Internet Philosophy

When the aliens come to visit me, the first thing I will do is show them the Internet. I think it is fascinating that I can surf from cross-stitch to cross-dressing in a single click. The Internet proves how diverse the human species can be, with little cliques and groups each posting their messages about those activities which take up their time.

I enjoyed Jeanette Winterson’s article in The Times, discussing the internet as an innovation and a medium. Part of the reason for this site’s existence is my plan to discuss the philosophy of the Internet: How its uses are evolving; how design, and coding innovations allow easy access to information; the future of the medium. I believe that the Internet will have a seismic effect on society, in the UK and beyond. The ability to “communicate and connect” (as Winterson suggests) may cause a paradigm shift for the way we live, especially politics and the media. The Internet is about globalisation…. it will be at the heart of multiculturalism.

This post inaugurates a new category on this website. I will call it Internet Philosophy for now, but I may change it to something less (or more) grandiose, depending on the feedback.

Narrow Definition of Web Design

This was the Star Letter in the July 2005 issue of Creative Review.

If the websites showcased recently in Creative Review are any guide to the industry as a whole, our definition of what constitutes a good website design is far too narrow. The emphasis at present seems to be purely on the visual, with websites being laid out using exactly the same rules as print design. Focus is given to ‘wow’ technologies such as Flash, while the basic rules of accessibility are ignored.

A film with immaculate cinematography may be totally let down by poor narrative structure or sound-track. Likewise, a website with an pleasing and original visual style will be let down by invalid markup, slow download times, and a lack of accessibility features (such as ‘title’ and ‘alt’ attributes to aid site visitors).

Examining the Aardman and Nike websites, showcased in the 2005 Annual, we see that neither site validates for HTML or CSS, and all the copy is presented as images – not searchable by Google or Yahoo – with no textual alternative. I can’t remember the last site featured in CR that was NOT designed to fixed dimensions, which reduces accessibility for those who may wish to enlarge the site on their screen. The end result of all these choices is that the key messages are communicated less efficiently to less people.

Designing good website visuals is not the same as designing a good website. I would encourage readers of CR to read one of the countless guides to website accessibility that exist online, and design accordingly. The ability to separate content from presentation is one of the positive aspects of the Internet. The web should be treated as a medium in itself, and not a metaphor for print.

Cliché watch #1

The Internet is a wonderful medium for communication and collaboration, but my God, it encourages lazy clichés. Many journalists are still under the illusion that using the Internet for research is still innovative and clever. In order to demonstrate to us, the pop-cultured masses, that their chosen subject is relevant, they begin their article thus: “A search on Google for x yields over 100,000 results.”

It’s a really tedious way to set the scene. No specialist knowledge or research lies behind the statistic. Anyone can use Google to search for a phrase, and everyone does. And therefore, everyone knows that the figures given are meaningless. Google includes in its results all indexed sites that contain one or more of the keywords and does not yet make any recommendations as to how relevant the results returned are likely to be. Everyone also knows that several pages in the same site can return multiple results, making the raw figure presented at the top of the screen even more meaningless.

What does the figure actually mean? When 472,000 results are returned for, say, “Margaret Thatcher Sex” have we really learnt anything new? All it really tells us is that some English words are used on some sites, somewhere on the web. And yet the journalist is wasting an entire column inch telling us this.

But it is most annoying because the phrase itself if so unoriginal. A search on Google for “A search on Google for” yields 90,000 results. So let us call a moratorium on this particular cliché, please.