Last month, Apple released the latest version of iOS, and with it, a new version of its hugely popular Messages app. Now, instead of sending just text, or photos, you can paper your conversation with stickers from third-party providers, animate your messages on the screen, and even select moving backgrounds — balloons or confetti — to signal intent.
If you believe that extensive features and customizability are admirable goals in a given app or website, then you’ll probably see the new Messages as an enormous success. But by basically any other standard, it is a mess: Users are hiding messages with stickers featuring Today Show anchors; simple questions and messages are now drowning in absurd laser-light animations. This was an easily predictable outcome. (In fact, *extremely not-bragging voice*, I predicted it four months ago.) The fact of the matter is that when you put powerful tools in the hands of amateur users, they will always use them — surprise! — amateurishly.
Technology companies are deeply invested in design, understandably. They want to sell their products to everyone, and they want those products to be easy to use. It’s an audience of millions, maybe billions, with diverse tastes and interests, so simplicity and clarity are important. Google has stuck to a clean white background and solid colors for the past two decades; Apple was lauded for its simple product design under Steve Jobs. Just yesterday, Google announced its Pixel phone and other gadgets, hardware that will be produced in-house in order to ensure consistency in quality and compatibility. (They are, aggressively, no longer just a software company.)
The multimedia we consume online is an entirely different story. YouTube videos and Instagram posts are user-generated content. UGC, as it’s known, is out of the control of the large tech platforms and all of it is some form of communication. For UGC, the question of how a message gets across is less important than whether the message gets across at all.
The broadest category of UGC on the web is memetic content: memes that get passed around and iterated on, and remixed hundreds of thousands of times. Their democratic nature, and easily accessible tools that allow anyone to participate, have led to an aesthetic that Nick Douglas coined “Internet Ugly.”
The ugliness of the amateur internet doesn’t destroy its credibility because it’s a byproduct of the medium’s advantages (speed and lack of gatekeepers), and even its visual accidents are prized by its most avid users and creators. As opposed to media like TV or print, where the amateurish is marginalized and audience attention centers on mainstream blockbusters, the internet is built to give outsized attention to the amateurish, the accidental, and the surprise hit.
In 2009, Wired published a piece that, for me, explains the entire look and feel of the web. In “The Good Enough Revolution,” Robert Capps writes about how consumer technology’s most important market was the middle ground. MP3s delivered inferior sound quality to compact discs’, but their ease of use made them a preferred format for millions. At that time, most streaming video was of considerably lower quality than you could find on TV, but YouTube and Hulu were still finding large audiences. The Flip video camera created a point-and-shoot market for video that was wildly successful (until smartphone camera quality killed it).
The world has sped up, become more connected and a whole lot busier. As a result, what consumers want from the products and services they buy is fundamentally changing. We now favor flexibility over high fidelity, convenience over features, quick and dirty over slow and polished. Having it here and now is more important than having it perfect.
He was writing about consumer technology but you can really expand that out to cover the entire World Wide Web, which is vibrant and cacophonous and a professional designer’s worst nightmare.
“Good enough” explains our current mode of shareable images, ones with heavily distorted colors, laden with compression artifacts, and growing blurrier and blurrier with each share. In 2014, these types of digital decay, exacerbated by the heavy amounts of sharing and data transmission on social media, were coined “shitpics.” Freebooted videos with watermarks like @the.funny.vines.insta suffer the same fate. Their level of fidelity doesn’t have to be high, its contents just have to be legible. In other words, good enough.
Think about GeoCities, whose rough visual was Comic Sans and blink tags and scrolling marquee texts. That’s a product of comparatively primitive tools, but I would argue that it’s also a product of the fact that most people were setting up personal sites to show to their friends and family, not to the entire world. They weren’t running a business, they were sending an intimate message.
This cycle has repeated itself over and over again. MySpace came along, and its users hacked together BBCode and HTML to change their color template, and add garish Blingee GIFs, and include MIDI pop punk that auto-played forever. Did these design choices really matter though? Nope! Because your audience, theoretically infinite, was actually a few dozen personal acquaintances.
The open, customizable, shit aesthetic of the internet was so strong that for years, users petitioned Facebook to let them customize their profiles. Defunct pages and long-vanished groups with names like “Change you [sic] profile color in just a few easy steps!!!” and “How to change the colour of your Facebook Profile! :)!!!” litter the network. In fact, Facebook’s relative aesthetic unshittiness was a big selling point in the early days. If you hate hearing Sum 41 every time a MySpace link loads, come on over to Facebook.
No matter how advanced and polished these platforms are, once users get their hands on it, the platform will trend toward shit. It’s happening again with online video. Back in January, I argued that unless platforms want to accept the heavy bandwidth costs of processing video themselves, users will be able to customize it however they want. Already, HUD-centric streaming services like Twitch are filled with crowded video feeds that resemble a cyberpunk CNBC — a collage of tickers and pop-ups and sound effects, sometimes set to an EDM audioscape. It doesn’t matter that for even the most popular Twitch streamers, there is room for improvement in terms of visual representation and fidelity, simply because they have an audience that already understands what’s going on.
The internet’s overall aesthetic — its trend toward shit — stems from the oft-ignored fact that an overwhelming majority of users already know their target audiences. Technology companies make things simple and clean because they want new users. The vast majority of technology users don’t want that. That’s how you end up with iMessage users lovingly trolling their friends with text-obscuring stickers. It’s also how we arrive at more sinister iterations like Chart Brut, a term coined for the cluttered, MS Paint–adorned conspiracy-theory charts that floated around during the heyday of Gamergate. “What’s so wonderful about these 4chan charts, drawn up by one anonymous author, is how perfectly they mirror the entire group that created them,” he wrote. “You can’t refute a 4chan chart because it’s not arguing anything to begin with. People who order the world in this way don’t want to have a real discussion about anything.”
The user base for popular modern technology is composed of amateurs; amateur writers, amateur designers, amateur photographers and film editors. This makes sense. Consumer technology is, after all, meant to make things easier. It’s meant to put activities and skills that once required specialized knowledge within the reach of the common man. But technology companies cannot dictate how people use those tools without depriving them of options entirely. Apple and Facebook directed users by limiting choice — message contents, interface layout, and so on. This was because they know that as soon as you give users choice, they cannot be steered in a preferred direction. Apple is smart enough to know that its new Messages features are susceptible to abuse and misuse, but it also knows this vital corollary: that its misuse is directed at friends, family, and acquaintances, people who won’t mind the jankiness. Who cares how annoying a message is when its recipient is always ready to forgive you?