Eryan Cobham

Thinker-tinker. Web Developer.

Try a Little Tenderness...

People on the web like to criticize and insult others. That’s a pretty obvious statement, but I might not mean who you think I mean. I’m not referring to the usual anonymous discussion thread or bulletin board trolls. I mean that the people who go to work every day actually building the web like to criticize and insult each other. I’m also not referring to legitimate constructive criticism–you know, the type that offers helpful suggestions about how to improve something. No, people that build the web just like to call each other idiots a lot. You’ve probably done it too and not thought much about it. Maybe you’ve had to work on a redesign for a site where it seemed like it was the first site previous designer/developer had ever worked on. “What kind of person still used tables in 2006? He/she obviously had no idea what they were doing and doesn’t deserve to even have an email address, much less make websites.” It’s almost second-nature, many of us care pretty deeply about what we do and we hate to see someone else do it poorly. Not only because it reflect badly on everyone else, but also because we’re generally nerds that like to see things done “the right way” (whatever that means to you).

I had been thinking about this phenomenon a while ago, early last year sometime, when I noticed the disproportionate contempt I had for some websites. I’d go through sites picking at all of the little errors that I noticed, wondering how they slipped through, and thinking about how of course I’d be able to do a much better job. Then I started getting a lot busier and started looking at some of the stuff I was putting out, and wondering what the next person that has to work on the site I just finished going to say about me? Yeah, there may be some things I couldn’t quite smooth out before the deadline to launch the site came up, but I had reasons! My successor has to take into account the time it took for the client to respond, or their irrational color preference I couldn’t budge, or their requirement that I everything be crammed onto the home page with terrible copy and spacing!

Actually, no. Your successor won’t take that into account, the same way you didn’t take it into account when looking at someone else’s work.

What made me think of all of this was this little controversy in the web design community due to a blog post by Andy Rutledge critiquing the design of news websites and using the New York Times, specifically, as an example. I definitely respect Andy as a designer and for the many posts he writes explaining some of the things that designers should be doing. I read that post and thought some of his ideas were pretty good. While they certainly wouldn’t completely work for the Times, maybe some news organizations would be able to implement some aspects and make reading news on the web a better experience. I’m not a fan of his outspoken, and in my opinion somewhat combative and inflammatory style, but I can usually get past that stuff to focus on the helpful parts. After reading the post, I didn’t think about it too much, until I saw this blog post by Khoi Vinh that seemed to refer to Rutledge’s post. Vinh is a former design director for the Times, so he and a lot of his friends and former coworkers built the site.

Vinh praises some of the ideas and the execution of the blog post, but he makes a critical point at the end that I found most important.

I will say this, though: unsolicited redesigns are terrific and fun and useful, and I hope designers never stop doing them. But as they do so, I also hope they remember it helps no one — least of all the author of the redesign — to assume the worst about the original source and the people who work hard to maintain and improve it, even though those efforts may seem imperfect from the outside. If you have good ideas and the talent to execute them and argue for them, the world will still sit up and pay attention even if you take care in your language and show respect to those who don’t see things quite the way you do.

Basically (in not so many words) you can disagree without being disagreeable.

Apparently Rutledge has been receiving a lot of criticism for his redesign, and he wrote another post addressing such criticism, once again written in the same tone. I read some of the articles which he linked to. Most certainly didn’t fully get across what he was trying to do with his analysis, but I didn’t think they were quite as bad as he seems to think (this seems natural, since they weren’t attacking me personally). However, when people (including employees of the Times) took to twitter, blog posts and news articles to attack Rutledge, I don’t know if they were responding to his points so much as they were responding to his tone and some of the content around his points. From the first paragraph of his post, he basically primes people to start coming up with an a response.

Digital news is broken. Actually, news itself is broken. Almost all news organizations have abandoned reporting in favor of editorial; have cultivated reader opinion in place of responsibility; and have traded ethical standards for misdirection and whatever consensus defines as forgivable. And this is before you even lay eyes on what passes for news design on a monitor or device screen these days.

Maybe he was trying to draw attention to the post, or maybe that’s just how he feels, nobody knows but him. Either way, this brings me back to my original point. People don’t seem to consider (or care) that there are actual people on the other side of the screen. As the worker bees trying to grow the Internet every day, you would think that we’d would be much more cognizant of this on a daily basis, but it doesn’t seem that way.

This isn’t about not hurting people’s feelings. That has to happen and can’t be avoided. Any kind of criticism hurts, even the constructive kind. But at least constructive criticism shows you a path to improving, so that’s what you latch on to, and you grow and get better. But if you go to work every day, trying to improve, what kind of lesson can you really take from someone saying “[i]t is hard to believe that the Times, or any other similar publication, actually cares about the news when they treat it with this sort of indignity”?

I think that kind of language immediately obscures the point you were trying to make and potentially forecloses the possibility of a reasonable debate about the issues. It makes it easy to argue and difficult to learn anything when you just think the person you’re arguing against is stupid and wrong. All I’m really trying to say is that I hope in the future we all think a bit more about who did the hard work to create the thing that we’re so casually insulting. I happen to think that’s a better way of operating. I intend to do my part here and on Twitter to make what I say more productive, and closer to something I would actually want to spend time reading. Hopefully others do too.