September 23, 2006
Designing for Blogs: A Brief Manifesto
I'm an unabashed fan of working smarter, not harder.
In 1999, before I first happened on blog software or even the precursor called "EditThisPage," I was working with a few student programmers on a similar system in PHP, for classroom uses, collaborative projects, and portfolio-based active learning. What I really wanted to do was get away from the limitations of WebCT and Blackboard for more student-centered learning, instead of reproducing traditional classroom structures online. And I didn't want to have to keep teaching students HTML in classes that had other work to do.
When I saw that EditThisPage, Radio Userland and other applications were already doing what I was attempting to build from scratch in my dining room, I realized that the idea was so simple and such a logical next step, hundreds of people were probably doing exactly what I was doing, in different arenas, to make publishing accessible to more people. I saw that I could use blog tools for just about anything I could imagine with HTML and Flash, and save myself a whole lot of work.
And why did the blog idea catch fire as the killer app, when content management systems on the corporate side were plentiful? I strongly believe the answer is a timely combination of the rise of Google along with RSS.
Even though feed readers are having difficulty reaching non-tech users, feeds and tags are becoming an intrinsic structure in nearly everything we build. Quite simply, I won't build another freelance/contract web site that is not RSS/Atom-enabled. It's a no-brainer. Blogs are the display and feeds give the display legs. Technorati.com would not exist without feeds. And the massive social movement that is the blogosphere would not exist at all without RSS behind it.
So these days, rather than endlessly re-inventing the wheel, I'm primarily designing for CSS and the content-management shell blog software provides, a shell I can pour nearly anything into. Do I ever wish for the old blank-slate, starting fresh with a new audience/user interaction model every time?
Sometimes, but Web functionality is
so crucial to interactive communities and a public commons that solo work in
empty to me, like an essential piece is missing. I think we'll end up
one day defining "interactivity" as something that essentially must
have more than one author, perhaps even many authors.
And lately, when I want to push on the limits of what interactivity can do, I find myself reaching for an even more robust system, pmachine's Expression Engine, where I can situate multiple blog modules in different contexts on the same page, and still retain my permalink archives and flexible CSS designs.
My only complaint so far is that I want some of the features I find in Scoop, features of audience-driven, "self-organizing" sites.
Not too long ago, someone asked me to predict where interactive media and the Internet would be five years from now. I refused to give an answer, because I don't get to decide. The beauty of a grassroots, bottom-up social movement like in the blogosphere is that the social structures provide an organic kind of direction and structure, and the social structure is the authority, not "industry leaders" or "futurists" or any other professional prognosticators striving for control or a first-mover advantage.
Interactivity is about giving up control.
What I strive to do as a designer and a participant in this grassroots social movement is to create tools that empower the most people with enough freedom to set their own directions. I'm not interested in herding cats. I am interested in watching and learning inductively from where cats go.
That's what Web 2.0 is about. That's why it rose from the ashes of the top-down corporate- and VC-driven creations that crashed and burned after all the money turned to vapor. What we valued most was what remained. Communities, interactions, strong ties, weak ties. Rich relationships over time. Rabid flame wars. Not endlessly pitching widgets while dropping names to bugger your Google/Technorati rank.
That's also why, in what some are calling a Web boomlet, I see business people desperately trying to appropriate blogs for various business models, proclaiming themselves authorities on their blog content niche as if they were following a stock professional copywriting formula, many diluting content in search engine-optimized blog sites that literally suck all the life out of the real reasons for blogging, the real reasons for writing and communicating online.
They claim they are dispensing value in a kind of knowledge-log "how-to" format, but as this genre of blogging multiplies, the sites look to me like little more than human-written, SEO-focused link farms, one step away from machine-generated link farms. Where is the real value in that?
Where I will stand in this new wash-out is with the commons, the spaces where real people talk, where conversations are alive with an energy of their own. The interfaces I will build for these communities and cybercultures will be interfaces that allow patterns of use to co-create the interface structures themselves.
The most creative, edgy projects I want to work on compulsively on my own time will not just employ user-centered design. They will allow social network structures to literally create their own designs.
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