On Great Websites, Information is Craft, not Commodity

Jonathan Harris thinks the Internet is in the midst of a crisis:

The Internet is causing mass homogenization of human identity, making us all look the same. We use the same tools and social networks, fitting into the same templates, designed by companies to maximize page views and profits.

Most online experiences are made, like fast food, to be cheap, easy, and addictive: appealing to our hunger for connection but rarely serving up nourishment. Shrink-wrapped junk food experiences are handed to us for free by social media companies, and we swallow them up eagerly, like kids given buckets of candy with ads on all the wrappers.

Although Harris argues his point well, I don’t think there’s a crisis. There are parts of the Internet that feel overly commercialized – the equivalent of walking through Times Square. But if you go to a different neighborhood in New York, you’re more likely to find yourself among a collection of small, independent bars, restaurants, stores, and caf├ęs that pay close attention to the quality of their experiences.

Likewise, the best experiences on the Internet come from websites built by people who, day after day, publish the best pieces of knowledge they can either gather or create. Those sites are worth visiting every day, because they push the limits of the web with original designs, truly interesting content, and an atmosphere that reflects their editors’ rigorous attention to detail. Here are a few such sites: A List Apart, Bobulate, Brand New, Daring Fireball, Frank Chimero, Hypercritical, Jessica Hische, kottke.org, swissmiss, The Great Discontent, Transit Maps, and Windows of New York.

John Gruber, author of Daring Fireball, recently linked to an article in which Andrew Orlowski explains why the commoditized, cast-a-wide-net approach that has produced a dizzying array of Android-based mobile devices can’t compete with the product culture of focused devices like the iPhone:

The lucrative end of the mobile device market is a product culture, and it pays to put more of your wood behind one arrow, or just a few arrows; the more you make, the less distinctive each one is.

The same principle applies to the websites that are distinctive because their authors combine content and packaging into a beautiful product that others aspire to recreate. Mega-sites like Facebook, Yahoo!, CNN, and many others designed to keep you moving through content like merchandise racks in a department store will never completely define the web. They have the biggest, brightest signs, but can’t match the experience and quality of sites that are the product of craftsmanship and dedication.

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