Content-centered Design = Democratic Design

by Tatiana Luna

Today I read about the responsibility that websites have in creating online culture by monitoring their comments area, the first personal tweet from a president asking for direct responses from the people to a BIG question, the mass exodus of Israelis from Israel, examples of urban designs that create new public social spaces and utilize materials effectively, a website that gathers the most popular recipes from large recipe sites and personal blogs, and a craft project for children making funky glasses out of paper and other materials.

I’ve come away learning more about the Internet as a social and political space than just the particulars of the content.  I’m constantly learning more about how it functions socially as an organizer of information, how I react to it on a personal and intellectual level, and how other people are reacting and interacting and creating. I’m starting to understand how the recent developments on how the Internet is used in America and other parts of the world are a sign of how the Internet is increasingly designed with democracy in mind.

Social Media ROI from Intersection Consulting

Anil Dash on his Blog About Making Culture reached a lot of people with his post on Internet comment etiquette and he began a discussion that has real implications for effecting offensive behavior that has become acceptable in broader society.  President Obama’s tweet on the budget bill and his Twitter Town Hall meeting represent the most democratic kind of actions a President can make, assuming that he and his administration are actually listening to the responses.  And even becoming aware that Israel’s religiously conservative policies are literally pushing out secular Israelis while a city in the Netherlands is encouraging its citizens to meet and socialize in public spaces makes me realize that America holds both possibilities at once.

We are living in a country where a social and political war is going on in the fabric of everyday life.  Extremists running our government threaten to exacerbate America’s social and political decline, while individuals are now the source of hope as they try to create something new.  Individuals and small groups of people are creating artwork, architecture, and many other kinds of products that can bring local communities together or help the environment.  Mothers and teachers are inventing or re-inventing art and other projects that educate their children, while schools are failing us.  And as long as all these people are posting about their ideas, successes, and failures on the Internet they are educating and inspiring other people, creating in the act a more vibrant democracy.

So why is content-centered design democratic design?  A nation is not a democracy if its people don’t actively participate in the development of the society and/or the running of government on any level.  One cannot actively do either of those things if one is uninformed of what’s going on in the world around them and what other people are thinking and doing.  The Internet has made it entirely possible to educate oneself and disseminate one’s opinion to the public for a very small fraction of the cost of going to college.

Many people have been talking about how the design of Google+ is so innovative as a social media tool, because it is a minimalist framework for the content bringing the user’s focus straight to the content, thus allowing for more straightforward and meaningful interactions around created and shared content.  I agree with this assessment of Google+ completely, but I also think that this revolution was already going on with the advent of the blog (Google+ is harnessing the power of the personal blog by allowing an unlimited post length), and the fact that for a while now any site’s lasting popularity has had to do with how people interact with its content, rather than just how pretty it looks.  Design and content have become married in the world of web design, so that a website no longer looks so pretty if it isn’t immediately clear what the content is and if it’s not easy to read and navigate through the content.

So in effect, this new philosophy of web design is directly connected to creating the cultural space for democratic participation in every aspect of our culture. I love this phenomenon and my discovery of it is what has drawn me back into the Internet after a long hiatus (almost an avoidance).

But, in a sense, all the beauty of Google+ or any other website’s design can only account for a fraction of the effort it takes to go through the information. The amount of information on the Internet remains overwhelming no matter what one does, and we simply have to buck up and take as much as we can in at a time.  This new marriage between content and design simply makes it more pleasant, fun, and fast to do something that’s challenging: reading through a lot of material to learn about what’s going on in the world, so that one can have an informed opinion, and then act on it.  An inherent part of this process is determining the quality of all the different sources out there.

Increasingly, one’s ability to hygrate Internet sources, write well about them, and thus create one’s own content is the new credential of education.  The focus on content has ratcheted up the quality of standards of the content shared, the commentary on content, and the creation of new content.  One can almost completely self-educate using the Internet, and thus there’s no excuse anymore for having an uninformed opinion or sharing low quality content.  If you do, people just don’t pay attention to you, and attention is essentially Internet currency.

Even as I am intimidated I am inspired by the mythological possibilities of the Internet, and I am drawing new dreams of what it means to be educated, competent, and a true mover of worlds.