Smart-Asses and Outsiders

Perspectives of unsanctioned knowledge have value, write Paul Hazell and Kjetil Fallan, and allow for new ways to perceive design products and processes. A blog comment can harbor anyone’s words, and once there, removal would take a divine act of the internet gods (or, hey, just the blog’s moderator).

Whether driven by experts or novices, an online design forum gains traction by virtue of its everyday conversations. According to Johanna Drucker, design writing benefits from the democratic participation of differing “classes, academic writing and training, from outsiders or insiders, from smart-ass students or senior scholars,” and perhaps this single quote is a rallying cry for advancing design discourse. We may take it for granted that social media affords anyone to write anything, anytime, from nearly anywhere; a reminder that the internets are not only for celebrities and influencers.

But in the early 2000s, writing something for tens (thousands!) of others to read was a novel opportunity. For better or worse, blog participation involves a certain degree of self-awareness. These are public forums for debate and discussion, not privately tucked away, and they are also a crossing of cultural and societal wires. In his book The Bicycle DiariesDavid Byrne comments that “creative, social, and civic attitudes” will change based on where we live. Though our physical surroundings shape our outlook on so many things, online forums provide places that transcend those geographic boundaries. I can’t help but compare bicycling as slow living with blogs as slow social media. But that is for another time.

How have design readers represented themselves in design blogs? The public flavor of these places reveals itself in the ways people would sign off on their comments. Full name? First name only? Pseudonym, initials — maybe the nickname of a pet? The choice of self-identification was not entirely up to the reader, however. A site could require a full name to comment. And if one did not want to disclose one’s identity, they likely did not leave a comment. Given sign-in requirements and controversial topics, is democratic participation within the design community something we are practicing?