In the early days of the web, we had at first an explosion of difference in GUIs and devices. Gradually, opportunities for uniqueness and personalisation shrank. The majority of smartphones look and act pretty similarly. Most websites and user interfaces act and look predictable and familiar.
A certain level of polish is expected in all apps, programs and websites now, and this is a barrier to entry, but is that necessarily a bad thing? Lots of apps, both with and without polish, lack accessibility, internationalisation, poor internet speed/connection concerned, etc features and are politely to overtly hostile to asks for them. The widespread use of frameworks and templates means everything looks the same, but also means that things are faster to build and the UX and UI of the end result is often better than if someone made it up from scratch. Using an accessible/internationalised/insert concern here template would mean that it should in theory be easier to build upon good foundations.
Things like mobile phones and thus viewports all being the predictable sizes and shapes has helped web development, but at what cost? We lose a lot of creativity, fun, excitement, and perhaps even innovation in the less janky looking and acting web. Beginners are put off by what looks like (and of course in many cases actually is) an incredibly high standard that looks impossible to achieve alone. New ways of building a thing are put off due to constraints that require that it looks and behaves like something that exists already.
Market pressures and VC-driven "pattern matching" – the phenomenon of funders looking at past successes in their portfolio to decide who will do well in the future – leading to a rise of "it's like Uber but for Airbnb" companies helmed by a doppelgänger fleet of cis straight non-disabled rich white university dropouts (who are also usually men) hasn't helped. We've increasingly become trapped in walled gardens online, without customisation, controllable personalisation, interoperability or even the ability of non-users to peer over the garden walls in some cases. They feed everyone a same-but-different mix of palatable, aggravating, compelling content.
This leads to a pervasive myth of a monoculture online. "Everyone" is talking about Y or Z, when in fact it's a circle of people on TikTok who are talking about it a lot, or a trend in a small corner of Instagram. Originality is dead online; both discouraged and often seen as impossible, summed up by a trend/meme I've often related to: "I've never had an original thought in my life".
Algorithms - which is to say massive social media and web search companies - have no skin in the game of providing the most useful, personal growth inspiring results for a given query. They're incentivised to get you to click on the highest bidder; an advertiser.
I suppose more janky, broken, ugly, chaotically creative tech would be one of the side effects of a big tech retreat from the open internet, and more and more I'm beginning to think that's okay. Education in the ways to avoid building things that are actively hostile to users people attempting to browse and live their best lives online should be widely, freely available. Education in how to build a janky, silly, slow app that no one but you will ever look at should be as easy to find too.
The difference between innovation, learning and a massive mess can be a change in perspective and the ability to navigate it. I hope we can equip everyone who wants them with the tools to orient themselves, and chart new paths forward in tech.
This piece is part of my attempt at Alphabet Superset, a 6-month creative challenge. Other posts so far: abolition, bump, boost, culture, discussion, and english.