Design and the decentralization of web content

Websites are the predominant platform for most of the information we absorb. Of course, the site itself isn’t always the primary vehicle, with RSS having established itself as an alternate form of consumption, and search engines offering a similar yet broader form of aggregation. This has lead to two main content experiences. In one mode, content is presented in context of the full offering, as part of a structural framework reflecting the identity of the source. In the other, content is represented generically and modularly alongside content from other sources.

In respect to the first mode, the design of websites appears to be converging towards certain conventions, from the typical 3-column layout that most blogs adopt, to arrays of content represented by lists (Craigslist, Delicious) or grids (YouTube, Flickr). Many sites use any combination of the above. One could say that these conventions are the result of the attributes of certain established formats, such as the web browser, the particularities of HTML, and predominant screen sizes and resolutions. Other formats, such as mobile phones and touch displays, have accordingly resulted in their own conventions.

With these conventions comes a certain genericization of structure. One instance is the homogeneous grid, used for arrays of normalized content. The grid has become the default solution in any situation where page real-estate, flat hierarchies and the automation of content are relevant factors. With these considerations in mind, it is hard to imagine a more functional vehicle for content delivery. A grid of normalized content pieces also allows for quantitative visualization opportunities, demonstrated effectively by Pivot, a recent project of Microsoft Live Labs.

Pivot

Pivot

The homogeneous grid aside, other automatable patterns exist in situations where the content is more nuanced and hierarchical. Good examples are the Times Skimmer and the Times Reader, both of which emphasize featured articles in a flexible grid arrangement.

Times Reader

Times Reader

Grids and lists are a pure expression of a development that I think of as object-oriented design, in which taxonomies are derived from recurring content elements, for the purpose of automation. These forms of organization pertain when all content elements are of equal weight. Not coincidentally, they are also the way in which we are accustomed to viewing content in the case of aggregation—the second mode of content consumption.

One could make the argument that the influence of RSS and search engines, through their respective ease-of-use, has in fact provoked a shift in the design of websites towards normalization, which is to say that the design of websites is converging according to the organizational principles established by aggregation software.

If website structures are becoming more generic, wherein lies the role of design relative to the web?

We are, of course, accustomed to websites existing in various states and levels of detail. Many websites are already platforms with multiple touch points—the site itself; the RSS feed; the mobile or desktop application. Website design could increasingly revolve around individual content elements, rather than the larger, aggregating framework of the site or platform itself.

A “widgetization” of websites would be consistent with the decentralizing tendencies we are already observing, and would have the potential to preserve the identity of the content source at a micro-level, down to the individual piece of media. Of course, this is already happening in some areas: Embeddable content often conveys the identity of the original source. One has only to compare an embedded video from YouTube with a video from Vimeo or similar service. Tweets are also differentiated by design, due to their 140 character limitation.

Applied to all websites and forms of content, this change in focus could become truly paradigm-shifting, allowing for a decentralized content presence without a cumbersome and interchangeable main corpus. Might this in effect lead to a design strategy for linked data?

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