The web’s agricultural revolution

There was a specific period when human behaviour shifted from wandering about in small groups, foraging for food and water, to settling in increasingly large numbers in one place. The catalyst for this shift in behaviour was the domestication of plants and animals; instead of seeking out food in its own habitat we forced it to grow in a way that was convenient for us. This process, about 12,500 years ago, is known as the neolithic or agricultural revolution. By learning how to generate food in ever more efficient ways, humanity gained the ability to sustain larger and larger populations. This growth in the size of our societal groups led to the formation of defined hierarchical and political structures and marked a shift in how we communicated and shared knowledge and culture on a wider scale.

I feel like the web has followed a similar trajectory over the last fifteen years. When I first started building websites, everything was done on a desktop computer over a dialup connection. The communities that existed were small and spread out, and there was little interaction between them. Everything was centred around blogrolls, newsgroups, forums, and basic aggregators like Digg or Delicious. To create something and publish it online was hard, and expensive; you had to know how to write HTML or Flash, maintain a server and be able to install Moveable Type, Textpattern or WordPress and all of their prerequisites (I never got Moveable Type working).

With the advent of smartphones and the wider availability of broadband, more people have fast, reliable access to the web. Technology has developed to the point where we can build platforms that sustain all of these people, enabling communities of billions to interact with each other. With the publishing tools that these platforms provide, sharing our thoughts and ideas is as easy as creating an account, uploading your stuff and hitting Submit. The size of these communities means your posts will be seen by at least a dozen people, but possibly hundreds or thousands. Thanks to the algorithms responsible for surfacing content to users, we no longer need to search for anything manually, we simply scroll through a feed.

Until I read Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari, it had never occurred to me that the agricultural revolution might not have been as beneficial to humanity as it seems. The shift to fewer, larger populations meant that people died in greater numbers as a result of famine and disease. The larger quantity of food we produced was less varied and farming it required us to work in ways our bodies were not designed. The hierarchies that were established meant that instead of everyone doing less work, the newly established working class spent longer in the fields while landowners barely worked at all. Harari argues that it might be “history’s biggest fraud”, and if offered a choice, many workers would have preferred to return to a life of foraging if given the chance.

Many of the points that Harari makes about humanity’s agricultural revolution have corollaries in how our online behaviour has evolved. As larger physical populations put greater numbers of people at risk of disease and famine, larger online populations expose more people to the spread of extremism and disinformation. The ease with which an idea can now be shared allows concepts to become amplified and enter the mainstream like never before; I’d never encountered an anti-vaxxer or flat-earther before social media though the concepts have existed within their own communities for years. At the size at which social networks now operate, the ability of previously underground ideologies to spread is affecting the politics of most countries, enabling populism and extremism to be viable and acceptable political positions.

Just as agriculture made food easier to produce at the expense of being less varied, so our content diet is becoming more homogenous. It is far easier to produce and share content but the tools we use and the platforms we publish to mean there is little to differentiate one post from another; everyone is using the same filters, theme or template. Because there is so little friction to publishing something, we publish everything; the volume of content we produce is increasing, but the level of quality is decreasing; the signal to noise ratio is getting worse all the time. There is so much stuff out there that instead of seeking it out we have to rely on algorithms designed to constantly give us more. We have little choice in what we see or read and no ability to change our diet.

Instead of plentiful food for all, the agricultural revolution allowed an elite few to control and profit from food production. Similarly, we are now in the situation where giants like Facebook, Google and Twitter control the majority of the traffic and content online. Instead of giving a platform to every voice, the web has quickly become a corporate owned and sanctioned mouthpiece for those with the most influence and money. While everybody can generate content on a platform if it conforms to the rules and politics, only the platform owners seem to profit, literally making money from everybody else’s work. Where there was once the promise of an open platform with a wide range of opinions and ideas, we have instead allowed a few large companies to become the arbitrators, editors and publishers of almost everything online.

Harari says that by the time we realised it was a bad deal, society had evolved to the point where it was too late to go back; we were fully committed to this new way of living. More than ten thousand years later, we are still dealing with how the agricultural revolution has affected our diets and physiques, and we’re only just beginning to recognise and address the damage it has done to our planet. But there are signs that make me hopeful that it will be different for the web. Users are becoming alert to the spread of extremism and misinformation, losing their trust in social networks and leaving them in increasing numbers. Technology companies are implementing safeguards on our devices to limit the constant consumption of content and new platforms are being created that take the best elements of social networks while adding safeguards to maintain the quality and veracity of content. Most excitingly, there is a resurgence in personal websites as creators look to decentralise and retain more ownership and control over what they make and write.

Everything happens much faster online; behaviours and ideas spread more quickly and communities grow and shrink far more rapidly than they do in the real world. While it has taken us 12,500 years to get to this point in humanity’s development, the web did it in twenty. As a microcosm of human society, I’m fascinated to see what the result will be if we can alter the trajectory of the web’s own agricultural revolution and learn how that might act as a roadmap to our own future development.

Exploding the myths of web design: Only use web fonts

This is a reproduction of an article written for the ‘Exploding the myths of web design’ feature in .Net magazine, issue 189.

Have you ever been handed a design for a website and wondered what font the designer has used for the body copy? Because I can honestly say I never have, and this certainly isn’t down to web designers having a love for Georgia and Arial. Instead, it’s down to a common misconception that the only fonts that can be rendered in a browser are the old ‘favourites’. The thing is, a modern web browser is perfectly capable of rendering any font that a user has installed, and because of the popularity of particular software packages, the list of relatively commonplace fonts includes some beauties.

On 24 Ways, Richard Rutter showed that if you take into account fonts installed by Windows and Mac OS X along with those from Microsoft Office and Adobe’s Creative Suite, the resulting list includes some rather lovely serif and san-serif fonts that a designer can use to bolster their designs. With some carefully selected fall-backs, there’s no reason why a good developer can’t provide users with Caslon or Jenson in place of Georgia, or Helvetica Neue in place of Arial. By using the CSS font-weight property, you can even use differing weights to further enhance your work.

Most websites are launched to a specific audience or demographic, and if they aren’t then your marketing team is missing a trick. If you have a good idea who will be looking at your site, it’s then easy to treat them to some nicer typography. For example, Panic achieves this on the company’s website for FTP client Coda by using Helvetica Neue Light, after surmising that the majority of visitors will be Mac OS X users, who have the font installed on their system by default. Even if you don’t have such a targeted audience, you can still play the percentage game, and in doing so, you can at least treat a portion of your visitors to a more refined, unique look. Call it typographic progressive enhancement!

Skip past content, not to it

This is a reproduction of an article written for the inaugural Cimex magazine in July 2006.

The separation of a web site into structural, presentational and behavioural layers is the key to making a usable, accessible and future proof web site, and the fact that CSS and unobtrusive Javascript allow us as developers to do this has been a major factor in the uptake of web standards. The reason this separation is so important lies in how it allows so many devices to access your data in so many ways. Mobile phones see a different version of your site to Safari, which sees a different version to JAWS yet all access the same mark-up and the same URL. Maintaining this separation intelligently is the key to allowing as many users as possible to access to your data using any means they want.

Many web developers are still falling quite short of this separation, not because they are using tables for layout, inline styling or obtrusive javascript but because they are ordering their mark-up not by how it is used but how they want it to appear. The structural layer of a web site should focus on enriching your content semantically to provide a user with the content they need in the most accessible way possible. This doesn’t just mean using suitable heading hierarchies, lists and labels but also ordering your content properly to provide suitable focus to the most important parts of the page.

Users who visit sites with devices that support limited or no CSS, or with devices that do not display your content visually will not see your content in the organised columns and colours that the majority do – they will be browsing your site in a single column ordered as your mark-up is. This often means they first receive a long list of nav items, logos and introductory paragraphs when what they really want is the latest article, train time or number of goals Thierry has scored today.

There seems to be a growing trend for developers to include ‘skip to content’ links as a solution to this problem. These links bypass the nav and header elements and move the user straight to the content, but users still have to move around a page instead of being served what they want straight away. This technique also fails to account for other ways in which your data is accessed; search engines indexing your pages may rank prevalent content more highly for example, and they won’t use skip links to pursue the content you deem most important on the page. Although I am not an SEO expert I can’t believe that important, relevant elements at the top of a page won’t have more influence on a search engine in how it interprets the meaning of your site.

There are plenty of CSS techniques that can be used to separate your page structure from appearance—the excellent methods explained at Position Is Everything for creating columns in any order on the canvas, for example. Just remember that the most important column is the one containing what the users came for.

The dangers of customisation

In the past few years emerging techniques have allowed web site creators to customise their user’s browsing environment to an increasing extent. Cascading style-sheets have allowed authors to modify form elements and scroll-bars to more closely match the aesthetics of their sites, javascript can be used to alter window size and shape and the behaviour of toolbars, browser buttons and mouse actions.

This amount of control is embraced by traditional designers who enjoy maintaining strict control over every facet of their work, and who in the past have struggled with the unpredictable nature of the Internet as a medium of design, but many web developers are wary of the damage this customisation could be doing for the user experience and the effect it could have on how web sites are currently being used. Is there a point at which you can ‘design’ and control too much of the users browsing environment?

Before the growth of the Internet, users would generally only be exposed to user interface elements that followed their platform developer’s Human Interface Guidelines. These guidelines regulate the behaviour of widgets, buttons, mouse clicks and other interactive elements to achieve a level of consistency across applications, allowing a user to become familiar and efficient when using their computer.

With the growth in usage of the Internet, and web sites that do not follow such specific guidelines, it is important to achieve as much consistency with a users native platform as possible, so that familiar interfaces are present where possible, especially for the more important tasks such as inputting data and navigating information. While it is always important to create a tight and integrated visual style when designing for the web, (or any interactive medium), the demands of the user that the interaction can occur easily and efficiently are equally important. With regards to specific elements or behaviour on the web, the user will have more experience with the elements and behaviour of their own operating system than with your site specific customised controls and mouse actions. If you want them to interact with your site more efficiently, it may be wise to let them use what they know.