How the Web Designs Information

By | 2013/03/05

John Carroll, in Nicky Bleiel’s recent interview in Intercom, suggests that there has emerged a theory that the advent of the Web means that information does not need to be designed anymore:

I do think that techniques like crowdsourcing and search have caused, what I think, is a radical position that there is no need to design information anymore because it’s so abundant. We can rely on the crowd and search, and between the two we’re going to be able to generate such wondrous amounts of information.

I’m drawn back to a very old statement by Herbert Simon that I think comes from the ’60s where he said that in our age we have an abundance of information—that’s true—but we have a poverty of attention. This, I think, was much in our minds, even in our early work, and I think it’s a bigger problem now.

Online information is a huge resource and we do need to curate it. We do need to cultivate it, use it, and understand how people appropriate it, but we need to understand that people are overwhelmed by the amount of information.

Saying that the age of design is passed and now we can just rely on the Web and it will take care of things, I think, is just way more optimistic than I am. I think that information does need to be designed. Of course, we have to realize also we can’t design all the information on the Web. That’s loose and that is the new paradigm, so we do need to understand search. We need to integrate that into information strategies, but I don’t think a way to get started is to point people to a Web browser and say, “You’re on your own. There’s plenty of information there.” That’s true and that’s the problem.

This is the first time I have heard such a theory pronounced. If anyone knows of any document that states this theory explicitly, I would be interested to know about it. Carroll’s statement makes me wonder, though, if we are simply failing to recognize design on the Web because its form is unfamiliar.

Tech comm did not abandon readers to the Web. Readers abandoned tech comm for the Web. Image courtesy of Vlado /

Tech comm did not abandon readers to the Web. Readers abandoned tech comm for the Web. Image courtesy of Vlado /

One thing that needs to be said first, though, is that it is not the case that writers or companies have abandoned readers to the Web. What has actually happened is that readers have abandoned us for the Web.

Many companies are now recognizing that their customers are talking about them and their products on the Web, but the companies certainly did not push their customers there. No company came up with a social media strategy because it wanted its customers to use social media. Every company that has a social media strategy came up with it because their customers were already on the Web, and the company felt the need to engage with them there.

The idea that just won’t die here is the idea of information overload, the idea that people are suffering because there is too much information available on the Web. This kind of argument is very appealing if you are trying to make the case for restoring the old power structures of information in which a hierarchy of information brokers — writers, editors, publishers, librarians, booksellers — decided what information should be available to the public. But it simply holds no water when you look at how the world at large has flocked to the Web.

If people had an aversion to information overload, they could easily enough avoid it by staying off the Web. But people have voted with their feet, or, rather, with their fingers and with their eyeballs. They have embraced the Web. In David Weinberger’s words, they have expressed their preference to include it all and filter it afterward.

Indeed, if we look at how we use the Web, we quickly realize that the Web that we use is not so much a big collection of content, as a big collections of filters for content. Google is a filter, one that filters forward as well as filtering out. Twitter is a filter. Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Readit, and every other social site is a filter — you don’t read all of it, you read a filtered stream. Your RSS feed is a filter. Your email is filtered for spam. We hardly touch or see any content on the Web that has not passed through our filters first.

On paper, information design is monolithic and paternalistic. It is all about static structures  page layouts, indexes, tables of contents all specified by a supervising author. On the Web, information design is distributed and democratic. It is all about filters, about designing filters that work for you, and about designing content to work with the filters.

Black hat SEO is all about lying to filters. White hat SEO is all about telling the truth to filters. When people design web pages to be easily scanned, they are designing for the human filter. Designing for the Web is all about creating content that gets filtered in when it should be, and about creating filters that filter forward the right content when it is needed.

But the genius of the Web is that its multiple and overlapping filters have the power to find great content and filter it forward even if no white hat SEO had been employed. The Web is, in this sense, a very welcoming place for good information. It can take content that was not well designed in itself and collectively foster, echo, add to, enhance, comment on, and in many ways discover and highlight its virtues. Design on the Web is collaborative, and often collaborative in secret. But it is still design for all that.

Minimalism, Carroll’s great contribution to technical communication, has a great deal to teach us about how to design technical content that gets filtered in — that deserves to be filtered in. And Carroll is correct, too, in saying that in the age of the Web, information still needs to be designed. It does. But design on the Web is as much about the filter as about what is filtered. Content needs to be designed for the Web. The filters need to be designed for the content.

And, sometimes, both are designed by the Web itself through a 21st century version of the folk process. The Web itself acts as an information design engine, filtering forward and enhancing good content, filtering out and degrading bad content. The Web content that our Web filters filter forward for us is the content that has been designed for us by the Web.

It is not always, to be sure, the design of a single supervising agent, but the design of an ungoverned selection process driven by the needs, judgments, and contributions of the many.


5 thoughts on “How the Web Designs Information

  1. corey

    The process you describe may be less like a folk process and more like a form of ‘mechanical selection’ (as opposed to natural selection). The fittest content survives to reproduce.

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      Thanks for the comment, Cory. I think it’s both. There is a mechanical process and a social process that work together. Ideas get echoed and restated and improved (the folk process) and then both social and mechanical processes bring the best versions to the front.

  2. Ellis Pratt

    >This is the first time I have heard such a theory pronounced

    It may be me being thick, but which of the theories do you mean?

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      More likely me being opaque. I mean the theory to which Carroll calls the “radical position that there is no need to design information anymore because it’s so abundant.”

      I’ve never heard anyone assert that there is no need to design information anymore because it’s so abundant, which makes me suspect that Carroll is attacking a straw man. So I was wondering, has anyone heard that proposition asserted?


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