closedistances (closedistances) wrote in cmanthropology,

Web Design and the Virtual Panopticon

Since the CMA site has been mentioned in AAA E-News (Porter 2005), I have received a few e-mails and blog mentions (e.g. Golublog, TechnoTaste, Xirdalium) which compliment my site for its content but criticize it heavily for its web design. While I do not deny that there is plenty of room for improvement on the site, the criticism did raise some questions for me.

How is it that a website comes to be construed by individuals and groups as “good” or “bad”? While practical considerations are undeniable, culture surely has a large role to play as well: “Information designers know that the intangibles of culture are critical for user acceptance. They pay a lot of attention to colours, metaphors, patterns of argumentation, and appropriate types of evidence when dealing with multiple audiences in a single nation. Unfortunately, when faced with a mix of national audiences, the range of variation seems endless” (Gould 2000: 162). Others also recognize the importance of culture in mediating website interpretation as well:

Critics see media content as signs/representations/reflections of values and beliefs of a particular time and place or social group. Meaning is viewed as a social construct and messages are also decoded according to the social situation of those in the receiving audience…Websites, as cultural products, are signs of the society and time to which they belong. [Ramakatan & Clarke 2003: 2]

In my view, when you design with the cultural context in mind you are aware, or have an understanding of, the socially communicative side of the product, how it will be perceived by groups and individuals in society. [Johansson 2004: 2]

The upshot of this for web designers is that “there is a need for understanding the totality of user’s everyday life. There is an overrepresentation of information technology focused on helping us solving tasks and work related problems, a development which has resulted in designers focusing on functions that are efficient, time saving and generic” (Johansson 2004: 1; emphasis added).

The current global economic system has been claimed by some to promote “global mental homogenization” (Barndt 2002: 61), resulting in centralized authorities that “[impose] standardized notions of quality and taste in the creation of a national market” (Rosebarry 1996: 764). Rosebarry was talking specifically about coffee, but the principle holds for other products as well, such as tomatoes:

McDonald’s prefers to buy Florida beefsteak tomatoes that are pulpier, firmer, and easier to slice for a hamburger bun, while the tastier Mexican produce are juicier and more likely to fall apart. It is clearly a question of appearance and not taste. The draw of McDonald’s is often more the lifestyle, reflected in the glossy ads, billboards, TV commercials, toys, and videos that promote dominant popular culture…

Perfectly sliced tomatoes on a cookie cutter hamburger and bun are part of a global trend toward homogenized diets. In fact, the term McDonaldization is now equated with this rationalizing and homogenizing process, which is built on principles of efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control; other businesses and social institutions are increasingly modeled on practices similar to the fast-food restaurant. [Barndt 2002: 29]

Even the criminal justice system has been affected by McDonaldization (Robinson n.d.). Given all these symptoms, is it any surprise that that web design has a tendency towards being “generic”? Indeed, some sing the praises of such a development:

Design, by definition, is a plan. As such, it starts with an intention and it employs the elements most likely to bring about success. In this larger and more accurate view, there is no distinction between “design” and “strategy.”

The goal of “graphic design” could then be described as “the use of visual stimulus to bring about a desired effect.” And it is here that we distinguish between the common view of design (the beautification of content) and the appropriate and successful use of design (a catalyst for action). [Kalinowski 2004]

… productivity benefits from the electric motor took decades to reach fruition. The real breakthrough came from miniaturization and the possibility of rearranging the production process. Henry Ford, and the entire managerial team, were down on the factor floor every day fine tuning the flow of parts through the assembly line as they perfected the process of mass production.

The challenge facing us now is to re-engineer the flow of information through the enterprise. And not only within the enterprise—the entire value chain is up for grabs. Michael Dell has shown us how direct, digital communication with the end user can be fed into production planning so as to perfect the process of “mass customization.” [Varian 2003: 12]

The term “mass customization” seems reminiscent of strategies to market “diversity”, as demonstrated in Barndt’s discussion of tomatoes: “At the consumption end of the tomato chain…Loblaw’s role has been not only to sell us tomatoes but also to sell us an illusion of diversity” (Barndt 2002: 142).

Some have disputed the extent to which McDonaldization influences the Internet. Block, in his discussion of linguistic homogenization, notes: “predictions that English would dominate the Internet have proven overly pessimistic and that there is increasingly greater diversity” (Block 2004: 26). Meikle (2002) expresses concern about corporations trying to reduce the level of social interaction online to one-way flows of information, yet gives case studies of resistance and offers guarded optimism about the possibility of resistance. However, these examples do not invalidate my point; even non-English speaking online social movements may feel pressure to conform to hegemonic principles of web design. Indeed, Meikle writes that “[o]ne challenge for Internet activists…is to develop ways of telling stories which are issue-focused, without replicating the conflict-based narrative structure of the established media” (2002: 99). If there exists pressure to emulative the narrative structure, why would they not also feel pressure to reproduce the structure of presentation? Indeed, one web columnist listed defiance of design convention as one of the top-10 “mistakes” in web design:
The more users' expectations prove right, the more they will feel in control of the system and the more they will like it. And the more the system breaks users' expectations, the more they will feel insecure...

Jakob's Law of the Web User Experience states that "users spend most of their time on other websites."

This means that they form their expectations for your site based on what's commonly done on most other site. If you deviate, your site will be harder to use and users will leave. [Nielsen n.d.]

They may do more than just leave, however; criticism and ridicule are also viable strategies for dealing with a disliked site.

Some point out that “New more dialogical communication forms such as the Internet… offer new possibilities for choice of content and discovering diversity” (Featherstone 2004: 2). Perhaps, but the content and diversity available is limited by digital divide issues, as well as what Yelvington referred to as definitional power: “Power is manifested by the effects of specific attempts at domination and by exercises that define the social situation, that erect the ‘taken for grantedness’ of cultural meanings that is present in all social situations” (Yelvington 1995: 18). When turned against a social entity, definitional power can take the form of informal ways of limiting and excluding participation in public forums. Examples of such exertions of definitional power on the web include sites where approval or disapproval for particular sites is asked for or volunteered. Here are a few examples of this for web design:

Let me point out here that I am not taking an extreme relativist view and saying that any web design is just as valid as any other. There are certainly practical considerations that make certain site designs confusing and unappealing. Yet at the same time, it seems to me that the IT industry may be setting hegemonic standards of web design that go beyond practical considerations and are shaping our tastes in such a way that those who lack the training to create a site that lives up to these standards will be criticized, resulting in their message being tainted. Mary Douglas wrote: “Any given system of classification must give rise to anomalies, and any given culture must confront events which seem to defy its assumptions. It cannot ignore the abnormalities which its scheme produces, except at risk of forfeiting confidence” (Douglas 1966: 39). A site with worthwhile content but “poor” design may be considered such an abnormality, resulting in self-silencing. A comparison to Foucault’s discussion of the Panopticon may be fruitful: “Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary” (Foucault 1995: 201).

What I am trying to call attention to is best summed up in one of the responses to these critical blog entries, which said: “This is exactly why I don’t have my own site yet. I’d rather wait until I have the time to do it right, y’know?”

References Cited:

Barndt, Deborah
2002 Tangled Routes: Women, Work, and Globalization on the Tomato Trail. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Block, David
2004 Globalization, Transnational Communication and the Internet. International Journal on Multicultural Societies (IJMS) 6(1): 13 – 28.

Douglas, Mary
1966 Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Featherstone, Mike
2004 The Globalization of Diversity: Knowledge Formation and Global Public Life. UNU Global Seminar, “Living Together in Cultural Diversity”, Hayama, September 6-10th, 2004. Electronic document,, accessed April 19, 2005.

Foucault, Michel
1995 Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison. NewYork: Vintage Books.

Gould, Emilie W., Norhayati Zakaria, Sh~z Affendi Mohd. Yusof
2000 Applying Culture to Website Design: A Comparison of Malaysian and US Websites. Proceedings of IEEE professional communication society Pp. 161-171.

Johansson, Magnus
2004 Designing With Culture in Mind. MSc Thesis in Interaction design. Göteborg, Sweden.

Dan Kalinowski
2004 Design = Strategy. ITtoolbox Web Design. Electronic document,, accessed April 21, 2005.

Meikle, Graham
2002 Future Active: Media Activism and the Internet. New York: Routledge.

Nielsen, Jakob
n.d. Top Ten Mistakes in Web Design. Electronic document,, accessed April 23, 2005.

Porter, Noah
2005 Computer-Mediated Anthropology: Introducing a New Web Resource. AAA E-news (Apr 05): GENERAL ANNOUNCEMENTS sec. 5.

Ramakatane, MG and P. A. Clarke
2003 ANALYSIS OF CULTURAL AND IDEOLOGICAL VALUES TRANSMITTED BY UNIVERSITY WEBSITES. Electronic document:,%20MG%20&%20Clarke,%20PA%20Analysis%20of%20cultural%20and%20ideolo.pdf, accessed April 19, 2005.

Robinson, Matthew Barnett
n.d. How criminal justice is a lot like McDonald’s? Electronic document,, accessed April 19, 2005.

Roseberry, William
1996 The Rise of Yuppie Coffees and the Reimagination of Class in the United States. American Anthropologist 98(4 Dec.): 762-775.

Varian, Hal R.
2003 Economics of Information Technology. Electronic document,, accessed April 21, 2005.

Yelvington, Kevin A.
1995 Producing Power: Ethnicity, Gender, and Class in a Caribbean Workplace. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
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