Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
–Walt Whitman, Song of Myself
When a scab comes off but isn’t quite ready, look: there is a fleshy ring of pink healed skin encircling fresh white cells that may not yet be primed for air. It stings. There is a pause before the tiny pinpricks of blood vessels begin to flood the white skin with blood. And soon, there will be another scab, until what is underneath is ready for the air.
Our job as designers is to look, to be ready before everything else. We have to be comfortable describing the uncomfortable in order to get past the barriers blocking us from seeing what is happening underneath. And we must recognize those split moments in our collective conscious when we are able to see something significant and true about ourselves. But we have to have the courage to look. And to keep looking.
There have been some moments lately, sometimes happening right on top of one another, that seem to reveal contradictory human experiences.
On one hand, we have Frank Chimero writing about turning his personal site into “the internet version of a quiet, cluttered cottage in the country.” We can relate. We were raised on charcoal pencils, William Faulkner, hot drinks and loud music. We are overwhelmed by the limitless library that is the Internet today, the ability to learn any discipline to any depth anywhere at any time. It feels good to think about running away to start a one-family vegetable garden with a shaggy dog that accompanies you on long walks away from the Internet.
Maybe we do not run there because nobody knows what this cottage looks like in real life. Does it have a door? Does it have windows? If it is cluttered, will it be organized chaos, where only we are able to find what we are looking for? I close my eyes and have a notion as to what my cottage feels like, what it smells like. My great-grandmother’s afghan quilts are there. The ceiling is wooden so that when it rains you can really hear it. There is paper everywhere, all different shades and textures and ages of paper. But I have no idea what it looks like to other people.
I open my eyes and I ask myself, why have it online if it is private, if it is just for me? If it is just about me?
The Kellers controversy, a husband and wife journalist duo who in separate publications critiqued Lisa Bonchek Adams for live-tweeting her stage IV breast cancer, reveals something different about our online selves: how some people equate privacy with dignity and how others value privacy as an act of generosity, as a gift so that we may connect with others.
What I love about the blog and my twitter group here is that it really is a group. A community. Support, laughs, education, sharing. Love it
— Lisa Bonchek Adams (@AdamsLisa) January 17, 2014
Unlike Chimero, or Glaser or Rand or Kalman or Scher or any of these lone designer heroes, there is an equally vibrant opposing desire to have a loud, crowded cottage, a place where everyone comes to see you. A place where your friends are (where your hundreds of friends are, because you don’t have to be limited by the number of people who can sit at your dinner table since they are online, since they are everywhere).
Designing for this type of humanity isn’t easy because these are not two different subsets of people. They are me. They are you. We want our privacy, but we want our ability to connect as well. We do not fit so easily into UX designers’ personas or a defined audience.
My dad used to quote Walt Whitman all the time, probably forgetting he had already quoted him thrice before. His favorite was this: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”
The entire poem itself is lovely (initially self-published by the way) – observational, introspective, visceral. I believe we want more of these feelings and experiences online, that we want the Internet to behave more like a human – perhaps more like poetry – yet here we are designing for content management systems and fake personas and validated user experiences. If we are spontaneous, it is planned spontaneity. If we are playful, it is constructive play.
I believe what Chimero is getting at, and what the Kellers may not believe is possible online, is that we need to find a way for the Internet to help us understand every facet of ourselves and each other better.
I am not sure exactly how to do that, but I think the web is wide enough – evolving like other disciplines such as art and literature – that there is no final, right answer. The one thing that rings true is that we need a broader range of experiences.
This means going beyond Facebook-style interactions. It means spending more time philosophizing about what our online interactions communicate. It means considering what is right and appropriate for each task we are designing, not just looking at a pattern library or asking a few people if it works – it means really looking at what might be dark and uncomfortable so that we can see and understand ourselves better.
Designing for multitudes is not just today’s task, either. It is every day’s task from here on out. The real challenge for designers will be to stop simplifying the human experience and to embrace it in all its clutter, confusion, contradiction and change.