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Sunday, May 11, 2014

You Do Want To Express Yourself, Don't You?

Tumblr, it seems, is bucking the trend on the Web toward one size fits all.  Tublr founder David Karp says the Web used to be chaotic and messy, to be sure, but also more fun, and personal.  Back in the salad days of the Web (before, say, the early 2000s), the lack of standards meant more of your personality and creativity could be expressed on blogs and websites.  Today, the utilitarian focus in the Valley, and the engineer's mindset of efficiency and control, have slowly squeezed out such possibilities, ironically rendering a Web obsessed with buzzwords like "personalization" must less personal.

Karp's not a lone voice here, either.  Jaron Lanier, Virtual Reality pioneer and author of the 2010 hit You Are Not A Gadget argues the same point.  In fact, Lanier's critique--first in YANAG then in his 2013 sequel Who Owns The Future?--is more trenchant than the milquetoast remarks from Karp bemoaning the cookie-cutter trends on the modern Web.  Lanier, for instance, thinks that so-called Web 2.0 designs favor machines and efficiency, literally at the expense of "personhood" itself.  For Lanier, the individual creator has no real home on the Web these days, as sites like Facebook force people to express their personalities in multiple choice layouts and formatted input boxes.  To Lanier, these surface designs evidence even deeper attacks on personhood, like redefining the very notion of "friend" to something shallow and unimportant.  The Web is dominated by a "hivemind" mentality where no one person really matters, and the collective is serving some greater purpose, like building smarter machines.  The Web, concludes Lanier, is set up to capture the machine-readable features of people for advertising purposes and other demeaning anti-humanist ends, not to enlarge and empower them as individuals.

Still, if you're a Lanier fan, Mr. Karp's remarks seem headed in the right direction, even if only because you can now customize the look and feel of your Tumblr blog on your mobile device.  But the deeper question here is whether you have anything much to say on a blog in the first place, and whether the Web environment is cordial and prepared to hear it, if you do.  Maybe Tumblr's counter-steer is minimal, but one hopes that further and more meaningful changes are still to come.

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