Netdiver magazine

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Web stars speak

/ Interview with Christopher Robbins

Christopher Robbins is a thinker, author/activist + (web) designer

Chris will soon be off to Fiji to help start an Interactive and Multimedia Centre at the University of South Pacific. For now he’s still in rainy ol’ London, where he recently wrote a few chapters for Friends of Ed’s Director 8.5 Studio, pens regular rants at webactivism, and occasionally pontificates in front of a crowd at one of the many "underground" web events London tends to host.

His studio is Grögraphics and one of his projects won the SXSW2001 Best Design Award -> Design history in a box, which was finalist for Best Online Educational Resource, too.

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/ How were you first introduced to the internet?

Using gopher to finger old friends and nemeses in the Pysch lab around midnight.

/ Do you remember your first impression of the internet?

Cool! I can finger my friends and nemeses in the Psych lab around midnight! To be fair, I wasn’t aware that this was the Internet, or even of the existence of the Internet at the time. The first time I was aware of using the Internet was on the World Wide Web, and I thought, “I think I’ll stick to print. You can’t smell or touch this stuff.”

/ You are an *internet activist*, what exactly does it mean?

Activist is a term that gets bandied about quite loosely these days, and what I’m doing at webactivism, for all my good intentions, is not something I would truly consider activism. For me, true activism involves creating positive alternatives in addition to the usual whistle-blowing and awareness-raising we associate with the activist. My role at webactivism.org would be more aptly described as pseudo net-intellectual, Internet politics news-monger, critic or stirrer. It’s more a site about webactivism than activism per se.

People who embody Internet activism for me are people like Ian Clark, who started FreeNet, an anonymous network. Or the people behind the many anonymizers, which allow people in countries with restrictions on free speech to access and post on the Internet. Ev (Williams), whose Blogger has opened content-creation on the web to a much less tech-literate population, is also someone who I’d consider an Internet Activist, whether that is his intention or not. And of course Jeffrey Zeldman, who didn’t stop at whingeing about the lack of standards-adherence in browsers, but pressured the big browser boys into making those standards a reality.

The last time I felt I was doing anything I would truly consider activism was when I worked in Africa for a few years.

/ Looking at your track record, you have a *multiple path* education. Why?

Because there’s so much out there; why restrict ourselves to one narrow aspect of this world? So I studied Psychology, then Japanese, then Illustration, into Art welding and finally Computer Graphics and Interactive Media. And somewhere in there I spent a few years in West Africa as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

/ What was your initial profession?

Well, my first job title was “Rural Community Development Worker, Peace Corps, Benin, West Africa”. Illustration and Design (specifically Iconography) actually had a large role in that position, and when I returned to the states (US) my first profession was Design.

/ Describe how your love for the web started and present profession.

What first made the web click for me was the realization that I could exercise both the math side and the art side of my mind here. My love was completely craft-based, what I could do with it. I’d always drawn comics, and now I suddenly had sound and motion and interaction to add to my cadre for storytelling. Plus there was the exhibitionist ego side of it, anybody with a dial-up could see this!

For the first year or so, I spent pretty much no time on the web other than seeking help with code. I loved web building, but wasn’t particularly interested in web browsing. And I didn’t see how something that only a few percent of the world’s population could access could be considered a tool for "the people."

Now, while I still recognize that this is primarily a tool for the elite, it does extend the grasp quite a bit further from traditional points of influence. It’s someplace where big companies and powerful people aren’t necessarily at an advantage over the individual. I started learning more about the philosophies of the creators of the web, and saw how the way the web was wired had helped keep these philosophies alive in the web through its contortions. I started to see it not merely as a medium to be exploited, but as a sort of wonderful endangered creature that needed to be protected.

Although my first impression of the Web was that it wasn’t tangible enough, it’s presence has grown within in me almost like a living creature, or a beloved natural park. As I enjoy building and helping it grow, I also feel very strongly that there are certain ways we should treat this thing, and making a living with it while still giving it the respect it deserves is always a delicate balancing act.

/ Tell us about Grögraphics and the projects you like to get involved in.

Grographics is simply my commercial face on the web. It’s the venue through which people can reach me when they want to pay me to do something design or web related. I generally like to get involved in educational projects, work for Museums, Schools or Non-profits. A lot of my personal sites are conventionally educational (www.designhistoryinabox.net , www.iconicon.co.uk), and my most recent obsessions theysaysmall, www.faxwerk.org, explore internet concepts like the living network and information theory through a less pedagogic approach. My approach here is to create an imaginary world that the user uncovers, coming to terms with the concepts of the work as they reveal that imaginary world in which the sites supposedly exist.

Once I’ve got my latest obsession running, I’m interested in creating a conflict resolution simulation, a game of sorts that lets people explore the dynamic of countries in crisis. It’s kind of like a SimCity in which you start with a society in crisis, and acting as an external party, try to bring that conflict to a close.

I’d also like to get involved with Web Work that brings the web out of people’s home computers and into everyday life. Web interventions in the urban environment, for example, or exploring ways that the web can be integrated in more social ways.

/ What do you look for when hiring?

Multi-disciplinary folks. You get much more creative solutions when people have learned to look at things from a few different perspectives.

/ What makes for a good web site?

Love or utility.

/ How did you first get involved with web design?

I was doing print at a company that wanted to build a new media team, and studying Art at Pratt Institute in New York. I made sure I was among those selected to start the new media team, and once I discovered the delights of this medium, I switched over to the Computer Graphics and Interactive Media program at Pratt.

/ Why do use Flash?

I use flash when motion or advanced scripting is going to be a big part of a piece.

/ How did you first get involved in content publishing?

I was making lots of stuff in Director and putting it on CDs, and I realized I could reach a lot more people if I had this stuff on the web. When I started learning about the history and the philosophies behind the Internet and the web, and started delving into net-theory for inspiration in my work, I found I had quite a lot of opinions and perspectives I wanted to share with people, so I started webactivism.org.

/ How did you first get involved with web standards? How do web standards relate to a designer's day-to-day activities?

I’m going to have to step back and get a bit pedantic to answer this. The World Wide Web was created to use an impartial network for universal access. Standards were created to make these goals a reality. If the coders code to these agreed-upon standards, and browser-makers adhere to these accepted standards, we can all be assured that our stuff will work. Some bloke can make his toaster into a web-device if he follows these standards.

The problem was, the big browser-makers didn’t fully adhere to these standards. They created browsers that read the web their way, so that pages coded to standards would often display improperly in their browsers. These browsers became so powerful that their standards started to usurp the accepted ones. We had these official standards sort of floating above the web, but the fact was the big browsers dictated how we had to code if we wanted people to view our work.

But the power of standards has always been in the developer’s hands. If we only code to standards, and we all do this in unison, then a browser-maker has no choice but to support them, or else their browser will not work. So by coding to standards in our day-to-day work, we are leveling the playing field for the little guy, allowing new ways of experiencing the web to be created without trying to mimic what one or two specific browsers have done. We do have the power of making standards a reality. We can alter the balance of power, but only if we agree to do it together.

The sticky part about standards is that the greatest innovation in technology comes from subverting that technology, by using that technology in a way not previously considered. Every medium has benefited by people rethinking how it can be used. When Orson Welles moved the camera, changed focus, zoomed in and out during a single sequence, he revolutionized film-making. This happened not because of a change in technology, but because of a change in thinking about that technology.

Even back in the caveman days, a rock was just a rock until someone hit someone over the head with it. And when that newly-christened bludgeoning tool was first used to scratch pictures into another rock, writing was born!

So I’m a bit leery about closing our minds to experimentation with how we code. Something that is new is by definition non-standard. I guess the bottom-line is we should never use any proprietary markup, none of those silly Microsoft fades, and we should support standards without letting the w3c.org validator close our minds.

/ What makes a good team?

Talent and love, of course, but without the right kind of process, even a really talented group of people will not make a good team. I’ve found that overlapping skills and a respect for the project as a shared whole are two very vital but less obvious ingredients to a good team.

Process-lead experimentation is vital to all creative work. In a group, this individual exploration can fragment the piece into separately developed chunks, and the real goal is to nurture these explorations without losing site of the big picture. When people have shared skills as well as individual skills, the meandering paths of a project tend to come together better than if everyone is experimenting in their own little corners. The members have respect for each other’s input, but consider the project as a whole to belong to the team as a whole. You start getting into trouble when the process is so segmented that people feel they own a particular part of the project, and bristle when others try to change it. Every project grows as it is developed, usually outside the initial scope, and this is healthy. But if the teamwork is too assembly-line, this growth serves to sever the pieces of the project from each other.

/ Describe what is *inspiration*.

A lot of people consider Inspiration to be the “Eureka!” that leaps at us out of nowhere, but for me inspiration is something that comes out only in the right circumstances. Inspiration is a rat that chews through your eardrum and runs amok in your head when you’re wandering around somewhere you shouldn’t really be. It gnaws its way in when you let yourself slip away a bit. Like looking at something a bit too long. Or dallying around the fringes of a project, exploring some aspect that you couldn’t necessarily rationalize as being applicable to your task at hand. Recently I’ve found that with theory I can actually fish those rats out of the ground and coax them into my head myself!

/ Describe what is a top-notch client.

A top-notch client expects perfection, respects that I can bring in new insight to his work, and is well aware that he understands his company or goals much more intimately than I ever will. A top-notch designer does the same.

/ How do you protect clients from their own bad taste?

I generally try to keep the brief away from application. If I see a client is starting to specify an application of his or her goals, I make us trace that application back to it goals to see if we can’t find another way of achieving those goals. Even if the application initially strikes me as perfect, I still feel it’s a necessary exercise to pull it back and extrapolate the application from the goals.

For instance, the client wants a big flash intro. I won’t snap “God NO!” I’ll ask what he or she wants to achieve from that splash, what the goal is. It’s probably got something to do with providing a strong brand presence at the outset, or maybe they just want to liven it up. Together we pull some goals out of the idea, specifying them to a degree that makes the client feel comfortable. Sometimes the client will be satisfied with a set of goals for you to run from; other times they won’t be happy until they’ve got an application down. While I strongly believe crafting the application of the goals is a role best suited to the creative team, sometimes you’ve got a client who wants a strong hand in the application process. If you’re deriving that application from the goals together, it will be better than some knee jerk keeping-up-with-the-Jones’ preconception the client had before really thinking through the project.

/ Have you been invited to web related events. Can you tell us why?

I tend to analyze everything more than is particularly useful, or even healthy. I see precedents in everything. And while I can sometimes get so wrapped up in my abstracted mind-frame that I lose touch with what I was talking about in the first place, I can often pull some interesting frames of reference out of these mind-trips.

The handful of times I’ve been invited to speak at web-related events have been because one of my mind-trips expressed the goals of the event in a novel way. This industry is not exactly known for its academic rigor, so a little time spent contemplating what exactly we’re doing here can go a long way.

/ Is branding an important issue online?

Branding is important everywhere for companies. But it’s not about finding the best web safe hex match for your official Pantone color reference; it’s more about crafting and manipulating a relationship. No matter how BIG you make a logo, or how zappy a flash intro you force people to sit through, the web does not yet deliver the immediate impact of other forms of branding to most people. This doesn’t mean there aren’t some people who have the love for a product needed for web-branding along these traditional lines to have that impact, but most people don’t have this sort of dedication.

And the web is so good at delivering more subtle (insidious?) forms of branding that it’s silly to try to force other-media techniques onto the web at every bend. Branding on the web is better compared to how someone handles a phone-call to a company than a TV ad or poster on a bus. If you’ve got a news site for a company whose core values are impartiality and trustworthiness, handling personal data in an obviously ethical way will go a lot further than a 50k logo towards instilling the perception of those values in your customers. Being careful about the sorts of advertising on your site is another important concern for online branding, as is keeping the tone of the text on your site consistent with your company’s image.

So branding is important on the web as anywhere for companies; it just needs to be approached in a different way than we do in other media.

/ What was the catalytic thought that gave birth to Webactivism?

Once I learned about the goals and passions on which the web had been built, and I started to see how commercial aspects of the web threatened to hobble all this, I wanted more people to be aware of these issues. I feel that as builders of the web, we have a duty to the web, and I wanted to spread this feeling of duty to other web builders. There are simple things like the way we code that can make a very real and long-lasting difference. For some political, legal and technological issues, our role is reduced to that of pressure-group, but in other ways we can directly affect the future of the web.

/ Describe what the internet means to you.

The Internet is a vast communal multimedia sketch pad. What I love about the Internet is that it allows so many people to communicate their ideas and emotions in so many ways.

/ Describe 3 qualities necessary to succeed online.

Well, I'm a bit cynical about what it takes to be sucessful on the web, if by sucessful we mean being able to make a living off it. Because it seems having an eye for trends and copying them well will make most people sucessfull.

But to really go somewhere with this medium, you need to love learning on your own and from your mistakes. In fact, seeking mistakes on purpose is a great way to keep throttling that learning curve. What's that line, “Make new mistakes.” Or “fail spectacularly.” Just do it on your own time, I guess.

It's also essential to pull your mindset out of any one particular web clique. It's easy to get caught in the thinking of a particular school of web. Convinced this is cutting edge, even if it's just tortured geometry with epileptic flickering elements as the dynamic element. I remember reading someone's site where they said their goal on the web was to leap from cool site to cool site like a frog from lilly pad to lilly pad, being careful to avoid the water, which represented the ugly sites. What an incredibly small-minded way to approach the web! I LOVE ugly sites; they usually have the most hold on me because the creators are looking elsewhere for the excitement.

When I look at the people who are enjoying the most success on the web, I see people who didn't try to tailor their work to what would sell, or what would get lots of hits, but just ran with what they enjoyed. And the great thing about running with what you enjoy, is that if you get known for that kind of work, you'll get more work of the kind you enjoy. Do what you *think* others will like and you'll end up creating work you *think* other people like. Not the most satisfying life proposition, is it?

/ Give a one line counsel to newbies.

There are two quotes I like to carry around with me. “I don’t know if I can tell you how to succeed, but a sure way to fail is to try to please everyone,” Bill Cosby, and “Only boring people get bored,” Walt Kelly.

/ What is the single achievement that makes you most proud?

Building a hut out of mud and sticks and hay in West Africa and living in it.

/ If there were no budget limitations - which single dream project would you launch?

I’d like to hack the Stock Exchange so companies’ share prices were directly tied to their impact on poverty, the environment and human rights. Make it profitable to improve the world, so improving the bottom line necessitated improving the world. Like many things in modern society, the stock market is this strangely powerful fabrication that we created but have lost control of. So why not fabricate it for the good of the world?

Of course, my experience with command-line interfaces today is pretty much limited to smart ass net-send commands, so I’ve got a ways to go.

/ What is your opinion of the present situation in the dotcom industry?

Well, it was wild for a few years. There was money behind experimentation. As much as it hurt the web in that most people find world wide web synonymous with dotcom, it helped in that it gave us all big budgets with which to experiment, and we learned a lot by making loads of spectacular and enormous mistakes. Now that people don’t think the web is a virtual gold-mine, those people sticking around clearly see something else of worth here. The general public is starting to realize that there is more to the web than hotmail, porn and silly executives with their money-burning schemes. So there is a lot of good that came out of the swelling and bursting of this pimple. Hollow buzzwords sound hollow to everyone now.

Unfortunately, a lot of really talented people are feeling the pinch. But we’re not without blame. We led the people with the money along. We happily plunged our skills into their ill-fated ventures. We charged higher and higher fees through the smoke and mirrors of the times and the medium for what was, to be perfectly honest with ourselves, experimentation. Most artists and designers are not rich. We got so spoiled in the surreal industry of the past few years that we forgot that following dreams usually involves some struggle.

Currently, there is still life as a freelancer, as this is much less of an investment to a company wary of bleeding more cash on the Internet. And for those who like more stability, the in-house web industry is less competitive than the web boutique. It’ll never be like it was. The people who aren’t doing this because they love it will give up. Those who truly love it will keep at it, even if it is in the afternoons before they tend bar for their rent. And when the web evens out into an industry like every other, there will be room for those who love it to succeed.

/ In your view, explain what is convergence?

Convergence is one industry buzz-word I haven't been all that captivated with. It's got something to do with bringing many media together, gadgets that do lots of different things. Something like that I think. It’s one buzzword that hasn’t really caught my attention. Ambient Internet has, however.

/ Is the www an international network?

Physically, yes. Most of the infrastructure is still in the U.S., but the web’s wires extend to every continent on this planet. There’s even a Satellite in the South Pacific that gives web access to the tons of tiny islands around Fiji. Socially, less than 7% of the world has access, so it is hard to consider something that limited to be truly international.

/ Tell us what the future (net) looks like.

Grandma’s got a brand new blog. As much as it pains my hand-coding self to say this, I feel the future net has more to do with WYSIWIG than broad-band, more to do with opening up web-creation and experience to almost anyone than it does with 50MB streaming motion graphics. The development of our perspective on the net will do a lot more to change the face of the Internet than purely technological developments.

And I see the net as a much more casual and integral part of life. What most frustrates me about the net is that it takes you away from real life, when it could add so much more to it. Talking with my girlfriend's dad the other day about his old cars, I went on line and found pictures of an old green rambler with some guys stories about that car, and it really enriched the conversation, except that I had to keep dodging in and out of the conversation as I negotiated dialup and search engines. An ambient, social net is a future I look forward to.

Recently, a few technological innovations have made this dream look much more like an imminent reality. Take Apple's Airport, those keychain-sized USB storage devices, and the new i-Mac, which feels more like a lamp than a computer, and we've got the beginnings of much less invasive technology. Give us 10 years of wireless standards and miniturization and I don't see why a filling in your tooth couldn't hold a couple gig of data and transmit wirelessly to fabric-monitors in a pillow or tshirt.

Politically, my major concern for the future of the Internet is that it remain open. And as the major adversary to the open-nature of the Internet is the filthy lucre, I'll need to delve into that side of the industry to answer your question.

The major reason the Internet has been so accessible is because its architecture is blind and its protocols are open. The dotcom sector got burned because they were trying to make money out of a medium designed as the very antithesis to their goals. Commercial use was forbidden on the original Arpanet.

Now the major ISPs would love it if they could rent access to their own closed network to both the users and the destination-companies But the wide-open ocean of the Internet is difficult to dam into distinct reservoirs, so companies look to create more closed alternatives. AOL tried to fence off a walled garden on the existing Internet and failed. Although half the traffic on I-mode phones are actually Internet sites, it’s the half on the I-mode gateway that makes most of the money. And now Interactive Television is attempting a similar model.

Whether these companies work over a shared but easy-to-close network or run with their own proprietary formulas into a fragmented catastrophe like WAP, my faith in the greed and pompous-clouded vision of most of the power-players in this industry assures me that the Internet as we know it will not fall. They’ll be squabbling elsewhere, where the money is easier to see. So unless the Bush Monarchy keeps tech monopolies alive, and Universities fall deeper into the clutches of corporations, I’m confident the Internet itself will be safe. It may fall out of mainstream consciousness as a commercial network as smaller, specialized proprietary services take hold of the different industries now sharing the network, but I have no problem with that.

The closest thing to the existing Internet in the works is Internet 2, a largely academic affair built on the same principles of the original Internet. My hope is that the Internet will remain an open network for information exchange, and the wolves will fight over their iTV and other walled garden contortions.