The Web is a Human Creation

By Michael I. Almond

Published on September 29, 2004

As unlikely as it seems, many of the guidelines and methods used in the field of social marketing and social-change campaigns are useful to Web professionals. To my surprise, I am looking to a set of principles—a road map—used in the first part of my career as I search for a new one in an entirely different community.

Part 1: We all seek road maps

Face it, we like to do things the right way. This desire is also a need. We have to make recommendations to our clients and colleagues, and they expect expert advice and solutions to their problems. I even fretted about the correct way to write an online article. (Fortunately, this is for an audience that still reads—fewer and fewer humans bother since the birth of the Web. Now we “scan” and sometimes “forage” content. I miss reading.)

Where do we find the “right way”?

In my current occupation, the “right way” is rather hard to find. I have worked as a Web designer for the greater part of a decade and like most of us, I rely on various methods and techniques to help me do a good job. When I worked as a print designer, I had a well-established set of guidelines to follow. For example, look at the principles of typography. They are based on cognitive studies of how the eye and brain function and the lessons of history. The written word has been with us for hundreds of years—the Web, about 10.

We are still learning about a new and rapidly changing medium. At the same time, we are searching for and trying to establish our own set of guidelines. Everyone seems to have an opinion about the best way to do this or that. Some are extremely passionate in their beliefs and speak of them as fact—including a number of our “noted experts.” On top of this, they try to convince others to join them and to believe as they do, though they seldom agree with each other. It feels like a big, confusing mess.

How can we make some sense out of this?

I’ve found a little help in a set of guidelines. It isn’t about the techniques and methods of traditional design, and doesn’t address user experience or valid code. It is a set of principles that guides advocacy campaigns to create social change—ideas and knowledge of how opinions, attitudes, and behaviors are influenced to become decisions to take action or “pick a side.” The guidelines are about how to win. I think you know what that means.

These guidelines are about people.

They should suit us well. The Web, the Internet, and all technology are first human ideas and visions resulting from the imagination of many. Although we aren’t the easiest nuts to crack, we have been around for a while. (By the way, I am referring to human years, not “Web years.” This is fortunate as I would be something like 147 years old. And very tired.)

Shortly before the birth of the Web, I worked at a social marketing media agency specializing in advocacy campaigns and strategies for nonprofit organizations committed to social issues like women’s rights and reproductive health, AIDS stigma and homophobia, the environment, and many other public interest concerns. We operated like a commercial agency, but our campaigns communicated messages that sold ideas, informed or changed opinions, and influenced behaviors that related to these issues. How is this useful to a group of professionals who build and design Web sites?

I know, you need examples and the guidelines.

Like most of us, I look to the experts to see what they recommend as a best method or technique for a particular task. Terms like “Web gurus,” “the bloggers,” and “the A-listers” are used to describe this select group.

1. The majority of people form their opinions on important social issues by following “opinion leaders.” Successful advocacy and social marketing campaigns target individuals within a few key audiences who, in turn, influence larger constituencies.

This applies to our industry’s influencers as well. There seem to be 25 to 30 of them, mostly men as far as I can tell.

What about the World Wide Web Consortium?

The W3C isn’t really a group of opinion leaders, though their specifications and guidelines are widely viewed as de facto. They are a more like a think tank, a brain trust, or my 10th grade math teacher.

Founder and Director Tim Berners-Lee is another story all together. Actually, he shows up in this story, but you have to wait until the end. So much for the inverted pyramid.

2. On any social issue, the extremes on each opposing side are the most vocal and visible. This can create the illusion that their opinions are shared by the majority, though they seldom are.

Another reminder. Our opinion leaders are often rather vocal, to put it mildly, and they disagree on almost everything. On top of this, many have extreme points of view. This is intimidating to people like me who have more moderate views or who just want to learn about a particular topic.

I recently read a blog entry by Angie McKaig on the subject:

At one point or another every “A-lister” has done it. Ripping each other up for their opinions… They serve no usual purpose other than perhaps a bigger hit in Technorati or Blogdex that week…

I was glad to hear her speak out.

While our A-list is primarily male, Angie is a member of a slightly more significant majority—her gender makes up more than half of our species. As you will soon find out, she is also a member of another significant majority. In addition, the “A-listers” she refers to do serve a purpose, though not the one they intended.

3. Those on the extremes also state their opinions as fact, though this is seldom the case. Their opinions are based on fundamental beliefs, values, and biases.

Take a simple issue as an example: whether to set external hyperlinks to open a secondary browser window or remain in the default window.

What do the experts have to say?

Jakob Nielson is an opinion leader in the area of usability. However, I think he would despise the term because his recommendations are based solely on research—for example, how four people sitting in a room prefer to use a Web site, while being observed. In any case, he claims one should never open a second browser window:

[T]he strategy is self-defeating since it disables the Back button which is the normal way users return to previous sites….

He speaks as if this is a fact.

Let’s add to the mix.

The authors of The Web Style Guide: Basic Design Principles are experts in the area of Web design. With no uncertainty, they state their recommendation as fact. It is the exact opposite of Nielson’s. They state that one should always open a second browser window. Why are these noted experts so firm in their recommendations?

They are biased.

Opinions can be supported by arguments or rationale and may seem factual, but they aren’t necessarily. In this example, our experts are making biased statements that reflect what they know most about, usability or design. Biases exist for many different reasons and we all have them. They are part of how we define ourselves, our identity.

I know what you’re thinking.

So logically, you think the principles I am sharing are based on my biases. Not the case. They are based on research, data, and many years of experience of those working in the field. This is a very important point: they are based on the biases of others.

Our client needs a “solution.”

They also need it yesterday, which in Web time is months ago. I need to make an important decision and travel back in time. These are equally difficult tasks.

So I give them a recommendation—that’s what I was hired to do. And yes, I am biased toward design.

You happy now?

4. Extremists can also make anyone with a more moderate opinion appear more reasonable. They can inadvertently be helpful to those with more moderate opinions, making them seem more credible and convincing in comparison.

Based on my experience as a user, my preference is to open a second browser window. I also believe this is the better way. But I try to be reasonable. I don’t claim it is fact, and I don’t base any recommendation solely on my preferences or biases. I first listen to my clients and take into account their preferences and needs, and various aspects beyond the standard business and end-user requirements.

This doesn’t mean I’m not confident about my recommendation.

Quite the opposite. I feel my recommendations have more validity. I now trust more in my own judgment and experience. Why? Because I can question, translate, and make better sense of all the conflicting opinions of the experts and the convictions of those on the extremes.

Critical thinking. that’s the term. I just remembered this from my college years (the only thing I remember).

It hasn’t been a revelation, exactly.

Oh, I’ll just say it. I can tell when I’m being bullshitted. I try not to do the same.

Part 2: Agents of change.

So, these principles help all of us? We’ve mainly focused on members seeking guidelines for their work. What about the members of our profession who also want to bring about change—to be advocates for an issue related to their work? They need a road map as well.

And we need an example that is more controversial.

Two words: Web standards. Don’t worry, this isn’t an opinion piece. I am using Web standards as an example only. This means I will be sharing many opinions, not just one.

However, I don’t want be hypercritical and only point out the problem. I never do this when working on a project. I always provide a recommendation as to how a problem might be fixed—a solution of some sort.

If I don’t, I’m just a tattletale.

Well, I can’t provide a specific solution or recommendation in the case of Web standards. I’m still learning to use them, so I don’t dare claim to know how to resolve the issue. These principles are a good place to start for anyone who does have an idea about how to resolve the issue or advocate any particular position.

Remember, this is about winning.

5. Most people don’t feel qualified or prepared to make important decisions about complex social issues. They often question whether their opinions count or if the issue is of relevance to them.

At first, I didn’t know what Web standards referred to. I certainly didn’t have an opinion yet. I simply wanted to learn more advanced CSS, but I discovered that the use of stylesheets was connected to this controversial issue. Everyone wrote so passionately about the topic. It reminded me of debates on issues like the death penalty, AIDS stigma, and homophobia—controversial social causes I used to work on.

The problem is being defined endlessly. No one can even agree on what that is. We can’t even agree on the best way to define their use—are they best practices, rules, guidelines, or requirements?

What’s in a name?

In my opinion (finally), Web standards was a not the best choice for a term to describe a set of complex technologies that are supposed to be beneficial to mankind. It adds confusion to the issue. “Standards” also has a negative, punitive feel and conjures up a shared trauma, the standardized test commonly know as the SAT.

Remember the principle about moderates seeming credible?

Simon Willison makes some sense to me. He suggests ditching the term “Web standards” and instead using “best practice.” But it goes much deeper than a name.

What to do about the real problem?

Some believe in regulating the Web in order to bring about a “code-compliant world.” Others believe standards oppose the basic openness of the Web.

I recently read a blog journal that went as far as to suggest the creation of a Web site blacklist. Much to my dismay, a number of users commented that they have already started such a list.

Now I’m pissed off.

This is not only a ridiculous and ineffective strategy, the use of the term “blacklist” is personally offensive. My Grandmother was forced to retire because of her political beliefs and a certain blacklist back in the 50s. This major threat to the American way of life was a beloved and respected school teacher in Harlem.

Before becoming enraged, a field in which I am a noted expert, I remembered that these are the opinions of a few people on the extremes. In essence, they are blowing a lot of hot air out of their backsides.

But they do have convictions.

They have beliefs that exclude any doubt. Usually, they want to convince others to join them, to believe as they do. However, most of the time they are speaking to and trying to convince the wrong people.

6. Roughly the same percentage of people on opposing sides of any social issue are unmovable. Their beliefs and positions are firmly decided. Though roughly equal in number, they are both in the minority.

I understand there aren’t just two sides to this issue. I’ve heard many, but it still applies. Those who are most passionate or extreme in their particular belief are also the least likely to be convinced otherwise.

They won’t budge. Forget about them.

Interestingly, they weren’t needed in the first place. While I am of the opinion that the underlying goals of Web standards are beneficial, it is also my belief that the current definition, the way the issue is being communicated and framed, will never motivate the target audience that it is most important to reach.

7. Target the undecided. Most issues are decided by winning over the undecided in the middle. This is the majority that determines the outcome.

Most of us are members of this audience, the “undecided majority.” We must be convinced and motivated if anything is to happen at all on this particular issue. We are the ones who build and design Web sites.

Empowering, whether you take a position or not.

I was among the undecided. I didn’t even have an opinion until those who described the issue reasonably helped me form one. However, I was also moved into taking an action—not to advocate for Web standards, but to learn to use them. This means using valid XHTML, CSS and no tables, figuring out what the hell “semantic mark up” is, and then using that. The list goes on and on. The belief in the future benefits of Web standards alone is not enough of a reward for me to make this decision.

What was the motivation?

8. The undecided majority wants to be on the “winning side.” On any social issue, the perception that they are joining the “winners” is a dominant factor influencing the undecided majority to pick a side. So, acting like a winner—projecting confidence and authority—is a prerequisite to winning over the majority.

I hate to admit it, but I’m guilty. As I said, I understand there aren’t just two opposing sides, where one seems destined to “win” this issue. I was motivated to go from opinion to action because I wanted to be like the “winners,” many of the same people I looked to for answers on other issues.

Politicians clearly understand this concept.

Notice how they always act as if they are winning? They even spin a loss when giving a concession speech.

But acting like a winner isn’t the final word. There has to be a long-term strategy. This means being a winner, too.

9. Motivate people with viable solutions and set examples. Communicate values and ideals. This is crucial to sustaining social changes for the long run.

In the field of social marketing, people use the term “sustainability” in discussions about “the long run.” It has a positive connotation. In the Web industry, we use terms like “future proof.” It’s used to describe one of the benefits of Web standards. It doesn’t sound beneficial to me, it sounds defensive and a little scary.

Speak directly to your audience in a “human” language.

Effective social-change campaigns—just like those in the commercial market—identify and speak directly to target audiences in a way they can understand and relate to. Commercial marketing calls this “branding.” Social Marketing calls it “caring” (we covered bias already).

The fact is that very few of us understand how social change occurs. It isn’t our job.

So get some help.

10. Diversity is critical to success. Social movements draw from many sources. New ideas and strategies often come from other disciplines.

Social change doesn’t work the way we want it to. It can’t just be designed, developed or branded. The process is different from the way we work. In particular, Web professionals deal with computers, and we work and solve problems in ways that are precise, exact, and technical. At the very core: Binary code. It allows only 0 and 1.

Come on now, after all this talk about humans I’m not going to suggest we are machines or robots. We just behave like them. There’s a difference.

The big picture.

For those who want to bring about change, these principles apply to any issue of concern. Speaking to people you will never convince while endlessly defining only the problem isn’t an effective strategy, unless your goal is to go clinically insane. To those of us just trying to do our jobs, these guidelines can prevent us from doing just that.

Don’t forget, I let the pyramid stand in its original design, so there must be another point to all this (and it isn’t the fact that an inverted pyramid would always fall over).

An even bigger picture.

In his book, Interpreting Social Change in America, Norman F. Washburne gives social change two categories. Change that is not purposeful results from human interaction that isn’t directed toward change. I interpret this as the natural course of history. The second type is purposeful change.

Social change which is purposeful results from human interaction directed toward change and is a social movement… In such cases, people often respond to charismatic leaders and Utopian ideologies.

Berners-Lee, who conceived the idea, describes his dream for the Web as a means to promote human potential, collaboration, and imagination.

If misunderstandings are the cause of many of the world’s woes, then can we not work them out in cyberspace?

In Weaving the Web: The Original Design and Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web, he dreams of a Web as a “powerful force for social change and individual creativity.”

Sound familiar? Of course it does. His dream wasn’t only about technology, it was about human beings.

His dream was about a social movement.

Whether or not you want to be an advocate, we are all part of something bigger. While we debate our issues of importance, struggle to learn, grow, or just keep up, we are participating in social change. After all, the Web is a human creation.

These guidelines were adapted from Fight to win! A 10-point guide to social change by Herbert Chao Gunther, president and executive director of Public Media Center, a nonprofit media agency for social change.


General Information on Social Marketing

Social Change and New Technology

Social Change and Media Advocacy

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Related Topics: Critique, Web Standards

Michael Almond has worked as a Web professional for nearly a decade in both full time positions and as an independent freelancer. He recently worked for PeoplePC Online, an EarthLink Company, as Lead Designer and User Experience Strategist for Online Properties (He wasn