From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

August 25, 1998*Over Construction

Though of late it's become rather passe, there was a time not too long ago when you couldn't surf for more than half an hour before finding a site with a stick-person on a yellow background bent over with a shovel, and the words "Under Construction" above or below him. Back then the internet ethos was "the web is a continually evolving media" and thus there could never be such a thing as a "completed" web page only one that had fallen into neglect.

But that's not the sort of site that concerns us this time. True, there's something in those sites that attracts us (or me, at least). Perhaps it's the feeling of innocence that they emit. There's something quaint about them. It's almost touching to come across "first generation sites and to realize that we once dreamt of everyone being able to have his/her own home page, and even that this page might somehow attract random surfers. It's clear now that those days are well behind us. Today it's hard to think of a random surfer who might be attracted to such a site. The tables have been turned and now the source of our suffering, rather than being under-construction, is instead over-construction.

Nobody wants to see lame web sites anymore. Today, the page has to jump out of the screen and grab you. Something has to always be moving, and even the once "how did they do that" animated gif has (happily) become a subject of derision, though for all the wrong reasons. Now, instead of deriding it because it doesn't serve any significant function on the page, it's derided because it doesn't dance around enough. Douglas Adams, of The Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy fame, makes the point best: And give way it did. I have to admit that having a plethora of things that flash and hop about on the screen make the surfing experience an enjoyable one. When I go to a museum of science and industry I always press the buttons first, before reading the explanations. And if that's the case there, why shouldn't I prefer to see flashing and hopping about before reading the content of a web page? But maybe the problem is with the word before. All too often, rather than looking at the flashing and hopping about before reading the content of a page, we do so instead of reading the content. And all too often, that's not really our fault, because other than the flashing and hopping about there is no content.

Surfing the web becomes an experience similar to reading a menu on an airplane. The description of what you're about to get is wonderfully mouth watering, but when it finally arrives you realize that it's still only tasteless airplane food. The pyrotechnics of web sites raise our expectations sky-high, yet their content returns us to an earthly reality. (Pooh, by the way, had something to say about this.)

I'm not really concerned here with loading time, though I suppose that that's always a factor. A long wait for a page to show up on the screen can curtail the enthusiasm of even the most gung-ho web-surfer. What concerns me here is the ratio of content to glitz, or what might even be called the unconditional surrender of content to glitz.There are web pages that take an inordinately long time to load, but that in the end prove worth the wait. All too often, however, the return on our wait is negligible.

What's really at issue here, however, is the intent of web pages, their raison d'etre. Once upon a time web pages actually existed in order to make information available to people who might want, or have a need for, it. People who prepared web pages didn't really design them. Instead, they used the capabilities of HTML to make information readily accessible to the public. It was a rather simple process, the end result of which was access. The capabilities of HTML, however, demanded to be put to use, and ultimately we started getting not only web sites which were nothing more than advertisements (though that can, of course, also be considered information), and also coffee table web sites - sites whose purpose in cyberspace is to be perused superficially, be oohed and aahed over, and then quickly forgotten. It's as though our continual seeking out of new web capabilities confines us to casual web surfing because in an environment where packaging is everything content loses its value, and there's always new packaging that makes yesterday's glitz today's dross.

There is good web design out there. There are pages that it's a pleasure to view regardless of content or lack of it (though a healthy dose of "form follows function" certainly can't hurt in most cases). And seeing HTML done well can be a pleasure unto itself. Still, there are times when, after seeing so many state of the art web sites that seem to have nothing to say, you find that you can really appreciate a "lame" web site that keeps its pyrotechnics to a minimum yet has real and valuable content.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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