Steve Jobs, they were both billionaires under 30, in a time when that was seen as unusual. Oh, of course they were not the only ones. You had people like Jobs and Gates exploiting geeks and becoming fantastically rich but you also had a rich culture of geeks exchanging things like Principia Discordia having all of these little in jokes. Communicating with one another, by the 80s, using bulletin boards, using the computer underground, talking about all of this and learning from these lessons. They knew that they were going to be "ripped off" by "The Man". And The Man was going to be a rather smooth faced boy, that these people weren't the people to be trusted. They looked like geeks but the were wolves! In geek's pocket protectors.
This is the beginning of what is described by Bruce Sterling and William Gibson, of course in this very glossy way, as the computer underground. But the computer underground of that time was just as much undermining the tech industry of which it was a part. One of the things that cropped up in the 80s was the "Warez Network", the illegal pirating of computer games and software. Now what a lot of people don't really know, because it is not really spoken of that much is, many of the people involved in the Wares Network were writing that software. In order to get that software you had to work for the company and the best software was "zero day warez". That was, warez that came out before the software actually reached the shelves, and that was usually smuggled out by people who were actually working on those products.
This seems a very self-destructive way of dealing with it, but of course they are identifying their work, their "Great Work" as being very different from the work they were being paid to do, even though the two are very closely identified. They were working many many hours on games and stuff like that and loved what they were creating, but then they wouldn't want to perform exactly how the boss wanted them to perform.
Another interesting thing that is worth noting is that a lot of the people who ran those warez networks went on, and I can't use names unfortunately, to be CEO's, to be the management of companies. So often when you have this idea that corporations are very much against pirates and so forth, when in fact that is historically the background from which they came from. So the computer underground spat out people who would then become either the exploiters, or at least the people in control of these businesses.
The other thing to know about the 80s was the GPL. The GNU project which is another defensive action, in this case against academia, that you cannot take my software that I am writing for you because I've protected it with these licenses that prevent you from exploiting it in anyway. So, this is another reaction against the people who are taking this stuff.
Ah, this is something I am really just going to skip through because the previous speaker has covered this really well. Lets go to 1994, what I have here is, "a tech enabled revolution causes an explosion in self expression." I'm talking here of course about the zine revolution. In 1994 if you were at all interested in design and self expression you would be two things: one, you would be unemployed because we were in a very big media recession, and two you were probably working on some little media project; some little zine that you would be sending out to people, or at least sitting in a cafe talking about writing a zine. I was. My zine was called Graduate Loser which kind of sums up what's going on here. These people were being disenfranchised essentially from the bohemian lifestyle they are expected to live, right? The idea is to go into a media job right after your degree, after your Liberal Arts degree, as they say in America.
Now zinesters were the direct ancestors of the early beginnings of web designers. Why is this? Because they were very used to the idea and the appeal of self expression, un-moderated by anyone else. They understood the value of that. They also understood the costs of doing that. Essentially the way you made a zine was the same way you did it in the 1960s. You crept into your work place after work and ran off hundreds and hundreds of copies on the photocopier, and that was sticking it to The Man, costing him over 20 pounds worth of photocopier toner. This was still going on when I first joined the internet industry in the 90s; is that people were creeping into the office in the evening, and I remember very distinctly the quiet Goth girl who did web design coming in late at night, when I was sitting there working on my own zine, and photocopying hundreds and hundreds of her Goth zine, and no one said anything of course because they were doing the same thing.
The appeal of the web of course was that it got rid of that problem. Rather than having to distribute to a hundred different people, you would be distributing it to the whole world. And all of the appeal and the dream that you had of having control over your artistic project was there for the taking.
So we have arts graduates expecting jobs in media, denied by the recession, taking dead end jobs purely for the access to technology. It is unsurprising that this group first seized and understood the potential of the World Wide Web.
Of course the first entries were the most important on the Web in 1994. You had this weird influx of people who went on to be the millionaires because they were the first to recognize these values.
So we have the zinesters. And then we have this other group who were the academics. The academics were also the first into this environment because, similarly, they had access to the technology. They could get into these areas to exploit the technology. The classic example here are David Filo and Jerry Yang the co-founders of Yahoo!. Jerry Yang and David Filo started Yahoo!, I believe at Stanford. And of course it wasn't part of their studies, because there was no such thing as web studies. They were doing this in their spare time instead of working on their studies. At Stanford they had access to the internet. Again we have this tradition of people having work that they are supposed to do, and the stuff that they are actually working on. Of course in this example the stuff they're working on disappears, and the stuff that is the side project, the hobby, turns into this massive project.
So again we have this weird bending going on, where actually this other thing, not the work that you do, but "The Great Work", this thing that you are inspired to do, becomes the main project. Other examples of this are seen in the IMDB, the Internet Movie Database. That was another project started the same way. And almost anything that you look at in the early days of the web started in this same way. All of these first web sites were built on stolen time and re-purposed technology. The web itself is supposed to be so you can write scientific papers and give it to you fellow graduates, right? Not that you are going to do this giant GIF of a coffee machine.
So here we go, these are the people feeding it. You have academics that find themselves sidetracked by far more attractive side projects. We have zinesters accustomed to both incredibly personal self expression and exploiting the technology of businesses. Then we have these geeks peculiarly sensitized to the dangers of living through their work, but unable to pursue their goals in any other way. And the reason why people like Jobs could consistently attract the geeks was because how else could you pursue your dreams if your dream was to create the world's best computer game or an incredible communication system, except by working in a corporation?
This is an extra element. I don't wish to glorify or come up with the standard Wired tropes about the web because I am five years too late, and they are not true. However one thing that is true is this supposedly egalitarian, probably just technically, egalitarian quality of this network, in that all nodes were equal peers. Not in the sense that everyone had a chance to express themselves or anyone had a chance to express themselves, but the fact that if you went to a site, you didn't know whether it was a huge corporation or it was just some guy. Often, as Roz describes, it is one in the same.
A really good example of this was HotWired. HotWired was one of the first explicitly designed web sites. They brought in designers, they created a look and feel; it was seen as a media artifact. Of course the people who worked on HotWired went on to fill the multi-media gulch, which was very similar to the New York scene. One of the things that is interesting about HotWired was that it was run originally from a server underneath some ones desk, in the Wired offices. Brian Behlendorf, now we are talking real geeks here, is the guy who wrote much of the Apache web server code, had a server under his desk, and that was HotWired. Under someone else's desk was suck.com. Suck.com was a site basically written by a couple of people working at HotWired who thought HotWired sucked and decided to do their own website. Within two or three months of suck.com starting, suck.com's number of hits was dwarfing HotWired's; and so one desk was remarkably cool to work on and the other one was burning hot. And of course they loved the 'hot stuff' at Wired. That weird convoluted, recursive way of that particular period in the Dotcom boom, favored the suck.com guys who then became the heroes. Wired commissioned an article to write about the people who had been stealing their technology to run their site, talking about how shitty the Wired web site was and wrote a piece about what cool people the suck.com people were. And did the deal, they made a deal and offered to buy the suck.com web site, for a ridiculously small amount of money. Of course suck.com took it because they'd been working all night and working all day at HotWired and they were tired and they were burnt out and their boss, who they hated, but respected, came along and said what you are doing is cool, I would like to buy it.
And of course when that happened all of the creative material goes away, all of the value of the project you were working on ebbs away, and it becomes just work. Not "The Great Work", but the work. And we see this repeatedly, this tension in the creative industries and in working on the web.
There was this constant cross over; the stuff that was actually good was a side project, it was a hobby. But because it was good, and people were desperate for finding out ways of taking things that were good, people were instantly blinded with cash. So there was betrayal after betrayal after betrayal. And this was the pain that people felt at that time. That they couldn't even escape into the side project without it being corrupted in this way. I was going to run through a lot of slides of this example, but since I see a lot of people nodding, I think you all know this experience. Things like fray.com.
A classic example of this is fuckedcompany.com. Which I think begins to express the end of this period. Where fuckedcompany.com was somebody setting up a side project to bitch about all the other companies that people were working for and that were collapsing. And two things happened; one, the site was absolutely drowned with people sending in tips about their companies dismantling themselves, all of the hypocrisy and lies, all of the hard sells that had gone on, and two, as a result fuckedcompany.com becoming a business in itself; because it was getting so many hits that advertisers wanted to advertise on fuckedcompany.com; because this was a very accessible demographic, right. These were hot web designers and we wanted to sell products to these people. The irony is, the guy running fuckedcompany.com packing in his other projects, which were I believe, and this is mainly gossip, porn sites, then decided to dedicate himself to fuckedcompany.com, and then being in the situation of having to fuel the fire. Having to continue to find fucked companies. And you know now all of the companies are fucked! What do you do? You have to work out some way of diversifying.
And to quickly cover on the side of the geeks, open source of course doing very well, by having the GPL and other license, legal defenses against being exploited. The geeks being somehow clever enough to give themselves legal defenses while working on these projects, so that these companies were then obliged to give away the projects to their competitors. Same thing, Dotcom boom, millions pouring into an area where businesses were funding things like Brian Behlendorf, the Apache project, that these people then carefully arranged to give away. Some of you may have heard the talk about Java. One of the interesting things about the history of Java is; there are two products, Tomcat and Ant, which are open source. Sun isn't keen on open source because it doesn't make a great deal of money and Java itself is not really open source. One of the reasons why Ant and Tomcat are open source was due to a bunch of individuals within Java, slipping it past the lawyers. They just stuck the licenses on it just at the moment when Sun was saying, "look we really have to ship this. Okay, just add this to the top, and here you go." And these little applications, are used all over the world. Some of the most popular things to come out of Sun and also one of the reasons why Java is still very popular, because there are these tools people can use; again this weird undermining and yet reinforcing nature.
This is a quote from Geert. I have to suck up to the organizer. "The boheme is virtually absent in the electronic gold rush stories", this really leapt out at me because it is true. For all of the media presentation of the web as a bohemian environment, it was really a struggle to incorporate what was really going on. If you look at the history of the bohemian movement it has a much more separated position away from work. The bohemian ideal is the idea that you have enough money from a slightly dead end job to support you art. Your job is boring but, hello, all jobs are boring. You work at a shitty job and you live in a garage and you eat paste, so you can support your art. This is a great sacrifice living in the bohemian way.
When I was writing this last night, I left it to the last moment. I was sitting in one of the cafes in the Red Light District, which is near where our hotel is. My little toddler child is having such an education. I was sitting there and it was about two in the morning and it was fairly empty, and somebody saw me scribbling, it was a young tourist. He came up to me very earnestly and said, "excuse me, you don't mind me asking, what are you doing?" And I was sitting there writing in my little black note book, I said, "Well I'm writing this talk." He said, "Talk you mean you are going to be interviewed?" I said, "No, no, it is a presentation." And this was the keyword. His face fell and said, "Oh, it is work." And then he turned and walked away. And the bohemian discourse was perfectly reflected in that moment. It is just work, it is not "The Great Work".
What I would like to describe here is that the old bohemian idea, this meaningless low paid job that funds your art; this is something that a lot of people in the new media industry describe in an attempt to separate themselves. The media presentation of the new media industry is something different. It is David Brooks' rather crazy idea of the Bobo. The bohemian person whose meaningful work is their job. These are the very positive reports of the new media, the idea that what everybody really wanted to do was a Levi Jeans web site; that's what people dreamt of. And that this was their artistic expression is clearly not true. What we have here is an invisible bohemian. A job that leaves you alone with the technology long enough to pursue your own "Great Work". The story is true that these people worked hundreds and hundreds of hours in their industries and in their businesses but a tiny fraction of those hundreds of hours were devoted to that actual industry, and the rest of the time they were sitting there, effectively and rather futilely, going 'gobble, gobble, gobble, gobble, gobble', at their bosses; unable to leave their jobs; unable to do anything but pursue their creative gestures using the tools that had been left to them by their kind and merciful overlords, the web and the photocopier.
Steven Pemberton: Okay, my name is Steven Pemberton. When I go to international conferences and give talks people say "oh you're Dutch! You speak really good English!" And so I say "well actually my mother was English", or I say "well I lived there for a while", but the fact of it is I am actually English.
I am a researcher in Amsterdam. I am at the Dutch National Research Center, CWI, which by the way was the first European internet site. In fact CWI set up both the Dutch internet and EUnet which created the European internet. You can thank me afterwards.
In the 80s I co-designed the programming language ABC. Guido van Rossum was part of the group doing that, and he took ideas away which became the basis for Python. And in the late 80s I built, with my group, what you would now call a browser. Although at the time we didn't call it a browser, if you saw it now you'd say, "okay that's a browser". It had extensible markup, style sheets, vector-graphics, client-side scripting, everything that you would recognize from the web now. And it ran on the Mac and Unix and Atari ST. So when the web came along, within our group we immediately understood what it was about. So, for instance, I then organized two workshops, one on client-side scripting, at the first web conference in 1994. The rest of my research group unfortunately went off and created the first Dutch internet company and then sold it at the peak of the market and they are now all "post-economic" bastards! Having a very miserable time with nothing to do, in large houses in the countryside.
But I went on to get invited to the W3C, and as a result of that I am the chair of the HTML and XForms working groups, and as a result of that I am a co-author of a whole bunch of internet standards, or recommendations as they are called, amongst others HTML4, CSS, XHTML in all its flavors, XML Events, XForms and so on. And until three weeks ago I was editor in chief of ACM Interactions, which is a journal about user interfaces.
Okay, so on to the technical stuff of my talk. Just like Peter this morning I'm going to start off with a historical quote. It's just over 100 years ago that the day Bloomsday occurred, June 16th 1904, which is the single day that the whole of James Joyce's Ulysses happens on. And Steven Dedalus, who is one of the three main characters in the book and actually represents Joyce, goes for a walk along the beach and closes his eyes and remarks "Ineluctable modality of the visible". Now ineluctable means inescapable or something like that. But basically what he was saying was that it's the visible that dominates our experience. Which was also interesting for Joyce, because he was going blind.
In fact funnily enough I experienced this ineluctable modality of the visible very strongly when I went to see the film of Ulysses. The film was made in the mid 60s, and is well known as being one of the first films to include the word "fuck" in it. In fact this is the first talk by a W3C speaker to include the word "fuck" in it as well. And this was so shocking at the time that at the premiere of the film they wouldn't allow the speech with the word "fuck" in it to be heard. So what they did, they gave everybody a copy of the speech at the door, so they could sit in the cinema and read the speech and watch the film but not actually hear it. Which is sort of ineluctable modality of the audible if you ask me, because apparently it's okay to read it, but not okay to hear it. But anyway when I went to see this film, as a result it had the image of being a dirty film by people who didn't know anything about. It was actually just an arty film, but the general public thought it was a dirty film. I was there to see it for its literary value of course, but because it was being shown at midnight there were a bunch of drunken who thought, "hey there's a dirty film! Let's go and watch it." So they were sitting there and having a lot of fun, and wondering when the dirty bits were going to come. And then when it gets to the point in the film where he says "ineluctable modality of the visible", what the director of the film does is he turns the visible off ... it just goes black. Now of course these drunken lads immediately thought something had gone wrong and thought the projector had broken, and started slow hand, and in the end they just left the cinema. But it was a very good illustration for me of the ineluctable modality of the visible, for these boys.
Anyway, the reason why I mention this is because the web is often treated as if it is a new visual space. But in fact that is not how it was intended, and I don't think in the end it is how it will be. The real ineluctable modality of the web is meaning. For instance, HTML was designed by Tim Berners-Lee to represent the structure of the document. There is nothing in there, give or take, that is meant to represent anything visible. When you say "h1", what you're indicating is the semantics of that bit of text. You're saying it is the most important heading, and you're not saying it is the markup for big fat letters.
Unfortunately, the browser manufacturers seized control of HTML for a few years and didn't understand this underlying design principle. So they started adding all sorts of junk to HTML to affect the presentation, which is not where it should have been. As a result of this, looking at typical web pages now it is a real mess, and it is very hard to extract the true information from a page. I'm not saying visual is unimportant. It is important, of course, but it's subordinate to meaning and it's important not to mix the two.
So when W3C was formed, one of the first things they did was try and seize back the initiative, and they created a working group on style sheets. Now, that's turned into CSS. The nice thing about style sheets is that they give you the power to define just as good visuals than is possible with HTML markup. But it separates them from markup itself, which gives you a whole bunch of advantages. For instance you can define the house style of your whole web site in just one file; you change it, you save it, the whole site changes immediately. You can read all the advantages there on this slide, and the bottom line is it's also cheaper: there are also financial reasons why you should do it.
But you can also create great designs. To show that CSS really does work, I want to talk about CSS Zen Garden, which is a site worth visiting. This site consists of just one single HTML file. This is it. It is about as vanilla HTML as you could possibly imagine. It's just a few tags but nothing complicated. But apart from that one single HTML file, it's got hundreds of breath-takingly beautiful style sheets applied to that one page. It's a sort of showcase for designers' abilities because anyone can submit new designs to show off their skill. What I want to do is just show you a few examples, but you have to bear in mind every screen I am going to show you is of the same HTML page. Only the style sheets have changed.
This is a fairly simple one; it's a good-looking one. You can see all the text that was in the HTML there, but it's been re-arranged and made generally more visually pleasing. Here is another one. What you can see here is the CSS Zen Garden: a demonstration of what can be accomplished on the road to enlightenment'. You can see all that text here again and it's just been re-organized. Just to show you that you can do awful things with CSS, for those people who like to do awful web pages, you are not constrained to do beautiful things. Here is another nice example, this is my particular favorite, made to look like a post package. All this is done with text, all this text is selectable, and it is still exactly the same HTML page. This is also a particularly surprising one, a comic, a very long comic, and all the text has been added to speech boxes.
And I should also tell you that I wouldn't dare use PowerPoint being the chair of the HTML working group. This slide set is actually in HTML with CSS: here you can see the actual underlying file. And if I want I can apply another style sheet to it. This is a style sheet just to give me an overview of what my talk is about: it just shows you the headings of each slide and numbers them as well.
One of the reasons that the separation of content and presentation is important is because of the meaning, and that the meaning is retained. Part of the reason that retaining meaning is important is that it is inclusive. Even blind people can read your web pages. For instance my father is now getting old and he's going blind fairly quickly. His one joy in life used to be reading the newspaper and he can't do that anymore: he just can't read the small letters. It is really sad that he never learned to use the web because now he would be able to at least go in and continue to read the news. I would claim all of us in this room, one day or another, will be grateful for web designers who make accessible sites. We already heard a complaint from John earlier today about those web sites that are not accessible that he can't read. But even if you, or the client you're working for, can't find the resources to make your site accessible, remember that your most important user is blind: that user is Google. Half your hits are going to come from Google. But Google only sees what a blind user can see, so if your site is not accessible then Google is not going to like you as much and you will get fewer hits, end of story.
What I am going to do is draw together a few threads and at the end knot them together. The question comes then when designing a web site, who should be given the task of designing a web site. Most of us I imagine already know you should never let the programmers design the user interface or the web site. That is one of the reasons why the Macintosh is so good, because Apple in the early days discovered that designing user interfaces is a task in itself, and there are specialists in this area, and you shouldn't give it to the programmers. Why not? It is actually a question of psychology. Programmers tend to design for themselves. They understand what they need and they design for that. The problem is their psychology is very different from the majority of the population.
Let me give you a very nice quote here. This is a great book Tog on Interface; it is very old, by Bruce Tognazzini, who was an evangelist for Apple in the early days of the Macintosh. Where he describes the difference in psychology between programmers and the general public, he talks about different classifications of psyches and says that programmers tend to be more "intuitive", as defined by Jung, and the general public tend, on the whole to be "sensorie". He describes what these two are. He says,
Sensory people are firmly rooted in the here and now. If it cannot be seen, touched felt or measured it simply does not exist. When sensories drive to work they are aware of the birds, the trees, the hill turning green. They notice a cow lowing in the field. Sensories are attracted to fields such as accounting, high-level management and burger flipping.
Intuitives are the absent-minded professors, the dreamers, the explorers of internal worlds, the great discoverers, theoreticians, inventors. When intuitives drive to work they watch the tectonic plates deep in the earth's crust rubbing together. They run into the cow.
Well now I have some bad news for you. And the bad news is, you shouldn't let your graphic designer design your web site either. Why not? For exactly the same reasons: it is a question of psychology. They tend to design for themselves and they are very different in psychology from the majority of the population. The essential feature that graphic designers have that most of the population don't have is that they are not scared of uncertainty. They have a low "uncertainty threshold". Whereas most people like to avoid uncertainty graphic designers like uncertainty. So they tend to design sites that are more game-like and you have to explore a bit. That's great. That's great if you're designing for graphic designers or for people who are looking for games, but it is not great for the wider public.
Ummm...now, III sssat for hours deciding whether I was going to do an example here or not because you never know if the designer might be in the audience! And I would end up being hated. The risk is here, so I've doubled my risk and I am going to give you two examples so at least the people who hate me can form a support group. Here is one site that I think very clearly illustrates the point. This is the original Museum Nacht web site for Amsterdam. It is also very good for this meeting because this has a starry background. Apparently that's actually okay! What you can't see from the screen is that the stars are all moving. They are sort of spinning around the "n8", which actually in Dutch is "n-acht". The stars are getting larger and smaller as they come in and go out. The problem with this is that the information is under the stars: you have to click on the stars, but the stars are moving! I watched people trying to use this site and I saw them generally give up after three stars. Firstly they had had enough, and secondly they didn't know which stars they hadn't hit yet. Beautiful web site.
The next example is a very old Digitale Stad site.
Audience: Oh, oh.
Steven Pemberton: Yeah okay, so the designer is here, so they hate me. I knew that there was really great information here and sometimes I found it. But I didn't know how I found it. Probably there were people who enjoyed using that, but I wasn't one of them even though I wanted to get to the information.
Just as a side issue. What is the most important property of a web site? Forrester Research did this great survey of more than eight thousand people to find out why they went to Amazon rather than Borders, or whatever. Why they went to one web site that did something rather than another web site that did essentially the same thing. And they had lots of possible reasons, but in fact the research showed there were only four essential reasons why people go back to a web site. Sometime I throw this out to the audience when I have more than five minutes but I'm not going to do it today. I'm just going to tell you straight away.
Reason number one, seventy five percent: good content. If your web site hasn't got good content people aren't going to go there.
Reason number two: usability, if people could navigate and find the stuff.
Reason number three: that it downloaded really fast.
And reason number four: that it got updated regularly.
Those all scored more than fifty percent. Reason five scored fourteen percent, so it is essentially noise. Just an interesting bit of information for you. Look to your content: the semantics are what's really important.
There is talk about the semantic web: the semantic web is supposed to be the next generation of web. But we really already have a semi-semantic web. A good example of this is clusty.com, which is a search engine. If I do a vanity search on myself, I do a search on Steven Pemberton, it's given me sort of Google-like results down there but you'll see that it says "if you didn't find what you're looking for, try our clusters on the left". I am going to zoom in on those. What it's done is sort of clustered the links about me and it's actually found out quite a lot about me, that I was surprised that it would know about me. It sees that I'm involved with XForms, it sees that I was the editor in the past of SIGCHI Bulletin, Leo Geurts is a colleague of mine, someone I wrote a book with, it sees that I've written some books, that I'm involved with design, that there are photos of me, I've done workshops, and I'm the top of HTML hierarchy, well there you go!
What I'm saying is: we don't actually need to do very much to have a semi-semantic web. This is using fairly simple things, like Google does, that just says a link is a vote and so we are going to draw some conclusions about that. What it does is gathers everything that links to a central point and then tries to gather some standard meaning about that cloud of links. However, although that is great, it is still not great enough. There is still very much we can do. For instance, if a web site contains the text, "Yesterday the Prime Minister said...", if a search engine could work out what "yesterday" meant and what "the Prime Minister" meant, then if you searched for "Tony Blair", it could find that page for you as well, even though the words "Tony Blair" didn't necessarily appear on the page. Or if the browser knew that "Kruislaan 413, 1098 SJ Amsterdam" was an address, it could offer you the possibility of adding it to your address book, or finding it on a map, or... fill in the blanks.
We're seeing more semantics being added to the web but with formats like RSS, which are site summaries that allow you to know when sites are changing. But the annoying thing about this is you have to dual-author your site, you have to have your site and your summary, which is a real pain. You have to write programs or you have to do something. There is no reason why you shouldn't just layer the RSS semantics over your web site so that search engines could find it and say "okay I know what to do with this".
Actually Google and other search engines together have recently announced that they are adding some new semantics to the semantic web, because people don't like the fact that a link always gives a positive vote. They want to link to something but say "don't count this as a positive vote, because I hate it". You can actually put now on a link 'rel="nofollow"' and that tells Google not to take this as a vote. This is to stop linking-spam in wiki's and similar.
To this end, XHTML 2, which is in preparation, hopefully to be out this year, will have a set of attributes exactly designed for layering semantics on the top of web pages, so you don't have to dual author and to give more power to add semantics if you want to.
This is my last slide: the future of web design. What I think and hope is we're going to see the end of the pixel-perfect page, and the beginning of visual semantics. Part of the problem is that our web graphic designers come out of a tradition of designing for paper. On paper you have control. On the web you don't have so much control any more. You can't say "this page is designed for 800 x 600" if the person is looking on a mobile phone, because what are they going to do, stretch out the screen? No, you don't have the control, so it is no good saying it anymore. Your pages have got to have fluid design. It's like when you design a house style; you design the notepaper, the business cards, the envelopes, you've got a visual semantic for the house style. And what you've got to do is represent that visual semantic in a style sheet so that no matter how big or small or wide or thin or tall your web page is, it still has the right visual semantics for that web page. But it won't be pixel perfect anymore.
What I also expect is, once the ability to just layer semantics onto a web page is there, that people will start doing it. It's how the web started. You started off with a very simple page, just linked a few things together and you slowly built it up. And when Google starts giving you some value of having more semantics on your web page, people will think "okay I'm going to start adding semantics" and everybody will benefit.
Okay, thank you.
Richard Rogers: Is there an urgent question for Steven?
Unknown: One question, I am not sure if it fits in with this topic, but how does XSL fit into all of this? Or is it totally different?
Steven Pemberton: Well, XSL started off as a style language. But it turned out to be actually two things together. It was a set of formatting elements and a set of transformations. In fact three things, if you take XPath out and treat it separately. So XSL definitely has its place and in particular for driving print, because it is more suitable for print. CSS was more designed for fast rendering on the screen, there are certain things you deliberately can't do. XSL has turned out to be really useful for the transformation parts and for the use of XPath for selecting different parts of a document. It has a slight styling advantage for certain use cases, but in general it is the transformation and selection that is really useful.
Caroline Nevejan: How do I understand semantics? The word semantics could you tell me what your meaning is? It is a very important word you are talking about.
Steven Pemberton: Well, in a sense it's whatever you want it to mean. It's whatever meaning you want to prescribe to add meaning to your web page. So it is not an attempt to be too specific about what meanings you're going to layer, because different groups want to assign different semantics to different things. What we're planning to do is provide a generalized mechanism that people can use and then see what emerges. The accessibility community is already very strongly locking onto this to make websites more accessible and more easy to read. Funny enough the mobile web people, the telephone companies, are latching on to parts of it, because they think if you can add semantics about chunks of your web page, they can then transform it more easily into something sensible for a phone. We are going to wait and see what the world makes of it.
Dragan Espenschied: I would like to ask a very small question as well. Please go back. As you were showing here some web sites, I also want to ask you as a member of the Consortium, why is the padding outside of the width in style sheets in the CSS. Because this is really... I wonder who came up with this idea. I have the feeing as if...
Steven Pemberton: Why is it outside which bit?
Dragan: The width. You... there is the width of an element and then the padding is added outside, and I wonder how this happened? I wonder if this person ever made a web page or something.
Steven Pemberton: You're talking about 1996! I don't remember how we came to the decision. I could look it up for you if you wanted to.
Helen Petrie: Okay can everyone hear me? My name is Helen Petrie, I live in London but I am actually an Australian, and I come neither from the new media world nor from the computer world. I'm actually a psychologist by training, a cognitive psychologist but I've always loved computers and I've used Apple Macintosh ever since 1985, which I can't use very much now because they are not very good for blind people, at the moment. I've been interested in the web and I guess I first saw it in about 93. So I'm not really an early adopter. I hope I will keep you awake after the lunch session I will try to be entertaining, so thank you for gobbling up lunch very quickly.
I am here to talk about access to the web for people with disabilities. That might include older people, so our future selves as I like to think of them, although the future is coming to quickly in my point of view. I call my talk "Ten Years of Some Access to the Web, For People with Disabilities".
First of all I'd like to throw out a bit of a challenge and say that I suspect there is a strong urban myth that interesting web design and well-designed web sites are incompatible with accessibility. That is not something I accept at all! Neither do I accept the idea that accessible web sites have to be bland or indeed text only. I hate text only web sites. So my contention is that the challenge of the moment which we are beginning to come to grips with is accessibility should go along with innovative, interesting design and perhaps be a challenge for designers that they haven't thought about very much yet. And that there is a payoff for perhaps putting a bit of extra effort into making web sites and web servers accessible, and that is they actually yield clear, visibly interesting sites for all users. I will come back to that point at the end of my talk because I actually have very hard evidence for that which usually knocks business people right off their seats when I show it.
So I don't know whether I have to convince this audience that you need to worry about people with disabilities when you are designing a web site. I was pleased to hear blind people referred to several times yesterday in the discussion for various reasons, so obviously people are aware of that.
Let me just quickly give you three reasons why I think we should be worrying about this problem. First of all there are a lot of disabled people out there; there is actually one speaking to you at the moment. I'm dyslexic so you can't always tell when some one is disabled. And some of them are cool and some of them aren't, and some of them are geeks and some of them aren't geeks. You could increase the audience for you web site if you care about such things by ten to fifteen percent, if you make it more accessible. Because that is the percentage of the people in the population who have a disability that is related to the way they access the web.
Secondly, access to information for people with disabilities is really poor, at the moment, outside the web. I'll elaborate about that at the moment. So people with disabilities want to do all the weird things on the web that everyone else wants to do. Following on from that, the web offers an amazing opportunity to provide information to people in formats that are good for them. Which might be larger print, it might be pink text on a blue background. But before you all run out of the room, I'm not talking about compromising your normal design of you web page, I'm just talking about letting people change the font and colors if they need to. And of course this comes from the good old separation of content from presentation that is the best for HTML, but building on yesterdays discussion about content and presentation I would say as designers you ought to be thinking about different presentations of content for different groups of people, and facilitating that through providing information on the web. And again I will elaborate a bit on that as I go along.
Finally I'll just mention that it is increasing the law that you make your web site accessible to people with disabilities. I know there has been a big push in the Netherlands on web accessibility and in the UK in Australia and in the USA it is now the law, and any web site is considered a service and if it is not reasonably made accessible for people with disabilities you might be viable under the law. I actually don't like hitting people with the law and I have quite a lot of discussions with lawyers because they come to me and say, well what is an accessible web site, and what do people have to do to make it accessible? In one sense the law doesn't help us understand what we need to do. Although having said that, in the UK, the UK government has now got a target that its own web sites should be accessible to the WAI WCAG AA compliance. If you don't know what that means I will explain it very quickly a bit later. Currently about 50% of their sites do meet that requirement compared to only 20% of non-government sites. So having targets may be useful. But being double A compliant doesn't mean it is going to be usable anyone with disabilities.
The next point I want to make is that I think everyone is aware that people who are blind might have difficulty using the web. I don't think that is exactly rocket science to work out. But actually it is more useful to think about people with print disabilities than people with image disabilities. For starters from a theoretical point of view I think it is helpful because it moves the locus from being a problem of the person to being a problem with how people use different kinds of information. It is not the fact that someone can't hear that is the disability; it is the fact that in our society not everyone learns sign language. And in fact there has been in the past a few societies where everyone did speak sign language and therefore being deaf wasn't a disability.
So you can have a print disability if you can't see the print, if you are vision impaired, or if you can't read the print or if you can't read the print very well. You might be dyslexic, like myself, although I don't have too much difficulty reading the print. You might be a native speaker of sign language, in which case you are using a written language as a second language. You might be a foreigner to the language of the web site, or you might never have learned to read properly at school because you had an attention disorder.
Oh, that's a typo there that even I could read. If you can't pick up a book, sorry not if can book, if you can't pick up a book and turn the pages because you have a physical impairment then you are also print disabled. There is nothing wrong with you eyes but you are still print disabled.
In the UK we estimate that there are about five million people out of a population of 45 million who have these disabilities. And there might be four million people alone who have some form of dyslexia. We have an epidemic of dyslexia in the UK; I don't know how you are doing in the Netherlands.
There are a lot of people out there with problems with reading conventional print. This means that many people live in an information desert. And particularly my blind colleagues and friends say don't ever complain about information overload. You should be so lucky to live in a world with information overload because we live in an information desert. Can you believe it! Still in our own countries there is an information desert. Just a couple of facts, in the UK, I think it is much better in the Netherlands, but in the UK and the USA only about three percent of books are ever produced in Braille. Often at least two years after they have appeared in mainstream publication. So in the UK we have this big prize, the Booker Prize, everyone is talking about the short list for Booker Prize books and what they think of them, but tough if your blind. You won't get it in Braille; you won't get it in audio until after all of the fuss is over. And who wants to read a book that failed to get the Booker Prize three years ago.
Also in the UK, I don't know what it is a like in other countries it is actually the RNIB, the Royal National Institute for the Blind, who chooses what to publish. They decided that it wasn't suitable for blind people to read about the conspiracy theories around the assassination of Kennedy, and they wouldn't publish the first book on that subject. This of course has to change for other reasons, but it is still around, and that is just formal books, what about brochures, leaflets and flyers that we see all over the place, all of the ephemeral material. How do you get access to that? Okay that was the situation for blind people and visually impaired people.
There is some information in sign language. There are a few sign language DVD's and videos available in the UK but they are like illuminated manuscripts during the middle ages, that was my best analogy. I have been privileged once or twice in the past ten years of working in this field to be allowed to see one or two untouched, but literally only one or two. So I rest my case on an information desert.
Now as this is a historical conference I am going to try and give you a bit of history of this area of accessibility and then end up by talking about the situation now and in the future. And I found this very interesting I just have to say, because I think in many new technology areas we tend to forget our history and we're not recording our history. Because I went to the web, I believe it is a good source of information and there were all kinds of things I wanted to check and I couldn't find it on the web. So I actually ended up sending out email asking, do you remember when that happened?
I want to first of all go back before the web, life before the web, because some interesting things happened in terms of accessibility. First of all, if you remember, maybe some of you were old enough like me, to remember DOS and UNIX and ASCII text based command line systems. Most people thought they were rubbish even at the time, I remember thinking this wasn't good. That is why I got interested in usability of systems. But for blind people largely and for some other people with print disabilities they were great. Because you could take the ASCII string and convert it into synthetic speech and you feed it out to the person, absolutely easy. It is actually where quite a lot of the research on creating text to speech systems came from, from the research that went into developing the first screen reading programs for blind people, as they were called. And I think quite fortuitously, but purely serendipitously, purely by chance, the fact that the ASCII strings were quite short meant that it worked really well in speech. You weren't overloaded with information. You got a short command and then you could type your command back in. Blind people always have been known to be pretty good touch typist. So the input is not the problem, it is just seeing what is on the screen. Hence the term screen reader. Ironically one of the first screen readers was called Hal, after the computer in the film, which did unfortunately create somewhat unrealistic expectations about what these programs might be able to do. And even the fact that Hal, if you remember in the film, has a lovely soothing gentle voice, whereas the screen reader's, hopefully you will hear in a little while, still have a dreadful voice with not much intonation. But nonetheless they did work. They worked in speech and you could also get Braille output with a very clever, but unfortunately very expensive device, for a refreshable Braille display. That was pretty good for the five percent of blind people who can read Braille and the possible two percent blind people in North America who can read Braille. This was revolutionary for people stuck in things like basket weaving, whatever their IQ.
That was a bit of a revolution. During the 80s of course we got our Apple Macs, which became moderately popular with certain sections of the population, and Apple Mac, bless their cotton socks, tried to develop a screen reader for their OS and that was called Out Spoken, and it read out the names of the icons, but obviously there were problems about explaining this graphical layout. But people weren't too worried because these Macs it just seemed like a dilettante set of people who were using them. Blind people kept on using DOS on PCs and everything was okay.
And then along came something called Windows. I can't remember when Windows 3.1 was actually released, but that was about the time I began working in this field and blind people in particular, or print disabled people in general, went into a complete panic. Because by about 92 it was clear that Windows was the thing of the future. I remember being asked over and over by blind people, do you think Windows will really replace DOS? What a question to have asked. But people were really worried. Microsoft wouldn't produce a screen reader, said it wasn't their responsibility. And Microsoft refused to give access to enough information about the Windows operating system that anyone else could produce a screen reader. I was a part of a group of people that had to lobby Microsoft, to say you must give access, you must give hooks into the operating system or we'll never make screen readers. They kept on saying, no it will compromise security. Little did they know the future of viruses and worms.
Until 1995 blind and print disabled people were in limbo. It was clear that the rest of the world, lemming like was going to go for Windows, and possibly the computer world was going to shutdown for people with print disabilities. I began working in this field between 1991 and 1994, on a European funded project called GUIB, Graphical User Interfaces for Blind People, which was started in 1990, and the European Union funded some other projects in this area. We released in 1995 a screen reader for Windows that was targeted at Braille displays. I won't go into the politics of why it was Braille and not speech, which would have been the obvious thing to do, but research projects don't always do the obvious. But we made quite a lot of progress in making the graphical layout of Windows accessible through a larger Braille display and we wrote a tactile graphics based manual showing blind people, in tactile pictures, what the Windows looked like. This was enormously successful it was written by my first PhD student, and the revised versions and current versions for Windows are still in use today.
In 1995 the first major screen reader for Windows based on speech came out and it is called Jaws. Interestingly next month in March there is a big conference each year in Los Angeles about technology for disabled people called the CSUN conference and in March we are going to have big celebration because it is the tenth anniversary. So there are many tenth anniversaries around at the moment. They are bringing out Jaws 6 to celebrate the tenth anniversary of speech access to Windows for blind people. The originally version was brought out by a company called Henter-Joyce, Henter-Joyce has now disappeared and it is owned by a company called Freedom Scientific. Jaws now has about 80% of the market worldwide in screen reading software. It is the dominant product.
Another thing I would really like to impart to you, the one or two things you might remember from this talk is we still call these programs screen readers and that is actually very old fashioned and doesn't capture what they do. This is important for web design. What you should think of is that the screen reader provides an extra layer to the interface, an extra set of functionality for the user to interact with the web page, in this instance as easily and efficiently as possible, through speech. So obviously you have to have a range of functions, like you can start it speaking, you can shut it up, you can make it go faster, louder, etc. You can also read out either word-by-word or sentence-by-sentence or letter-by-letter or if you want to know how to spell something or check what a URL is. Those are the basic functions, but on the web the screen readers now provide functionality that is trying to make the best sense of the code and help the person understand the page non-visually. For example, and I will try and demonstrate this in a little while, but I'm not confident about that, some of the things they are really used for is you can get a list of all of the headings to try and find out what the structure of the page is. Assuming the author bothered to put in some headings. You can gather up a list of links, which again help to tell what the important things are on the page and quickly navigate to other pages via the links. You have a special forms mode; people worry a lot about forms for blind people, when using screen readers. Programs like Jaws have solved that, you enter a special forms mode and you can navigate around a form.
Also the complex markup for tables now means that tables work really well in synthetic speech which is a pity that the Athens Olympic Games Committee didn't notice that, because on the Athens Olympic Games site, it told you every event was today, which ever event and which ever day you looked at. So there must have been some really exhausted athletes there. Because we did an evaluation on that site and every day the women's marathon was on.
And in fact that I think encapsulates the other point I would really like you to take away from the talk, which I will elaborate on, but now I've told that story, and that is that you've got the mark up, you got special things you can do for accessibility but unless you check whether someone can use it and it is doing the right thing it doesnÕt matter. I think actually there was just a coding error on the table for the Olympic Games site, but clearly they never asked someone with a screen reader to go and look for an event because they would have found, ah we haven't done that right yet.
The more subtle thing is that the design challenge is to make things work in speech, as well as in visual. It is not that we are asking people to compromise their visual designs in any way. Most of what we are asking is quite invisible. Behind the visual design. But there is a great need for work at the moment on making audio designs of web sites that work really well. Of course that might have spin offs for other audio uses of the web, like browsing from mobile phones or browsing from your car. So if you don't even care about disabled people, you might be interested in doing it for other reasons as well.
I'll skip forward a bit, because we are running out of time. Back to my little history; finally in 95 blind people got access to Windows, a bit behind everyone else. Then all of a sudden this thing called the web was becoming really popular and people wanted to try that as well. Immediately blind people and people working in this area realized that the web was going to be useful to people who can't deal with print. The trouble is the screen reader should be able to access any application running under the operating system. Any application running on Windows, in most cases, whether it is a word processor, a spreadsheet or a web browser. But as the applications through the 90s began to get really complicated and really big this wasn't the case. So each new application needed a bit of work by the screen reader developers to make it accessible. And particularly the web initially got them a bit foxed. Jaws and other similar programs like Hal didn't work very well on the web.
By 96, I discovered on the web the other yesterday; a number of programs were produced which were dedicated speech browsers. I don't think there was ever a Braille based browser but I am not really sure. Instead of having, in those days, say, Netscape running on Windows and then your copy of Jaws trying to understand Netscape, you substituted a dedicated browser, and the main one was called Web Speak, not surprisingly. There was a product, which I loved if only for the name, which was Marco Polo. I still think we should have a browser called Marco Polo, like someone going voyaging on the web. The people who made Jaws didn't like that one little bit. They didn't want people going off and buying other products that might undercut them. So by 1998, they had improved Jaws so it did work well with the web, and they started adding these features like list of links, list of headings, extra functionality to make the web work in a non-visual way.
Suddenly by the end of the 90s things were actually beginning to look pretty good. Suddenly we could access all this information. We could change the fonts, you didn't have to wait two years to get hold of stuff, and the situation was looking quite good.
Then, of course, the web started getting too complicated. We started having frames, complex table layouts, lots of images, starry backgrounds. I can tell you starry backgrounds are hopeless if you are visually impaired. Then there was something called Java, and something called Flash, and the poor screen reader developers felt that they just couldn't keep up with all these new technologies.
However, about that time people who had, from way back, been interested in SGML, if you ever remember that, as a way of gaining access to electronic text for blind people, persuaded the World Wide Web Consortium to start the web accessibility initiative. And I would particularly like to mention Yuri Rubinsky, Mike Paciello in the USA. Mike Paciello actually won an award from President Clinton for his work in this area, and Tom Wesley and Jan Engelen who I worked for in Europe, and it was actually Jan who coined the term "print disability".
Mike Paciello in particular lobbied with Tim Berners-Lee, and he really took this on board and is often quoted very positively about the importance of the accessibility of the web, and they set up the web accessibility initiative. Believe it or not the W3C web site doesn't tell you when it was started. But in 1999 they produced the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) version 1. And since then they've produced guidelines for user agents, authoring tools, and XML, there is lots of stuff about that on the W3C web site.
So WCAG 1, also known as "The Guidelines" consists of fourteen guidelines that are divided into 65 checkpoints. A guideline is something like: provide clear navigation. Not really much to do with accessibility you might think, but that is an accessibility guideline. And then: make targets of links clear, these are actual checkpoints, checkpoint 13.1. These are then organized into three levels of conformance, such that if you are conformed to level A you are basically accessible, double A is better, and triple A is best. But these are technical conformance not actual user experience.
One of the problems is that the WAI since 1999 has got very bogged down in revising these and trying to work out whether these guidelines are the right things. A lot has changed since 99. As I mentioned the other problem is that this is the technical basis for accessibility, but it doesn't guarantee a good user experience: an understandable web site. So the other day I had a web designer nearly in tears in my office saying I spent all this time understanding the guidelines and we abided by them and we made this web site, and when we got home with a screen reader she couldn't make any sense of our web site at all.
Of course that is no different from the fact that when you make a site, if you made a site yourself in HTML, it wouldn't necessarily be useable, just because it was good HTML. It might still be ugly and difficult for people to use, even though it is perfect HTML. That is where the design comes in.
How do we tackle design for people with disabilities when not every web designer can become an expert in accessibility? One thing we are lacking at the moment, and what I heard yesterday really enforced this for me, was that people are spending a lot of time looking at other web sites and copying the code. So we need a repository of excellent accessible innovative web design for people to look at and to copy and elaborate on. We need some designers working on how to do this really good accessible design and how to "inter-digitate" design that works both visually and in speech. For example recently I saw a wonderful application in Flash that was beautiful visually, wonderfully interactive visually and it was wonderfully interactive in speech. Unfortunately for very good reasons I can't show you that today, but hopefully soon it will be released and it is meant to be an example for other people. So even the dreaded Flash, which is always thought to be something you should avoid for disabled people, can be made wonderfully accessible.
What could you do? First of all, I think the easy bit, as I said before, you can do many things which are not going to compromise the visual design, which are not difficult to do, and if I were asked what would be five things to do; it would be putting in a skip navigation link, because people don't want hear all the top level navigation every time. They should have an option to hear it. Mark up headings and paragraphs and structures. So use that mark up for structure. It may not matter to sighted people, but my God if you are print disabled it is really important. Describe images. Now this is an overhead, this is the only thing that is extra. When I say describing pictures, I mean really describe them. If you can't see, the only way you learn about the visual world is by having it described to you. Blind people want to know about color. I know blind people who know much more about color than I do, because they've learned about it. This idea that blind people don't care about color is just nonsense. Ask a blind person and you will find out. Then provide meaningful, distinct links so people know where they are going to go, which is probably just good design anyway. And provide good organization of pages and sites, which is also good design.
The more difficult bits; I think there are lots of easy things you can do and perhaps we are not describing how to do them well enough. The slightly more challenging bit, but more interesting bit is to get disabled people involved in testing your web site, and do that as early as possible. I hope the next speaker will talk about that as well, even if all you do is get some people who are good screen reader users and sit next to them and say "go and do this on the web site". Just see what happens and have a box of tissues with you the first time, because it can be mind boggling depressing. But that way you will begin to understand what a good user experience is for a screen reading user or someone with a disability.
I've got lots of useful resources here, I won't dwell on this because of lack of time, but I will distribute this Power Point presentation; there is a fantastic accessibility toolbar that you can add to you browser that allows you check whether you got all of your images in. Something that I think is really useful, is you can get a free download of Jaws, of course you can buy one if you have about thousand euros to spare. I think the free version is only in English though, but the full one is in Dutch as well. And I can give you a crib sheet of how to use it so that you can start listening yourself and understanding yourself how a screen reader works.
There is lots of stuff on the WAI web site. There are lots of other web sites. You don't have to go out and buy expensive books in this area.
And two final things, I am giving a free workshop in London in April. A one day workshop on how to develop accessible web sites. If anyone would like to come over to London you are very welcome. You have to do one thing for me whether you come to this workshop or not, we're running a survey of web developers and web site owners to find out what do they think of this area, and particularly what resources do people need to understand this area. If you got about fifteen minutes would you go to www.bentoweb.org/surveys and please do our survey.
The final thing is: I mentioned at the beginning doing this work on accessibility would yield you better web sites for everybody. Over the past two years I've done a very big study. I believe it is the largest study in the world on web accessibility. We looked at the accessibility of nearly 40,000 web sites and we did in depth user testing on a hundred, there is a report on my web site if you want to read about it. But the one thing I want to tell you is that we conducted a small controlled study on the usability of these web sites. So we had a number of web sites that have done well in terms of accessibility and a number that were less good in terms of accessibility, not so bad that people couldn't use them. And we got a group of twelve people and a match group of twelve sighted people to do typical tasks on these web sites. And this is one of the metrics we got out. This is the time to complete a series of typical tasks on a web site. The low accessibility sites are in red and the high accessibility sites are in blue. Now don't worry about the blind users. Forget about those difficult people, look at the control group. Sighted, non-disabled, average web users. With high accessibility sites, they are 35% faster in completing a typical set of tasks because the web sites are better. I rest my case.
Thank you very much.
I will now try to do a very quick demo; I suspect this is not going to work. I am the world's greatest pessimist. If this doesn't work I am very happy if people would like to come and see a screen reader or more importantly hear a screen reader. I can do it in small batches. But...
Yes, all close your eyes.
[Screen reader voice]
Let me first explain a couple of things. First let me say that is amazingly slow for a screen reading user. That is... at the end I will turn it up. In the end you may think, oh my God, we are going to be here forever, which we would be at this rate. Screen reading users will typically go about ten times faster and I guarantee no one in the room would understand it.
I was just asked what happens if you click on a link. Now, if you are totally blind you won't be using a mouse. You will only have keyboard access. To follow the links you come to this list of links. I know that seems really clunky to us, but once you get used to switching between the text and the list of links people can do that very quickly. It doesn't break their flow of concentration because they are used to that. But it explains why it is so important to make the links clear. It doesn't matter if they are only one or two words. But if I've got four "click here's", or "follow this" I'm not going to make any sense of it. So if I came to a link, I then go to the list of links and follow that through the list of links just with an enter.
Let me also show you one other thing. I'm actually going to use the mouse because I'm lousy at...
[Screen reader voice]
Right at anytime I can press control and shut it up, thank goodness.
On this web site, because it is The Disabilities Rights Commission (DRC), they've provided a page with very easy access options. And this is particularly important because not every one in the world understands how to change Microsoft settings. So you can make it...
[Screen reader voice]
Okay, I think the screen reader is not letting me change things. But on that page it shows you what the major color changes people would want to make. I know it upsets the aesthetics but it is important for the people.
So I will stop there if you would like to see more, if your brave enough to see your own site I am very happy to give you a tour of you own site in speech.
Anne Pascual: Thank you all for being here. Thank you for inviting us. In the next minutes we would like to focus on the visual aspect of web design as beautiful structures. Due to this subject we will show you quite a lot of images, actually screenshots of web sites. So you will leave this place with a lot of visible things in the head.
Thinking of user interfaces as the surface form of languages , this includes visual languages as well as markup languages, we'd like to present a few different design strategies. In order to question the interrelation of visual design, technology and people using the internet.
It seems difficult to estimate the duration of a decade. We tried to capture this period and the vast amount of web sites that have been created since, through a marginal number of designers. The selection is mainly based on our personal choice and experience as designers. These positions serve as milestones in our view, although there could be several other examples and counter-examples.
Marcus Hauer: Today there is no doubt why the web became a huge new field of activity for designers. It represents a very specific domain, which revived the link between design and technical innovation in a new way. The task of the designer concentrates no longer on a physical object or a print product, his role is to create processes.
How can we describe the meaning of this activity? We will try to answer this question during our talk.
There are mainly two aspects we use to evaluate web design. First the visual design should mediate the used technology, and second the impact of the design depends on users and practical consequences.
Pascual: Even if we're not attempting to present a history of web design, we start with examples beginning in 1996. During this time the web served as a new and unconventional platform for designers to promote their work, which was mostly related to a background in graphic design. That's the reason why you very often found web sites adopting print-based styles and layouts. People concentrated on the design of "single" pages similar to Desktop Publishing. By using images they enlarged the presentation of purely text-based content and imported print aesthetics to the web.
Another interesting aspect came up: design firms like IO/360, Futurefarmers, and Fork presented their non-commercial work equivalent to commercial projects. This two-sided thinking - combining business and experimentation assured money and credibility.
Hauer: An excellent example for this strategy was New York based IO/360. The firm placed a strong emphasis on the visual look, while experimenting with the constraints of the technology. They were first applying embedded technologies such as Java and Flash for non-commercial projects, before selling these techniques to their clients. During this time IO/360 were influential masters of table design and established such elements as rollovers. Here is their statement: "Rollover has allowed for a kind of instant user feedback; interface now becomes an active surface, a mesh that projects a tactility, literal or figurative." One can say that unconventional works like Iogami or Panhattan certainly attracted potential clients and consultants.
Pascual: Futurefarmers introduced 3D illustrations, graphics, as well as characters, to the web and integrated them as functional, animated audio-visual elements. Amy Franceschini founder and still active part of the firm develops besides commercial web sites so-called "stimuli"-projects like Nutrishnia. Futurefarmers produces "Happy Design" with technology and communicating that, using Shockwave and Flash. With an emphasis on narratives and play, they produce small virtual worlds and avoid a standardized design style. In an interview one of the Futurefarmers contributors Sascha Merg said: "I try to not get used to anything; like always appreciate my surroundings... Like keeping a child's perspective."
Hauer: Berlin was one of the promising dotcom locations. Fork started in Hamburg but soon opened a second office in Berlin, like many other web design companies (for example Pixelpark), however in contrast to the majority of start-ups Fork survived the crash and still exists today. One reason why is probably their talent to sell humor and style to big clients like Lufthansa or Bayer, for example, Fork began very early to play with background images, using icons and symbols for the navigation which had a kind of sub-cultural flavor. Their games became famous entertaining examples for many users and designers and not only clients.
Shift, a Japanese e-zine, has presented on a monthly basis the first sites of the table-based design era and interviewed some of the protagonists. We show you Shift as an example of early web design discourses, initiating a kind of web design culture and stardom.
Pascual: The second phase we'd like to frame is centered around the Internet Boom, when the demand and the money for extensive and expensive web sites increased. In retrospect it seems that the content was not as relevant as the way it was presented. Designers satisfied clients with ideas of multi-media advertising, combing sound, video, and fancy animations. It was the time when designers tried to tap the full potential of the current technologies, while they forgot the basic principles of the World Wide Web. Macromedia's Flash, which for the first time was available on a high percentage of client computers, was maybe the biggest factor for this development.
Hauer: One person who pushed the boundaries was, and is still to a certain degree, Joshua Davis, who started working with the previously mentioned IO/360 and worked later at KIOKEN as the Senior Design Technologist. His work incorporated web design as technical innovation, simply because he programmed multiple effects and events, simulating gravitation or elasticity. Finally Davis became the first superstar of web design or more precisely of the Flash community because he published his source code on his Praystation site openly and was easy to be copied by many others.
This web site for a department store, is one of the keystones in regards to using Flash in the context of web design. It was mainly developed by Davis at KIOKEN and in parallel he published his daily efforts while developing this web site on his private "web log" including the source code.
The Barneys web site was a small interface in it self. With dragable windows and dynamic horizontal scrolling it was a paradigm shift, which used all the capabilities of Flash 4. Later Davis published all his Flash sources on a CD-Rom.
Pascual: Hi-res! are Alexandra Jugovic and Florian Schmitt, who moved from Frankfurt to London in 1999. In an article by Vee Verdi at Ideasfactory he wrote: "Flash doesn't get more flashy than Hi-Res's film web sites". This is definitely true. The movie web site for Requiem for a Dream oscillates between pop-ups, fake gambling sites and a net.art attitude, which was and still is quite uncommon for this genre. The user strays around purposeless without knowing where to go and where to click. This claustrophobic interplay is surely the intention of Hi-res!, they prepared paths and fragments for discovery by the visitor.
Other film web sites by Hi-res! function in the same non-linear and free form manner. Their design is less about information, and more about clicking, seeing, and experiencing.
Hauer: Craig Kroeger is the designer behind miniml.com. While nearly every web designer was dealing with Flash, Kroeger had a problem using this software. He sought design solutions that created a different message from the rest instead of detracting from the others. Sick of aliased text, Kroeger began to design pixel-fonts. Inspired by bitmap fonts he wanted to meet the demand for small fonts for the limited space and window sizes. This approach is significant because it has acknowledged the constraints of the screen display to the extreme.
Pascual: K10K was one of the most influential portals for the web design community. Providing daily news within their practice, designers showcased their skills, learnt about trends, and promoted their heroes. The focus of the board is not obviously technologically influenced, but the site itself is a good example for the pixel-style era in combination with dynamic content, which leads us on to the next stage.
Hauer: At first designers were preoccupied with enhancing aesthetics on the web. But after a time of big deals, big technology and lavish moving images, web design became not only a craft but a profession. Now you could concentrate on problem solving. Finally technology and design had to converge as well as useful layouts and meaningful content. Visual experiments were replaced by productions of more advanced site structures. In order to explore the potential of the internet designers considered using HTML based and text-oriented solutions with comprehensive navigation systems. Concerning the accessibility of the content, the developer enlarged the use of web sites by offering content management systems and creating back-ends that allowed people to edit data quite simply.
Pascual: San Francisco based design firm Method raised the whole issue of information design. Their clear and scalable design solutions pointed at the necessity for hierarchies and organization. They were preventing the risk of information overload by letting customers always control their experience. It was certainly very helpful that Method followed a holistic design approach working out the brand experience in different media types. Method Lab, an experimental showcase for navigational structures, gave the team integrity in the ever-changing web design scene.
Hauer: This newspaper's online edition was big news in web design. John Weir proved that one single person could bring some fresh air into the business, rethinking the essential problems of reading on the screen. He was asked to improve the readability and navigation in order to provide an easy to use editorial interface. Weir did a lot more than this. Tired of the typical news site, he convinced the International Herald Tribune project coordinators to introduce more advanced features such as flexible column layouts, clippings, and a menu bar that follows the scroll of the page. Afterwards he published the code of these features, to be accessed by a curios web design audience.
WeWorkForThem was a very influential design-partnership during the post-Method era. While earning money mainly with illustration and typographic oriented Flash content, they rebuilt their own Flash-based web portfolio seeking for more functional design. This bloated front-end was reduced in favor of a more structured and easily accessible interface for another project. With YouWorkForThem, they established a very successful online shop, which sold everything cool in graphic and product design, for example books, fonts and posters. Both concepts had a huge impact on the Flash-using community. This was the first time when usability wasn't any longer connected with a guy named Jakob Nielsen, but with smart people like themselves.
After the Dotcom Crash designers welcomed the emergence of a complete new field, which is the topic of our last paragraph.
Pascual: Now we'd like to walk you through our last few examples of today's web sites pointing to some future directions for web applications. In general one can observe that visual design isn't any longer a decorative surface hiding its technical infrastructure. Instead designers concentrate more and more on the choreography of structured accessibility.
By applying the W3C standards the advanced technical possibilities result in new kinds of visual interfaces. This happens as well because new browsers are more design friendly. It is the designer who defines a set of rules, flexible and modular site structures, in order to differentiate the content. But one can also see, that it is the user who covers the process of external sense making.
Hauer: At this point standards arose as powerful guides for functional design solutions. New discussion forums monitored the pros and cons of separating content from design.
The magazine Alistapart closed the gap between standard preachers and the people who actually built things. As you saw before K10K had promoted classic web design in terms of table design and static templates. They changed their strategy and designed the Adobe Studio web site without the use of tables. Instead they implemented it with a pure CSS/HTML combination. Another example for the growing emergence of standards based site development is the now Google owned Blogger homepage. Over a short time frame the likes of Adaptive Path and Stopdesign convinced the biggest blogging portal to invest in accessible content and functionality.
Pascual: Web based infoware applications underline the power and the potential of markup languages. Services like RSS feeds, Delicious and Apple's brand new Dashboard exist mainly because of server side scripting that help to generate and organize personal data. With this growing popularity we see the need for more adequate visual interfaces that help to understand data rather than presenting it.
Hauer: Connected with standardized markup comes the extensive use of RSS feeds. RSS means Really Simple Syndication and is a way to extract the pure data of web-based content. This technique makes it extremely easy for the user to subscribe to such streams. While this establishes a more passive use of the web, it also encourages a more personalized kind of access by viewing multiple feeds with any possible client.
Delicious is a social book-marking tool to collect links not only with your own browser but also to share your collection with others. The user can also trace the rapid dispersion of single links and by categorizing web sites with own keywords or tags it filters content and contexts. The design of Delicious is very simple: links are shown to you in reverse chronological order; with those you've added most recently at the top. This purely functional interface could certainly be extended by several more enhanced representations.
In a few months Apple will release Dashboard, a software that provides access to mini-applications called widgets. With it you can get instant access to information and application controls you use most frequently. The fact that Dashboard is based on the same technology used to create web pages, HTML, Java script and CSS, anticipates future directions of hybrid web and desktop applications.
Hauer: Looking at these examples it is obvious that technical developments entail new concepts and methods. We'd like to finally answer our question from the beginning. Creating processes never ends by programming templates, applying standards or measuring user efficiency. Web sites, web pages and links represent successions of occasions, of experience, and it is the designer who has to foresee such sequences of operations or events, possibly taking up time, space, expertise or other resources. In a sense structures are meaningful and beautiful when they continuously enlarge the grid of possibilities for both the designer and the user.
Femke Snelting: I think Peter Lunenfeld demonstrated quite clearly that when you want to talk about the history of the web you can't start off with looking at design portfolios. You have to try and include everything else that's happening out there. So I won't make this long because we need time to discuss and hear your thoughts. We have three speakers lined up this afternoon, that in their own way address this idea of how is design for the web distributed? How is it shared between millions of users that work on it day-by-day-by-day, for ten years now.
So we'll start with Hayo Wagenaar who's from Amsterdam, he was trained in Utrectht as an interactive designer, since then he has become the art director of the Amsterdam based design company Ijsfontein. Since he discovered interactivity I think he's been churning out interesting projects mostly for children and, well... Hayo
Hayo Wagenaar: Thank you. The question is, what do we think of amateurs getting involved in web design? It feels like getting stuck on the highway behind a caravan. It is ugly, it slows you down and sometimes it is also funny. Back to the question. Surfing on the web you see the most extraordinary things, not only in design/style but also in content. The question is however: Is our design-quest about improving the web or about something else? For this I like to explain the basis from which we work, at Ijsfontein.
First a very personal view. In 1974, Long before I had seen any computer, my first inspiration was reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory from Roald Dahl, as my all time favorite children’s book. It inspired me to build my own chocolatefactory in our first project. Another inspiration was the toolbox of my grandfather, giving me the possibility to create my own machines: A log of wood with all kinds of nails, lights and buttons attached to it. And I even sold one to a friend for 10 guilders.
Secondly the view from IJsfontein. IJsfontein foresees a future in which computers will occupy an increasingly central role in daily life, as an extension of human capacity and as a component in various forms of communication. The boundaries between people and computers are becoming blurred. The computer will begin to support, reinforce and replace certain aspects of human thinking, feeling and interaction. In the context of such a future, IJsfontein believes in developing products linked to and supporting these exclusively human processes. IJsfontein considers a computer as a tool to enhance and support all mental processes, rational and emotional.
This vision of the future affects IJsfontein products in two important ways. First, it influences the content of the products themselves. IJsfontein makes products that support or reinforce the development of the child’s mental processes. There is of course plenty of educational software available to teach children spelling or arithmetic. But computers can also play a role in less obvious processes. Interactivity helps children create things via the computer and thereby aids in the development of creativity itself. The enormous connecting power of email and the internet can encourage children to work together and teach them to communicate clearly.
The infinite potential of the virtual world directly engages the imagination. No longer restricted to daily reality, children can build and experience each other’s imaginary worlds.
Bearing all these possibilities in mind, IJsfontein defines three basic activities “playing, learning and discovering” - and builds magical worlds that invite children’s participation. It is the combination of poetry and tools that is guiding the way for IJsfontein. The IJsfontein motto is “function to feeling” and the search for this combination began in 1997 with the making of Masters of the Elements.
Is our design-quest about improving the web or about something else?
I want to show you the timeline that upgraded our workarea from story to tool, virtual to physical, physical to individual and socially.
In 1997 we made “Masters of the Elements” this schoolproject-turned-into-a-worldwide-translated game started out as an excercise in building behaviour into a children’s adventuregame. We took playing in the garden and introduced it into the computer. Playful elements that kids know from their actual surroundings were copied and translated into virtual games. Suddenly kids could flip a pancake, juggle or play with matches. We actually played these real events ourselves over and over again to know how to build them. We took playful ideas out of real life, romanticized it, and translated it into the computer. We played around with things like tactile delusion, I can give you a demonstration later if you just come to me.
In 1999 we made “Typotoons”. “Typotoons” was a combination of TV, web and multiplayer gaming: Play together, learn together, explore together. Kids could playfully make stories together with other children assisted by a childrensbook writer these stories were translated into a tv show once a week. Computer leaked out of the box, met tv and played a role in mental processes of playing, creation and social engagement. I think it was one of the first mulituser games that had collaboration as a goal. “Typotoons” was a big succes in Holland and had about 100.000 kids watching the show each sunday morning.
In 2001 we did “Noodstop” here the computer really entered the fysical world and gave kids the possibility to do something virtual giving fysical input. Blowing a balloon and pulling handles made a character fly through a computergame The fysical toy becomes smart.
In 2004 we made “Sketchmaker of Klokhuis”; A tool for creating stories by kids.
At this moment we are working on “Face Your World”. The computer slowly comes out of the grey box and dissolves into the real world inthis case the actual Slotervaart area in Amsterdam. The computer is used to enhance the involvement of people with real life processes and real life objects. We want children to move, to be creative and to be inspired to solve problems in a creative, human and, sometimes, even an aesthetical way. We aim to move all people to become engaged in their personal environment and have the tools to change their world. Latest example for this is the project “Face Your World” from Jeanne van Heeswijk. Together with Marco Christis IJsfontein is building the software tools that involve kids to create their personal urban environment in reality.
It became so real that last night they tried to break in and, well people really get involved. Well we kept the computers, we stayed up all night and the computers are now not in this container but at our office. Sixteen computers being tested and they will try and start the project on Monday or Tuesday afternoon.
Okay another computer out of the box project we are making for the Postbank right now. This will be finished in March. I think the Postbank took a daring step, but I can't show you anything more but please keep your eyes open it will be published in March.
For us, we consider aesthetics not the only goal of design. We consider design to be the organized creative proces of serving human needs and problems. It is in the understanding of the creative process that designers could play key roles in creating new solutions to problems of the future. Society could be depending on a designers capability to create new solutions to specific problems and human needs. With other words: design is to improve life. As a design company, IJsfontein likes to become part of the up-front thinking and strategic portion of complex problem situations. This requires first an understanding of the abstract implications of needs, problems and design. Secondly it requires people that get engaged and help to create shared solutions. Last implies the first. We are aiming at both. The idea of people spontaneously cooperating on the same thing is such a powerful way of development, it helps you to overcome the limits of your own skills and imagination.
We are loosing grip on some of the design that is being made by the users of our products.
It seems logical: Every human has unlimited creative potential. At IJsfontein we believe we can build tools to enhance the mental processes of creative thinking for people. We want to make a mark and make innovative thinking and innovative processes open to more people. This way design as an abstract tool dissolves into society and becomes a way of approaching any problem.
Solutions do not have to be computerized only. Innovative thinking or design should be tought as a general knowledge subject in schools. In the end, what IJsfontein does is all about creating shared and open languages for children to communicate and to express themselves. We believe in open but we do not believe in anarchy. Languages do follow shared rules and common agreements. IJsfontein believes the creative process is the result of a beautiful clash of inspiration and rules. We not only create our products within these borders, but as well our projects are sets of design rules for people to be able to feel free to play around. Users must feel in control. The use of different skills and imagination's other people can add will drive the multiprocessing designers-force of a shared group of creators to help overcome all kinds of problems and challenges, At the same time we tackle lack of responsibility for shared ownership and civic engagement.
The results of a creative process well designed can be very rich, beautiful and above all: very effective. Every “owner” of a problem is a specialist in his own field. This person is also most likely to be the best person to solve the problem. We just have to share our knowledge of design processes and tools so people can become better problemsolvers themselves. There is a two way benefit from this. People become owners of problems and solutions so they become engaged members of society. Like “Face Your World”, and solutions are made to fit.
Back to the question, how do we feel about amateurs getting involved in web design? I think these amateur designs can be cluttering, distractive and slowing down searches on the web, as well as terribly ugly, but to us design is not specifically about improving the web. In a more abstract way IJsfontein thinks design should be to improve life. And for this we aim to move children. What all these amateurs have in common is the engagement to design their personal environment. And that is very good.
Femke Snelting: Is there any questions straight up? You want to ask?
Josephine Bosma: Yeah, your point of view on amateurs is very unclear because it seemed very negative all the time, then in you last sentence you were kind of patting them on the head again. I was really confused especially in the beginning when you were talking about caravans, campers I think it's called in English, but I don't think that amateurs are the campers on the highway. It's that web designers are the campers on the highway really. Because I get really annoyed when I'm surfing and I get trapped in a flash movie or whatever. And all the information on the site is trapped in that movie. And I cannot open several pages or I have to open a... I have to do it in quite complicated ways and stuff like that. So I really disagree with you on this amateur thing.
Hayo Wagenaar: (?)
Josephine Bosma: No it was just a comment. I was really annoyed.
Hayo Wagenaar: I can respond to it, because I... well I showed some examples of what you think of as amateur web design because its ugly, it's homemade, and whatever. But I guess... Sorry?
Josephine Bosma: (?)... You can also.
Hayo Wagenaar: Yeah, that's true. It's the same thing you can say about a caravan. It's not always ugly, it can be cute as well... Sorry?
Hayo Wagenaar: Well I end up sometimes on a web site searching... Okay, okay.
Femke Snelting: Anyone else have a question? Anything pressing to ask now? Okay. I think we have the network working again. So