Conflict Defines Us

I’ve been playing and working with the Web since the first web browser, Mosaic, came out in 1993. I even remember nostalgically finding a copy of the 0.9 beta version of it years later on floppy disk.

What I find frustrating though is that even after years of accumulating knowledge, expertise, and experience, people within the web industry for the most part today are still treated like a joke. For example, I remember dealing with huge global clients around 1999 and their product websites were often a complete afterthought to them (i.e. “Oh geez. We need a website too. Can you get that up by next week?”).

Today with the world living, playing, learning, and working on the Web and online social interaction being such an important aspect of our lives, you’d think that people in the Web industry would finally get some respect and recognition for what they’ve been doing all these years but it’s still completely the opposite. Even though web design and development has gotten more complex, clients often expect developers to do more with much, much less.

This is why, more than anything, I’ve gotten out of doing freelance client work because very few people understand and value my expertise and knowledge. In effect, web design is not about the individual pieces (i.e. linking simple web pages or documents) but the interaction of those pieces as a whole on a variety of levels which is why I think my systems thinking comes in so handy in this regard. Web design is branding & identity, marketing, graphical design, interactive design, usability, information architecture, community building, front-end programming, back-end programming, and more. This is why it’s usually almost impossible to find one individual who can cover all of these areas well.

For example, the typical web designer today that helps most small businesses can achieve so much because of the power of content management systems which lets them focus more on the front-end versus the back-end. Even just focusing on the front-end though is hardly simple. For example, when I was doing freelance work, I expected most of my clients to already have a solid brand and identity, as well as their content copy figured out with at least some logical structure to it. This would at least give me something to work with (i.e. Jerry McGuire’s “Help me, help you!”), allowing me to build a great flowing story-like interactive experience on their website. But even those basic expectations of branding and copy were almost never met and more often than not, clients expected me to come up with their branding & identity, as well as to help them with their copy.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I couldn’t do this. It was more the frustration at the context and scope of the project in relation to the quality of work that I could get out of it. For example, if the client’s needs were simple and they had a basic but usable logo, as well as at least some usable content, I often produced work that they were often extremely happy with, yet from my perspective I wouldn’t show it on my portfolio because it just didn’t “cut it” as quality work to me. Eventually after years of doing this and clients expecting more in less time and with less pay, I said enough. I don’t want to be a machine that produces a quantity of mediocre work. I want to be a human being who can express his authentic self through the quality of his creative work.

Amazingly enough, after I stopped doing freelance work and started doing work for myself, the quality of my work shot up dramatically and my knowledge, particularly with regards to front-end script-based interactivity, seemed to skyrocket. It’s because I finally had the time to experiment and play with crafting  something that I myself would truly want to use. And if you only know one thing about me, realize that I am harder on and expect more of myself than anyone else. Thus if I’m using something, I expect it to be of quality work, being both highly functional and highly usable.

All said and done though, web design to me at its core still has very little to do with technology. It’s simply about people, relationships, and communications. For example, I’ve seen websites that while they may not have been visually beautiful, they were still amazing because their functionality and usability truly allowed people to connect easily and interact with one another. At the same time, I’ve seen simply gorgeous websites that were completely frustrating to use because they lacked the functionality and usability to let people connect easily. Thus more often than not people would just leave in frustration, not even bothering to contact the company because they couldn’t even find a way to contact them on their website. Sad but true.

This is exactly why I’m looking for full time work right now, while I continue to do my own personal work on the side. I want to find a company that truly cares about people both internally and externally. Thus they need to truly care about their employees and give them the time and space to create quality work which they can be proud of. At the same time, they should truly care about their customers and, more importantly, the local community around them. In effect, the more powerful they become, the more they should humbly give back in thanks for where they’ve gotten. And if you think this is a pipe dream, no there are local companies out there like this. Alas my goal is more difficult because I’d like to find a company that can not only utilize my web expertise but also my video game and community expertise as well, particularly done in such a way that the company is creating a positive social impact and change within the world, even if just on a local level.

All said and done though, I could have given up on web design years ago and I often thought about it. But still in the back of my head, I always knew that my knowledge and expertise were valuable to me in some way, even if on a personal level, because I still feel like I have something I still need to authentically create and express online with regards to social change. And in some strange way, I feel that when I discover what this is, it will make use all of my knowledge and expertise over the years in a unifying harmonistic way (i.e. story writing, web design, drawing, composing music). In effect, I feel it will a website that will express an important story of some kind through words, visual imagery, and even music on something of social importance. Again what this will be, I still don’t know at this time but deep within me is this strong undeniable emotional feeling that it still needs to be expressed in some way.

Thus as the saying goes, it’s not what life gives you, it’s what you do with it that matters. And if anything, I’m actually glad at the frustrations I’ve had with some clients over the years because they’ve helped me to understand and get closer to what I truly want to be doing. Without them, without that conflict, I wouldn’t be who I am today and I wouldn’t know so passionately about where I want to be going.

Creating Social Change That’s Playfully Engaging

One of the most beautiful aspects of systems thinking is that it applies to so many aspects of life. At times though, this ability to learn so much from one thing can be frustrating, particularly when it comes to choosing a particular avenue to explore and experiment with systems thinking.

Two such avenues though have always been dominant within my life. One being systems thinking as it applies to organizational design, particularly startup businesses, and the other being systems thinking as it applies to game design, particularly massively multiplayer games. While people who know me know my interest in both of these areas, what they don’t know is that I’ve been looking at way to merge both of these avenues into one for at least a few years. For me the reasons are obvious, why spend years of research in one area (i.e. games design for entertainment), when I can spend years of research on something that merges both into something much more meaningful (i.e. playful social systems designed for social change).

To understand what I mean, imagine a fusional mix of Jane McGonigal’s Gaming Can Make A Better World, Flickr’s evolutionary origins, Kickstarter, and The Social Network, all rolled into one. Again for those who know me, I’ve hinted at this somewhat in the past when talking about my idea of “connected communities” which arose out of my frustrations of the Hurricane Katrina disaster. We, as a society, need to collectively evolve our intelligence and awareness if we’re going to be able to handle the challenges coming our way. And no I don’t mean a new way of organizing government or businesses, I mean a new way of self-organizing “we the people” to collectively tackle problems head on without the need for centralized command and control type systems that are simply so unreliable within the rapidly changing and volatile times we live in.

Simply put, we need news ways of socially interacting that are more than just individually focused (i.e. Facebook), as this just mirrors the same frustration within massively multiplayer games that follow this same individualistic pattern (typically theme park MMOs). We need systems that give us new ways of interacting as collective groups, rather than just as individuals. So instead of creating social systems that relay our individual awareness (i.e. Facebook), we need systems that relay our collective or group awareness. Yet at the same time, this needs to be done in such a way that the system is sustainable (i.e. decentralized) and simple to use (i.e. emergence-based with simple interactions).

If you’re wondering if I’ve magically come up with such a system, sorry to disappoint you but no I haven’t, even though I do get the occasional insight and realization that evolves my scope of understanding on tackling the subject. For example, this morning I played around with some conceptual ideas of a game-like social system that utilizes “energy” to achieve things within it. This energy is either time-based or money-based and it allows you to use abilities like “attacking” or “defending” a task / quest / cause, while also being able to “heal” or “empower” other individuals working on that task. So again, replicating elements that we see within games but using them in such a way that we can self-organize and overcome heroic challenges in real life (rather than just overcoming virtual heroic challenges and quests within games).

So for me, my dream job is no longer working for an open, sharing, and caring business company or game development company. It’s working within an eclectic company that is a hybrid of both, that’s looking at new ways of developing decentralized social systems that help people to interact within new, sustainable, and enjoyable ways.