In the war between MySpace and Facebook (2006-2008), one of the key battlegrounds was design. MySpace took a liberal attitude, letting its users customise to their heart’s content. Facebook took the attitude of a paternalist state, allowing users no freedom to customise the design. The wisdom of the time was that young people liked having the ability to stamp their identity on a page, and so turned to MySpace; the slightly older set preferred the refined look attained by having a professional make choices for you.
The free love, do-what-you-feel attitude of MySpace resulted in a giant, hideous mess. If you were there, just take a second to visualise those pages. Animated gif profile icons. Point 16 bold underlined Times New Roman. Low contrast colour schemes that rendered everything illegible. A million egos rendered in neon vomit: that’s my memory of MySpace.
Facebook won the war, and its attitude to design spread throughout the web. You provide the content, and we’ll sort out how it looks. Where customisation is permitted, it’s limited. You can change the banner photograph at the top of your timeline, but that’s it.
I hate to agree with Mark Zuckerberg, but this fascist attitude – the removal of choice in submission to an expert authority – has time and again proven to be the best recipe for good design. Apple doesn’t ask you what you want your computer to look like. Ikea doesn’t let you choose how to put together that lampshade. But Apple and Ikea products look nice and work well.
One drawback to this top-down approach is significant. Lack of autonomy leads to rebellion. When we lose autonomy, we often don’t even notice it, and when we do notice it, we usually accept it. Maybe we accept that we aren’t always the best judge of what’s in our self-interest. But when something changes for the worse and we can’t change it, the lack of autonomy comes to our attention and we feel out of control, expressing ourselves accordingly. Every Facebook redesign notoriously causes a ripple of social media shit-fit.
Tinkering is seen as a rebellious attitude these days. By “tinkering”, I mean taking something apart and improving it for your own purposes. It’s an affront to the authority of the person who created the thing in the first place. Designers often strive for unity and consistency, for good reason: it’s beautiful and practical. But tinkerers strive for beauty and practicality themselves. The difference is the spirit. On one side, fascist imposition of good design assumes that the user of the product is inferior to the creator. On the other side, tinkering assumes the opposite, in a spirit of independence and rebellion.
Both sides are right, some of the time. It certainly depends on the quality of the creator and the particular situation of the user. Bolder statements than this are difficult. Watch me try:
You can’t have fascist design that allows tinkerers.
But if you allow tinkerers, you end up with un-unified and inconsistent design. Therefore… what?
Let’s try an example. Say I employ 100 people, and I need them to tell me how much work they did that month. I could ask them to “let me know”, and I would receive 70 emails, 20 texts, 9 phone calls and one letter. It would be a mess for me to sort out. To fix this situation I could create a form to act as a timesheet. Everyone fills in the same form.
Now say I have a worker whose inclination is to tinker. He doesn’t like my form, and changes it. His life is improved, but my life is made worse, because I now have to accommodate two kinds of form.
My dilemma at this point is whether I play the fascist or encourage a spirit of independence in my workers.
While education is a more multicoloured beast than this thought experiment, shades of this problem crop up all the time. In class, teachers have to play a character that encourages creativity and independence, and yet is of necessity part fascist.
Hilariously, in other areas of school life a teacher is in the middle zone of the school hierarchy, and is required to submit to diktats and form-filling exercises that come from above. As such, teachers often exhibit hypocrisy: they want submission to authority, but they hate submitting to authority themselves.
I’m talking about myself, of course. But I see this all the time in other people too.