Let’s become Architects

On: January 24, 2011
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About Marije Rooze
Full time New Media student, part time geek.


Last week, I held this big speech about Facebook and how awful it is. I have a Facebook thing, you may call it even an issue,  I think about the site quite a lot. Which is ironic, I don’t even have an account (at least, at the moment). In my obnoxious speech I was telling about Jonathan Harris, and his manifesto, which is called World Buiding in a Crazy World. Harris has some interesting, thought-provoking remarks (to speak in TED terms). He lives in a cabin in the woods, trying to get some distance between him and the fast paced world. But even there, in this natural environment, he still is constantly thinking about the online world.

I think this is typical; even if you are a hermit somewhere in the middle of nowhere, you think about connectivity. We – or at least some people –  have bits in our bloodstream. There is no way to escape this. So, the logical thing to do, is to embrace it. But the current sites are, in most cases, not that good. Harris says:

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.

I think he has a solid point, and we need to do something about this. Harris asks people to help construct a better online world. This is for the sake of our digital future. We have to think like architects, and create beautiful, worthwhile digital artifacts. When was the last time you cried because of a website?

So, in this speech, I was pronouncing that I would make a new, better social network site.Which is an arrogant thing to say, it’s completely out of my league. I know this. The following morning, I cringed when I thought about the things I said the day before (and my head was hurting a little). But the thing is, I want to be this digital world builder and build great things.

The thing that really bothers me about social networks sites is their hate of ambiguity. This is not their fault, it’s a computer characteristic. It’s nothing personal, it’s a binary thing. But the point is, social networks are personal. On Facebook, or any other similair site, you have to tell: I am this person with this hobby’s and this friends and I like this and this. And because you have to define yourself so clearly, you lose that subtlety. Further, you have to be more consistent than in real live, Facebook saves all your stuff, so it could happen that people will look in your history and say: ‘hey, today you say this and this, but last week you said, that and that.’ And people will ask you: ‘what do you mean? A or B?’

I personally love ambiguity and paradoxes; it gives this third dimension element to a person, place, event. But online ambiguity without providing a good context can be quite confusing and strange. So, a possible result is that people will simplify things. Or over explain things. And this is a loss. Life is messy and complex and not always that fun. This ‘Facebook reality’ is really unbelievable.

This is one of the reasons why I want to try to make this different, better construct. And maybe this is out of my reach. And stupid. And unbelievable naive. But maybe this is a good thing. When Linus Thorvalds started developing Linux he  thought it would be this small project. He posted literally:

Hello everybody out there using minix –

I’m doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won’t be big and professional like gnu) for 386 (486) AT clones. (Thorvalds, 1991)

He didn’t know how huge the project would become. How many people would help him. He just wanted to do this thing.

I am not Linus Thorvalds,  Mark Zuckerberg, or Jonathan Harris. I can’t compete with any of the big names. But that does not have to mean that it cannot be done.

My main point is: it’s time to start thinking about blue prints. Not about what a website is, but what it could be. The word ‘website’ is awful, you think about this very plain, boring thing. But it does not have to be like that (and sometimes it isn’t). I promised that over five years from now, I will have created something. I don’t know what, it’s still pretty vague to me. But I can’t guarantee that I will or that something works out. But I do guarantee that I will try.

Social media sites should be the slow food which is carefully prepared by a caring cook with skills and love and leave an emotional imprint of the cuisine, instead of the quick fast food that quickly fulfills short-term urges. It is time to rethink about what a site is and what a site could be.

And you know what? We can become these online architects. And maybe, someday, we will proudly be a digital tour guide, showing our children this great buildings and pointing to the stuff that makes you smile.

Sidenote: I asked some friends to review this text. I received great responses, which I am grateful for. But in almost all cases, they said: ‘you are making this point, but you don’t explain why Facebook is awful or give any example to improve it’. They were right, they are absolutely right. Thus I adjusted the piece a little bit. But still, I only rant, and provide no real solutions. My, somewhat lame response is, think like an engineer: see it as a challenge, not as a problem. And I hope that the people who are reading this will think: ‘Maybe her whole statement is a little vague, and she is way too much into metaphors, but you know? I will think about it.’ And that’s the only thing I ask: think about it. I am not planning to create from this day on, only awesome projects. That’s a paralyzing thought, I will never make a thing again. I will take one at a time. And maybe, gradually new solutions will arisen. That’s it.

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