the 2.0 aesthetic: a draft with some comments

One of the great pleasures of college was that I got to spend time around a lot of very smart (and often very funny) people. It was a lot like the biblioblogosphere in that respect — the biblioblogosphere with cafeteria food. Among the smartest of these friends was the guy who introduced me to the idea of an aesthetic — that is, to the idea that what you wore and what you listened to and what you liked expressed not just a peculiar set of preferences but also, quite frequently, something about your socio-economic status and your politics and your belief system. I was bowled over by this (please remember that at the time I was 19 or 20 and it was probably 3:30 in the morning at Denny’s in Poughkeepsie).

I’ve been thinking a lot about aesthetics lately, and about how thinking about a 2.0 aesthetic is helpful in thinking about some of the thornier — and often unacknowledged — problems in what we want to do in libraries.

First, let us admit, for the purposes of this argument, that we have an aesthetic. We like Gmail better than Hotmail. We think Flickr is a better way to share our photos than Kodak Gallery. We’re opposed to unnecessary file formats, and we generally think CSS is better than tables. Many of us like Moleskins and are Mac devotees. We are RSS bigots. LibraryThing is better than Shelfari! Twitter and FriendFeed are duking it out!

I’m generalizing, of course, and I’ve undoubtedly offended more than a few of you, but can you honestly tell me that you relate to nothing in that list, or in a list like it? I doubt it. I’m guilty on multiple counts.

We have this aesthetic, or these aesthetics, and they play a big part in our lives, since a good chunk of us spend much of our lives in front of a computer, using a web browser. I’m always stunned that there are people who find Internet Explorer an acceptable way to surf the web, but you know what? A lot of people do find it satisfactory.

I worry sometimes that we are so caught up in our aesthetic that we let it guide our decisions without questioning whether what we are doing is really in our patrons’ best interests or is simply what we would want as library patrons. Awhile ago I was putting together a presentation about how to make a website. My initial opening involved showing a bunch of what we would all consider really ugly websites. Then I showed a few slides to someone and realized that, to them, these sites didn’t look that bad. They weren’t picking up on what was, to me, an obvious aesthetic difference between “The Wizard” and, say, the lovely chicago6corners site. What I considered to be obvious and immediate “bad” and “good” weren’t obviously bad and good to everyone.

Aesthetics tend to be associated with looks, but there is more to an aesthetic than just design. In much of the web world, “free” is as essential as rounded corners and valid markup — so important that Chris Anderson is making money on it. Things that are free on the web make up a big part of my life these days. I love Twitter and I love the LSW Meebo Room, and, like most other denizens, I get frustrated when one of them isn’t working. But I wonder how much of that frustration is really justified. I mean, think about it — Twitter is running this huge service for free for all the thousands of us who use it. I have no idea how they’re funding the thing — I assume they’ve got venture capital to spare and are counting on getting us hooked enough that we’ll put up with ads later on, the way that people still shelled out money for cable TV even after it started to have commercials. If we were all paying to use Twitter, I could justify the anger. But we’re not — we’re just expecting people to cater to our addiction to the thing. (Many of us might well be willing to pay, of course, but we’re not, not yet.)

That kind of expectation of entitlement is dangerous. It’s dangerous because expecting things to be free means you’re increasingly willing to let advertising enter your life. And it’s dangerous, as Walt points out, because it means we no longer value people who make things, particularly intangible things. I’m all for Creative Commons licensing — most of what I put on the web comes with a Creative Commons license. But (with very rare exceptions) I don’t write for free to other people’s specifications. I don’t work for free at my library, either. I get paid, and I get paid with public money that has been put aside under the understanding that there are certain things in life that should be out of the control of the market. Anti-commercialism is a big part of my aesthetic, or so I believe. But some days I run up against things that make me question whether my other aesthetic principles are in accordance with the ones I hold most dear.

6 comments

  1. Joe Kraus

    Geez, how did you find those really ugly websites? Hope you weren’t shopping for tools and machinery in Australia…

  2. laura

    Ha ha. . . oh wait, I do know you. I think you showed me the Vernacular Web before, but it’s still good.

  3. Laura Botts

    Apparently, given your examples of ugly sites, yellow does not appeal to our aesthetic!

  4. Aaron

    “They weren’t picking up on what was, to me, an obvious aesthetic difference between “The Wizard” and, say, the lovely chicago6corners site. What I considered to be obvious and immediate “bad” and “good” weren’t obviously bad and good to everyone.”

    I don’t think you should be hesitant to make judgment calls about browsers, websites, etc. And I’m not just saying that because I bet we agree on quite a bit. Much of what you describe as your preferred aesthetic has to do with usability, no? Better usability moves beyond preference into something demonstratively better.

    *Gets into 1984 Volvo, turns on This American Life and drives away*