“Creating radical things for creators and communities.”
I’ve been using this line to communicate how I currently (but more like hope to) approach my work as a designer/technologist/human being in general. This is a bold statement to make at twenty: I have lived a short life and constantly walk in debt of knowledge and histories that I’ve yet to digest––but I wanted to start attempting to document what I feel this means, and how I feel this statement will guide me as a young builder.
(If I ever fall into the traps of the technologist savior complex, rid me.)
Why creators and communities?
Simply, if I would like my work to be as impactful as possible, it would be in the form of creation that enables others to create. Personally, my introduction to technology changed the entire trajectory of my life: how I create and think about things, the thoughts and people I have gotten to meet. It is only through spaces of unabridged community and creation that I ever got to experience the same feeling: the web at its best in anonymity, authenticity, and openness. To craft these experiences so they are not magical, rather simply an inescapable default, is the goal.
We live in a time where technologists are overresourced, with knowledge being increasingly expensive and inaccessible to attain or even dare to bear. Our world will be dominated by the individual producers. Community must be harnessed, but with full care. These are some of the most complex, people-centric problems that are out there.
- To prevent systems that enable war, racism, sexism, capitalism, or forms of harm, we must not offer any building blocks. In environments where these exist, we must resist, but moreover, dismantle.
- Our tools and software must always be liberatory: cognizant of the injustices they support, in service of human freedom, and built for the most marginalized.
- Technological iterativism leads us backwards. The promise of breaking things fast very often looks little into histories and larger systems, and goes towards meeting guessed-upon metrics. If design is liberatory, it must be radical, conscientious, and reduce harmful presuppositions at all costs. Designing for true problems means that there are decades (if not millennia) of work and knowledge to sift through, or problems that are not defined at all. Iterativism in goals, not in process, in particular, is dangerous––the systems we exist in must be shifted.
- Without collaboration, we are nothing. By the trade of technology and design as a young person, you often resign yourself to focusing on useless shit like interview prep or technical skillbuilding –– you know very little about problems worth solving. Live in the complexity and constant empathy of learning from people you design for, and design with people –– otherwise your work is fruitless.
I’m frustrated at theoretical case studies without audience and self-serving solutions when there is so much the world actively needs. Perhaps those areas are not explicitly looking for designers, and they likely aren’t. The goal of a designer is to design at the side, the core of it is to be present, active at where things demand support––and recognize how design is ubiquitous and must be crafted with people by you at all costs.
The web, since I’ve been on it nearly every day in middle school, presents us countless opportunities to rethink its architecture and contents. Here are some things I feel are in need of reshaping.
I feel that many people don’t wholly accept this yet, but many third world countries interact with the internet from the confines of social media platforms and their built-in browsers, if they have any ability to access non-social networking sites at all.
One of the most memorable side projects I’ve seen was a Messenger bot that sent users snippets and details from any requested Wikipedia page; the Wikimedia Foundation has shared several efforts to make their critical resource more performant for low-bandwidth users. Minute performance improvements mean everything to these users.
Most recommendations on accessibility for low-bandwidth users include recommendations on switching to cost-conscious browsers like Opera Mini as opposed to regular mobile browsers that will literally hog refreshes; getting websites to work compatibly in article mode, deliver things in test-easy RSS feeds, and looking at the future of consumption across SMS and email will also become important. Designing beautiful experiences that take into consideration loading and engineering constraints will become increasingly important.
If we want to change behavior, we can do so radically. Natural’s mode of generative interfaces seems ridiculous (and very like Her), but will slowly be adopted (the same way commanding home speakers was awkward five years ago). New search interfaces that mimic how we actually think being worked on by companies like Neeva will shine.
Incrementalism doesn’t mean we discount actual input from the audiences we serve; it means we are riding too heavy on linear waves of thought and numbers when many desires and needs are already vividly mapped––and will take more than gradual tuning to get there.
Documents and questions need to happen more as a designer. My process must be informed by the demands of the world, by planning that is both quick to execute yet intentional in the bounds of a system.
The compromise here is that design must exist at the highest plane, and the iteration must happen at the low-level. Design will guide our modes of thinking, and iteration is just perfecting all the last-order pieces of what we build. When we focus more on behavior and interactions rather than technical details and implementation of new work, we get to validate more radical, profound systems that the world needs.
The browser is an untapped medium
All our internet use still interfaces with the relatively unmoving browser. Its interactions have long stayed the same despite our interactions and engagements on the web constantly evolving into new paradigms. Moreover, we have basically memed browsers and brushed them off, the market has relatively stayed unchanged (compared to the vast amount of options we had in the 90s), and we have made it so that the user bares the burden of the medium. Following Mozilla’s work and more recently, The Browser Company have been huge interests of mine. Our foundational bridge to the internet needs a do-over. Beaker is an obvious place for this, unafraid to serve builders and lean towards the experimental for the peer-to-peer web.
Remember too that web design––and thus browser design––is architecture. Like how every website is a place that offers access and atmospheric context to the resources and services they provide, so do our browsers. What fabrics will emerge from a new browser medium that truly serves the people?
“I like to call the web humanity’s shared language. We’ve all come together, by some miracle, as a society to define a set of rules and technical standards about how we will communicate, how our computers will communicate with each other, and people all over the world use this.” explains Tara Vancil, a developer at Beaker.
Why then, has the building block of the web become so untranslatable? It seems that though we have more tools and resources than ever, web development becomes increasingly difficult to enter. Creating a website has never been so dumbed down, yet gratingly difficult to consider. Perhaps a cultural thing, but also something by design (as we stray further from the customizable web). After all, everything easy is hard again.
If we make personal websites the default canvas of the internet once more, I’m wondering how much knowledge and information we can better share and capture, even temporally. While people are bending the mediums of TikTok and Twitter, we are also pointlessly building tools to live on top of platforms that do not serve us: tweet thread unrollers, startups fighting to be the best link in bio… these platforms do not serve our content or people.
In Laurel Schwulst’s My Website is a shifting house next to a river of knowledge, they detail that the website in creation has been overcomplicated today. (Artists are now perhaps the best teachers I’ve seen on web development fundamentals, only complicating things with enough engineering as necessary.) Websites represent a duality: they are both subject and object, the creator both author and architect.
A website then, can be a room. A shifting, movable room that offers comfort in the age of information overload. A river of knowledge becomes architect to a website; it is independent of corporations. Laurel describes how websites can potentially take other forms, a budding and tolerant plant, a shelf (smaller than a room), a whole garden changing across the seasons, a puddle that is temporary after a “storm”.
Another issue with websites is that page rank algorithms and search engines dominate the thread in which we connect websites. We write content crafted for backlinks. When I was first making websites in the late 2000s (disclaimer: I was like eight years old) my favorite corners and threads of exploration were web rings and affiliate markers: you vouch for someone, you exchange links.
Still, the internet is an all-encompassing, global experience; yet the digital realm is dictated by rankings that do not always serve the needs of the people. If we were to create more contained webs powered by creators and trust, our communities and circles would be significantly more valuable. Why is the concept of distance controlled when it should not mean anything? If everything on the internet is a click away (both close and far at the same time), users must be able to reorganize cyberspace for themselves.
To move towards a space of reclaimed and individualized websites, we need diligence. We need builders setting examples for what the garden of the internet can look like, unyielding to what is out there. It is by this legibility that the rest of the world will come to us––then the tools, people, and systems shift shall follow.
Or if anything, with a radical migration, what may come?