C’mon Over to My URL

In the early 2000s, the DSL lines were buzzing with traffic to pioneer design blogs like Design Observer and Speak Up. These were places to go without ever leaving my desk. Or sofa. Everyone seemed to know so much. Some people expressed humor while others cast shadows of doubt or murmured support. For every thought shared, just as many ideas remained silent. This place (a URL, yes, just a URL, with its three-column layout and webfont readability and the cool masthead and comments below the fold) was a design destination worth a return trip.

Geographer Yi-Fu Tuan describes place as an object in which one can dwell. Space, he says, gives us mobility within a network of places. Our perception of websites as locales is as old as the mainstream adoption of the internet. In describing blogs as part of our social fabric, Jodi Dean uses the term blogipelago to differentiate them from other forms of mass media (like television or radio). Each blog is an island is a public sphere is connected to other blogs. Repeat.

Design blogs, particularly before the launch of social media, are such public places. That’s not to say we didn’t have outlets before blogs. Periodicals of design writing like U&lc (ceased in 1999) and Design Issues (ongoing), for example, have long held ground as published objects of authority. And yet, as editor Katie Salen notes in the first issue of Zed, this practice also posed a problem: “[w]e have wrapped our conversations tightly around ourselves, blankets of white noise offered with expectations of sameness.”

Power had begun to shift. Echoing the egalitarian potential of a revolution-era coffee house, online design forums sparked debate and discussion among many. Each URL gained (or lost) popularity through the topics posted, and the conversations addressing them: design aesthetics, business, gender and identity, politics, and more. Through these places, a certain amount of self-awareness made its way into readers and this, in turn, presents another phenomenon: design readers, now conversing online (and many, perhaps, seen as outsiders to design criticism) had become public performers of design writing.