Zain Shah

Communist Principles in Design

27 September 2012

I’d like to discuss a point of contention between myself and a close friend. He argues that Facebook should be more like MySpace or Tumblr, in that the users are allowed a great deal of customization and creativity with the design of their profile. Well, I disagree; it isn’t that I don’t believe in freedom, that all users are stupid, that users don’t deserve freedom over their accounts. I think it’s more of a freedom through constraint ideal. With too much freedom comes far too much responsibility; not that users aren’t entitled to full responsibility but, honestly, they don’t want it. Users want to be as productive/creative in this medium as they can be with the least amount of effort. Users already have complete freedom in this domain (the internet), they can make blogs, or even their own websites, and connect with whomever and whatever they like. The fact that they already had all these freedoms means they didn’t come to Facebook for more of the same; they joined Facebook to engage with others effortlessly. They don’t want complete freedom over how they design their layout. They want an easier, facilitated online social experience, and that’s what Facebook offers.

There’s an ideal middle ground between complete freedom and complete constraint, such that the user can be creative without working too hard. Imagine the case of an art competition with no theme, no rules, competitors are instructed to produce anything at all. Without any scope, any theme, any constraint, there is no starting point. It’s almost as though maximum creativity arises not from complete freedom but from working under constraint. Artists confine themselves to certain media, like Seurat with pointillism, or Picasso with cubism, to explore the medium’s potential to its extremes. Their constraints are what empower them, they are known for producing incredible art within those constraints; Picasso created beautiful illustrations with his blocky, geometric style and today gifted individuals can craft masterpieces like the Mona Lisa on an Etch-a-Sketch, or the Eiffel Tower out of toothpicks. Any constraint: time, money, medium, theme, empowers its creator to push boundaries and explore limits.

Back to the context of Facebook, the ideal is found at which the user doesn’t need to work hard to have a decent looking profile, or at least one that looks just as good as everyone else’s. Instead of focusing on the layout, the user is free to focus on the content. That’s the user’s art, the profile his canvas, the layout his constraint. Further, to the point of parallels between this and economics, imagine a social network with complete freedom to produce a page, like Webs; web designers would be nobility of the space, ruling over it with their gorgeous, well designed pages, while the ordinary user, the proletariat, struggle to produce something as beautiful. This is all and well when the design of pages is the focal point of the network, but rules and constraints need to be put in place when the content is the centerpiece. In the former network the designers have an advantage over the other users and so their content will appeal to a greater audience and be better received despite possibly being of equal or lesser quality. A network where everyone’s vanilla profile layout appears the same, but the content differentiates them provides the best medium for exploring and comparing that content. Different platforms, each isolating their users’ focal attribute would be ideal, with none of the compromises inherent in universality.