Clients, the Web and the Big Misconception

Pretty ambiguous title isn’t it? That’s entirely intentional, because the topic of this particular article is something that a lot of web designers seem to hate talking about. But, now that I’ve got you here hopefully you’ll stick around, so I’ll let the cat out of the bag (so to speak). In this article we’re going to be talking about Web 2.0.

Wait! Don’t run away! This isn’t the sort of article that’s going to round up eight bazillion awesome examples of Web 2.0 designs, or a tutorial that’s going to try to teach you how to replicate some overused and increasingly outdated design element. No, I’m going to tackle the issue head on and in a way that I hope will actual be useful for you. Why? Because we can’t simply ignore Web 2.0 (as much as we may want to).

The term is out there, and has permeated far beyond the borders of the design community and into the mind of the larger public.

That means it has also permeated into the minds of your clients and potential clients.

Here’s a case in point. The other day I was communicating with a new prospect about possibly designing a website and all the things that it would entail. We had exchanged a few emails already when that dreaded question that so many web designers hate to hear came up: will the site design be in 2.0? As a designer/developer, this kind of thing generally and predictably draws a plaintive groan from my lips. Images of strong gradients, big bold stripes, glossy buttons and overused reflections dance like tiny, trendy goblins in my mind.

Later, when I offered my initial proposal for the website, I indicated that I would code it all in XHTML 1.0 and CSS3. I didn’t really expect the client to understand exactly what that meant, but it’s just one of my standard practices to include those kind of technical details, just to make sure that I’ve covered all the bases.

As you can imagine, the client came back and asked: Will the site be done in XHTML 2.0? Based on the previous version-based question, I was reasonably certain that the client was not referring to the W3C’s now defunct concept for XHTML 2 (parts of which have survived in HTML5 – see Jeremy Keith’s wonderfully succinct “A Brief History of Markup” for more details).

No, what the client was actually talking about was his notion of having a website designed to “work” with version 2.0 of the web.

No New Internet

Of course, there is no “new” version of the internet. We’ve introduced some new technologies into the mix, and allowed others to grow and evolve. Our browsers can do a heck of a lot more in terms of rendering sites than they could a decade ago, and the evolution of frameworks like jQuery have allowed for the much broader development of application-like functionality within a document.

But, at its core a website is still very much the kind of thing that I talk about in my recent article “HTML (and CSS) do Not a Website Make” – the unified sum of the various technologies that drive it.

It’s also important to note that there has been no significant change to the underlying structure that drives the internet. To quote Wikipedia on this subject:

Critics of the term claim that “Web 2.0″ does not represent a new version of the World Wide Web at all, but merely continues to use so-called “Web 1.0″ technologies and concepts. First, techniques such as AJAX do not replace underlying protocols like HTTP, but add an additional layer of abstraction on top of them.

Many of the new technologies that we use these days to drive the experience of the internet are not really all that new at all, but are either expanded (such as CSS3 and HTML5) or frameworks that provide a simplified form of access to existing technologies (like jQuery and MooTools do for JavaScript).

As web designers and developers, this probably isn’t anything all that new or revolutionary for us and we understand that the internet that we are using today is precisely the same internet that we were using back in 1995.

Instead of being replaced with a new version, it has simply grown and matured, much the same way my daughter has transformed from a helpless newborn to the energetic two and half year old who is currently pushing my MacBook closed and asking me to come play with her…

And, after fun with Duplo and books, I’m back.

So, the point of all this is that there is no new version of the internet, and that if Web 2.0 exists anywhere, it is in the realm of the theoretical. Instead of describing anything specifically technical, it describes something more abstract, such as intention–though that becomes incredibly difficult to nail down. In a developerWorks interview, Tim Berners-Lee noted:

Web 1.0 was all about connecting people. It was an interactive space, and I think Web 2.0 is, of course, a piece of jargon, nobody even knows what it means. If Web 2.0 for you is blogs and wikis, then that is people to people. But that was what the Web was supposed to be all along.

blogs and wikis

This perspective ultimately drives Web 2.0 into the realm of the substantially meaningless. If all it is doing is fulfilling the purpose that the web was originally created for then have we really even moved forward at all? Would that not simply mean that Web 1.0 is finally beginning to realize the fullness of its original vision?

Maybe and maybe not. From my own perspective, I tend to subscribe to the notion that there has been a certain shift from where the internet began (regardless of intention). Websites used to be much more static. They were the realm of the the ubiquitous webmaster, maintainer of the content. Of course, there were chat rooms and forums (on which I spent far too much time), but by and large the web was a place to find and gather information.

Today, though, that initial structure has fragmented – perhaps even shattered. User-generated content is not only accepted, it is actively encouraged. Entire sites, like Flickr or the design community Dribbble, are meaningless without the contributions of their users. Websites are also talking to each other through openly available APIs, further blurring the distinction between distinct and separate domains.

For me, if this concept of Web 2.0 exists anywhere, it is here, in this movement towards a more social web. But it certainly is not a “new” internet.

Misconception 2.0

I think that the real problem with Web 2.0 is ultimately the term itself. It clearly calls upon the convention of tracking the evolution of software through numbers. The first number typically indicates an entirely new version of the program, while the numbers following the decimal point typically indicate slight evolutions – generally adding in patches and fixing minor (or sometimes major) bugs in the overall functionality.

Today, I think it’s fair to assume that users have, by and large, picked up on this convention. Is it any wonder, then, that the very term Web 2.0 introduces a certain level of obscurity into the broader understanding of the internet in the mainstream consciousness? When the vast majority of people hear or read the term, the automatic assumption triggered in their minds is that there is actually some new (and, implicitly, improved) version of the internet out there.

Consider this in the context of a consumer culture that places a very strong influence on the need to be up to date. Huge amounts of hype surround the release of newer versions of software and technologies, as demonstrated in the past year by the iPhone 4 and Adobe’s Creative Suite 5 (hated, though it may be in some circles). We are trained from an incredibly young age to always feel that we need (or at least want) for the newest version of something, and that if we don’t have it we are somehow outdated or obsolete.

Why would the web be any different?

From the client’s perspective, if they (mistakenly but understandably) believe that Web 2.0 does actually point to some new version of the internet, does it not stand to reason that they would want you, the designer or developer, to build their website in such a way as to be compatible with this “new” internet? After all, the payment they are making to you is an investment in their own online presence. Why would they want something “outdated”?

More Than a Style

More Than a Style

Despite the fact that we, the web professionals, like to talk about technologies like HTML, CSS, PHP, jQuery and a plethora of others, the somewhat painful truth is that the majority of web users never even see any of it. All they see are the results of those technologies – beautifully rendered and useable websites and web applications that provide them with particular information or help them complete a particular task.

I think that this is part of the reason that Web 2.0 is primarily about visual effects for so many people. Users who are not familiar with the behind-the-scenes landscape of the internet, but who interact with these Web 2.0 sites come to recognize certain trends or tendencies and, through their own naivete, begin to associate certain visual styles with a concept which, at its core, is primarily philosophical.

So, while the term was coined as a means of signifying an internet driven primarily by interactive, person-to-person content, in the mind of the masses, it seems to have become the realm of glossy buttons, glassy reflections and any number of other Apple-inspired effects. By extension, the context in which they come to us asking us to build their website on this “new internet” is primarily visual. Although they may not even be conscious of it, they have developed certain preconceptions about what they think their website needs to look like, or how it needs to be laid out.

As professionals working at the forefront of the design frontier, it is likely this very assumption that causes so many of us to cringe at the very mention of Web 2.0. Those particular trends have long since become tired from overuse, and many of us may not be all that enthusiastic about being asked by clients to return to these trends over and over again.

You, The Educator

The Educator

In reality, though, we just can’t hold the client’s request for a Web 2.0 website against them. After all, in the majority of cases, they are probably only asking for what they think is best. Rejecting that request outright by telling the client exactly what you think of Web 2.0 trends is probably not the best move when it comes to customer relations. The client could easily take offense, and take their business elsewhere.

Instead, consider your role to be that of the educator. Listen to those requests and try to gauge the customer, determining what it is that they really want. Then, if necessary, you can take the time to carefully and respectfully explain the truth behind Web 2.0 – that there is no “new” internet, that the term is actually more or less theoretical and used to categorize the movement toward the interactive, social, person-to-person content that has emerged over the last decade, and that the various associated trends are just that – trends which have already started to lose their relevance for the contemporary landscape of the web.

If you can help them grasp a better understanding of what Web 2.0 really means, you should also be able to lead them to the realization that none of these things need to have any particular impact on their own website. You will build the site so that is compatible with current and older browsers (how far back you go is up to you), and with a beautiful and attractive design that doesn’t lose itself in a sea of fading trends.

In the end, I expect that both you and the client will be happier for it.

Of course, not all clients will be receptive. There will always be those misinformed know-it-alls who will insist that every possible misconception about Web 2.0 is actually cold, hard truth. When this happens, you can either swallow your pride and actually go along with the client’s half-baked understanding, probably just for the sake of your bank account. Or, you can simply cut the ties altogether.

The point, however, is that this whole notion of Web 2.0 is still out there, and while we certainly don’t have to perpetuate all the half-truths and misconceptions that have attached themselves to it, we also cannot simply dismiss it as some urban myth. When clients bring it up, you need to be prepared and ready to respond in an intelligent manner that helps them come away with a better understanding of the internet, rather than get all fired up with indignation.

Your Turn to Talk

How about you? What is your understanding of Web 2.0? How do you address the subject when client’s approach you requesting a Web 2.0 site? Please take a minute to chime in and leave a comment below ;)

About the author:

Matt Ward is a digital artist who lances freely under the moniker of Echo Enduring Media, and specializes in graphics design, illustration and writing. You can follow him on Twitter.


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