On the transformation of everyday culture in an era of liquid modernity

Information aesthetics: revealing the mindset of both the programmers and the users

In GUIs, media ecology, social networking sites on October 30, 2008 at 4:49 pm

This posting is about information aesthetics and usability, and how it comes to mirror not only the corporate approach to communication behind the interfaces, but also seems to suggest an intended user type, having a lifestyle or sets of user preferences attached to it. I use two examples: Yahoo and Facebook.

Brief introduction
Usability negates the idea of aesthetics being secondary to functionality: With computer interfaces, aesthetics is central to the functionality itself. There is no separation. Usability is applied aesthetics. One could ask if this make us more aestheticised, more sensitive to interfaces, and less sensitive to what is mediated; the medium being the message, to paraphrase Marshall McLuhan.

With this blog posting, which is about Yahoo, and how they appear such a cluttered, scattershot operation compared to competitors like Google, an obvious concern would be that this discussion overlooks the compromises and censorship of content that these Internet companies make, behind the sheen of the graphic user interface, as if it were. There are examples of Yahoo handing over personal data about their users to Chinese authorities, resulting in these users being imprisoned as dissidents. As for Google, we all know about their agreement to censor search results at the behest of the same regime. However, this posting is not intended to be on this complacency of Google’s and Yahoo’s towards such regimes.

This posting is merely a meditation on how certain approaches to usability seem to go hand in hand not only with an ontopolitical conception of what structuring information on the Internet actually should be (top-down or bottom-up), but with a subcultural bent as well (preppy/smart versus alternative/casual).

This latter notion can be confirmed by looking at Facebook versus MySpace as well as at Google versus Yahoo. The secondary question arising here is, are the latter type of users assumed to be more creative/protean (as the notion of clutter and disorganisaition being beneficial to “free thought” is quite common) or simply just “technological dupes,” making-do with whatever non-intuitive, cumbersome interfaces thrown at them?

My beef with Yahoo
After my Yahoo Webmail all of a sudden had its search functionality mysteriously disabled earlier this summer (for others having had the same problem, see here, here, and here), my patience with this slow, often-already malfunctioning webmail provider was ending. Later, after numerous attempts at reporting the error to their help desk, all with no result in terms of actually making the search function work again, I gave up and switched to the far superior Google Mail.

The main complaint I would have with Yahoo is on usability; both in terms of the practical interface (how it works and how it looks) and in terms of the ethos that runs through it. This, since usability is all about aesthetics and functionality being inseparable. Many usability specialists make this argument, that user interface aesthetics is all about function; it’s a position generally labelled aesthetic functionalism.

From an aesthetic point of view, Yahoo is dreadful. Its information is cluttered, not appearing to be guided by much of an organising principle. Google’s constant aim to facilitate not only oversight and simplicity but also tagging and user-generated metadata is all but missing. Various parts of the information architecture are nested inside one another. When the search functionality broke down in my Yahoo mail, addressing the problem required passing layer after layer of security tests, filling out my username and password several times in a row. After getting email contact with the customer care centre, one is asked to not to answer the “security question”, but to repeat the actual question to them! (Leaving me wondering, what was the purpose of the question then?)

These kind of “russian doll” designs are notoriously off-putting to users intending to go further. (Maybe that is why Yahoo implements that kind of design; in order to actively discourage further customer contact.) Moreover, the services and responsibilities are partially overlapping. Once again, when getting in contact with their customer service, one representative replied by referring to another one, and when answering one’s security question, one was once again passed on to other departments or segments of their web architecture.

The entire operation gives a scattershot impression; it is a bit as if new services have been amended to the old ones, each department with quite a large scope for individual agency in terms of making their own impression or amendment to the overall design. Of course, recent mergers and acquisitions have left their mark here, but I remember the initial designs of the Yahoo portal (late nineties) as being equally characterised by a hotch-potch jumble of information.

Yahoo’s initial business idea has always been characterised by an approach to the Internet which is in fact non-intuitive, based on a top-down ontology of applying pre-defined categories to clusters of data that are actually defined by the very impossibility to “pin down” in such a way. In 2005, alongside the burgeoning ascent of user-defined folksonomies/”bottom-up” metadata that still remains all the rage today, Clay Shirky criticised this tendency of Yahoo’s (for a critique of Shirky’s argument, see here).

Old-school, Yahoo way of organising links

Old-school, Yahoo way of organising links

Currently, with the global economic downturn and all, Yahoo is facing significant economic trouble. In retrospect, it is a miracle that Yahoo didn’t face all this economic trouble earlier. They managed to weather the Web 2.0 storm that coincided with Shirky’s significant ramblings. OK, they acquired both Flickr and del.icio.us – two of the prime examples of user-generated content and metadata – but their prime operation of providing “portals,” alongside with services like webmail and instant messaging, was suddenly revealed to be extremely dated. Portals are impositions on the Internet infrastructure that try to shape it into a broadcaster / sender-reciever / server-client mode of information dissemination. One can let the user customise her chosen feeds of content to appear wherever she wants on the page, but the idea is still one of “pipes” streaming content from a central provider to you as a willing customer. It works, it might even be profitable, but it is not the way of the Internets.

No wonder using Yahoo felt so non-intuitive then.

Still, there are redeeming things about the company: They seem to do a lot of creative, web-friendly, intuitive things behind the scenes. They developed Yahoo Grids which is great for simplifying CSS-based web design for everyone, they developed Yahoo Pipes, which applies the same bottom-up approach to RSS feeds, generating creative possibilities for every web user to mash up and combine data in new ways, and to build umbrella-like platforms of one’s own.

More recently, they have developed the Yahoo! Open Strategy (Y!OS) which is intended to be open up their platform for external developers to create new, innovative implementations. For example, the new Y!OS API allows developers to access information stored with the user, like address book information, user preferences and status etc, and developers can then build new applications harnessing this type of data. In other words, the Yahoo Developer Network is the most progressive thing about the company, and shows signs of life for the company after Web 2.0.

Tellingly, when we will now turn this type of analysis to social networks, we can briefly mention that if MySpace is to Facebook what Yahoo is to Google, two things are quite revealing: First, that also MySpace are experimenting with open APIs to perhaps “unlock” some of their more rigid information structures. Second, that (in my experience) no other mainstream, commercial web services but MySpace’s and Yahoo’s have been so notoriously prone to simply malfunction as these services repeatedly do:

MySpace error message: much more common than you would think

Two cultures?
The above approach to user interface design is, as we have seen, guided by a company’s overall conception of how information on the Internet actually should be structured and treated. It is based in an ontopolitical standpoint: either you see the Internet a certain way, or you see it altogether differently. That guides your overall operation.

We can see how different businesses seem to embrace either one of the two opposing information architecture tendencies I am pointing to here. We can make a brief overview:

Yahoo Google
Blogger WordPress
MySpace Facebook
Ryanair British Airways
the insanely cluttered, fractured web hosting service Godaddy.com any other, simple, integrated, one-stop web hosting solution like Streamline.net
file-sharing by means of scattered, temporary web hosting services like Rapidshare file-sharing by means of one-stop, centralised indexes like The Pirate Bay
your average dektop PC your average Mac

GoDaddy: the very definition of clutter (it used to be even worse)

Although the metaphor that first comes to mind is Eric S. Raymond’s notion of the cathedral versus the bazaar, perhaps it makes sense not to define the dichotomy too much in these terms, since that would overload the metaphors with too much ontopolitics, corporate intent, and ideology. Facebook and Google are, after all, no cathedrals – they are, arguably, even more centred around an open-source, bazaar mindset than their adversaries. What appears “cathedralic” about these actors is merely their public image, their sparseness and uniformity of design.

Hence, I would rather prefer delineating these dichotomies in more narrowly defined aesthetic terms: Clutter and overload versus sparseness and minimalism. Baroque versus classicism. A catholic aesthetic versus a protestant one.

Your average desktop PC? Spyware infestation rendering a machine unusable

This, as Apple’s recent Mac-versus-PC commercials have come to show, comes with a subcultural bent as well. We could associate the Mac/Facebook/Google crowd with a lifestyle that is preppy, or smart – and we could associate the PC/MySpace/Yahoo crowd with a more alternative, casual, and perhaps younger demographic. A sociologist who has made similar conclusions around the communities manifesting themselves on Facebook and MySpace is Danah Boyd. As she noted last year,

Hegemonic American teens (i.e. middle/upper class, college bound teens from upwards mobile or well off families) are all on or switching to Facebook. Marginalized teens, teens from poorer or less educated backgrounds, subculturally-identified teens, and other non-hegemonic teens continue to be drawn to MySpace. A class division has emerged and it is playing out in the aesthetics, the kinds of advertising, and the policy decisions being made.

Perhaps the division can be spelled out like this: “fringe” or “alternative” youths (Boyd: ‘Latino/Hispanic teens, immigrant teens, ‘burnouts,” “alternative kids,” “art fags,” punks, emos, goths, gangstas, queer kids, and other kids who didn’t play into the dominant high school popularity paradigm’) tend to use MySpace whereas those who self-identify as “mainstream” and are in fact more “preppy” would use Facebook?
The asthetic involved in creating a certain user experience of these networks is central also to her argument:

That ‘clean’ or ‘modern’ look of Facebook is akin to West Elm or Pottery Barn or any poshy Scandinavian design house (that I admit I’m drawn to),” writes boyd, “while the more flashy look of MySpace resembles the Las Vegas imagery that attracts millions every year. I suspect that lifestyles have aesthetic values and that these are being reproduced on MySpace and Facebook.

Perhaps the switch to “new” Facebook that the site made earlier this year was mainly a usability/design response to the increasing amount of spam that various “superwalls”, quizzes, polls, virtual gift vendors, and applications that began cluttering the site. Now, after the switch the clutter seems to be expunged to more “hidden” areas of the user interface. Tucked away, on the Confirm requests page, the clutter is accumulated:

Cluttered Facebook invites

There is a secondary question arising here in terms of empowerment. The notion that clutter is somehow connected with creativity is quite common these days – and especially MySpace is associated with a lot of enfranchisement of free expression among youths and artistic amateurs and professionals alike. But simultaneously, the network is highly proprietary, and with significant limitations to customisation, tweaking, and posting of content. Maybe some of these users would be better off, for example by combining their MySpace presence with a blog or a general homepage, or by other means of self-promotion? Sometimes the impression is clear to me that some users make do with platforms like MySpace, simply out of lack of knowledge about other platforms, or lack of skills to make use of them, or out of a mindset that assumes platforms like MySpace to be the norm, the tacitly taken for granted option.

One could thus ask oneself, are the latter type of users assumed to be more creative/protean or in fact characterised more by the Adorno-like conception of users as “technological dupes,” making-do with whatever non-intuitive, cumbersome interfaces thrown at them? It is a question best left open, I suppose – comments are appreciated!

  1. Hi Jonas, great post, you raise a whole bunch of interesting issues here. At the risk of over simplifying, is it basically middle class vs working class? I think that’s too far actually.

    So much of this comes down, in my opinion, to the founders of these organisations the values they instill from the outset, and the people the inevitably attract at the beginning (who then go on to shape all the hires) Jerry Yang had to create a Yahoo like company – a bit crazy, but not too much, kind of always sold out to the man, seeming to ride the internet thing without knowing where he’s going. Sergey and Larry, uber data dorks had to create a Google.

    All that aside, have you seen this? http://tinyurl.com/6n3ehu

  2. It strikes me that there is something really central to Clay Shirky’s example of old Yahoo and the balance to strike for a web index between bottom-up categorization (user-generated, ad hoc categories) and top-down categorization (editorial impositions, pre-defined categories). I think one could appreciate that simple example (back in the days, when it was only about links and hypertext) as a template for how to approach these issues also now, in more multi-medial times. Editorialised services like 14tracks.com compared to user-generated ones like last.FM – surely, there is room for both, and interesting ways to merge these two approaches. As long as it doesn’t happen in a form that is cluttered and overloaded, that is…

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