30 January 2013

A slower web makes for softer identities

I’m not saying that search-phrase-laden websites and Limited Online Specials and an email Inbox overflowing with notifications, offers and invitations will be going away any time soon. They won’t. We all like a little sugar every now and then, and the web can hit that sweet spot when we want it to - the cat video industry will continue to thrive.

Photograph of a cobweb taken by Larry Hynes on a frosty morning.

Timely not real-time. Rhythm not random. Moderation not excess. Knowledge not information. These are a few of the many characteristics of the Slow Web.


I hadn’t put that name on it until I read Jack Cheng’s article, quoted above, entitled “The Slow Web”. (He, in turn, references a piece by Rebecca Blood who credits Jim Emerson with mention of a Slow Internet Movement, akin to the Slow Food phenomenon.) Certainly, the way that I interact with the web has changed considerably. Some of those changes include:

  • Unsubscribing from ALL email newsletters.
  • Being very selective about blogs and feeds that I follow
  • Leaving Facebookistan
  • Taking a break from twitter
  • Dramatically reducing my mainstream news intake online
  • An ongoing cull of online services I use

So let’s call that a part of a slower web. Granted, at the time, it just felt like survival. I was swimming—no, drowning—in information and couldn’t help but feel that I was somehow losing a race, missing out, being left behind. Or, in the words of James Hague, the background noise was louder than I realised. Rian van der Merwe refers to “A Life Less Posted”. The Irish Times refers to reclaiming one’s brain from the internet age. It must be a thing. I am not alone.

Here’s Erik Hess writing about the pace of thought online:

…every day the internet tempts us to knee-jerk and rage-quit and first-post the best answers, jokes or insightful comments of the moment, only to forget them a moment later.


If you’re wondering just what A Life Less Posted feels like you could do worse than follow (writer for The Verge) Paul Miller’s adventures as he spends a year without the internet. (He was a 16-hour-a-day man.) Jake Davis, a young Shetland Islander found guilty of online shenanigans with Anonymous and LulzSec and expressly forbidden online access as part of his sentence, says in The Guardian:

In a word, life is serene.

That’s a big statement from one so young and so bathed in online culture. I think it’s fair to say that this emergent web, a small but growing bulkhead in a digital maelstrom, is not just slower but it is gentler. Broader in its emotions. More subtle. A few more shades in between those internet perennials, scorn, outrage and laughter.

Nicole Sullivan, a top-level geek with Yahoo!, has worked in some scorn-sodden online valleys and emerged saying “Don’t feed the trolls”. This is just one of the lessons we are learning about life online. And our changing online behaviour is altering our ‘real-world’ behaviour. Sullivan has tweeted :

I got a proper alarm clock. Feels awesome not to have the iphone in my bedroom. Score for sleep hygiene.

Joe Kraus, a partner with Google Ventures, someone you might imagine evangelising about ‘always on-ness’ mentions Slow Tech in a presentation entitled ‘We’re creating a Culture of Distraction’.

I want to ask people a simple question: are you happy with your relationship with your phone. Do you think it’s a healthy one?

asks Kraus, and I think it’s fair to say that mine is getting healthier. I no longer leave it out on the table when I’m sharing a meal with someone. I’ve removed all the social apps so I no longer fill any spare moments with updates, status checks and timeline scrolling. I’ve disabled all alerts. (I use the device, the device isn’t using me). I no longer take photographs because I think ‘they’ll like that on Facebook’, I take photographs that I like. I have time to think.

And I have time to feel.

Hannah Donovan is a creator of This is my Jam which, at least, forced people to pick one music update and stick to it for a while. She writes, in a guest post for A List Apart:

Some time ago I realized, with mild panic, that our always-on, real-time communication channels weren’t going away. As I was gulping down the day’s feeds along with my morning coffee, it occurred to me that even if I wanted to, I couldn’t really opt out. My refresh twitch is so habitual now it’s almost hard to remember just how experimental things like the early days of Twitter felt.

I remember mornings like that, the iPhone beside my bed could keep me occupied until 10am, with follow-ups going on at my desk, at which point the synapses were firing at RPMs that didn’t lend themselves to sitting down to calmly think and do. Not any more, thank you.

Another Guardian article, written by Tracey McVeigh, says:

The latest trend on the internet is to step away from the internet, according to a growing band of American technology leaders and psychologists for whom the notion of the addictive power of digital gadgets is gaining sway.

Yes and no. I have found that in ‘stepping away from the internet’ I have gone deeper into parts of it. The connections that I am making now are more important, deeper and—I hope, longer-lasting.

It’s not just social

Eric Meyer is an internet cornerstone all to himself. His deep understanding of the language that styles the web, CSS, gave us his CSS-reset which became an informal but almost universally adopted web standard. He writes about the difficulties of being left behind by Apple’s upgrade path. I have shared his pain. His article wasn’t an unfocused rant, it was a rational, well-written, piece about a very real problem. (Interestingly, as an aside, Eric has his social links under the heading ‘Identity Archipelago’.) It was an article that I could connect with.

MG Siegler, no stranger to the web, writes in a similar vein that Google’s Chrome is becoming bloated, and is suffering due to its release schedule. I can sympathise with him: I once switched away from Firefox because it seemed like every time I opened it there was a new update or two available.

The lesson seems to be don’t get comfortable using a digital tool, it will evolve out from under you or leave you in a dead end. Or maybe we’ll just all settle on a browser and that will be that: browser will be as widely accepted as shovel or paper-clip, we’ll know exactly what to expect. Or, you know, maybe we won’t be browsing any more. But the pace of getting ‘there’ is making being ‘here’ a little uncomfortable.

Either way, when it seems like everything’s getting faster, it might be a good time to slow down.

What does this mean for your identity?

Everything, as it happens. Once upon-an-internet your logo would have been animated, 3D-ified, drop-shadowed and generally made to behave like an animate object. But it was the logo that got all the love, up there in the Top Left Corner proudly proclaiming that your business was On The Internet. That’s not really going to cut it anymore. We need not be afraid of expressing some emotion. Telling folk how you feel about what you do will have a big impact on how they feel about you. There’s more to online emotion than Win! or Fail!

Designers use colour and tone to convey emotion. We understand the subtle nuances of typographic rhythm. We harness words. We express emotion visually. We’re good at this stuff!

Now is a great time to look beyond your logo and see what other elements you can use to express yourself online. Compare your offline, printed, identity with your online one and aim for some deeper alignment.

If you need some help in slowing down, you could do worse than read Leo Babauta on How to Reclaim your Attention or Brett Harned on Defeating Busy.