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The Web is a Permaculture?

Permaculture research reveals that this stability is achieved only through a complex network of connections…"functional connections" between elements in the total system. The more functional connections a system has, the more sustainable it becomes.

Ok, it’s statements like the one above, from permaearth.org, that literally blow me away and freak me out at the same time. I mean doesn’t that description above, of permaculture, sound exactly like the Web?

One thing I’d like to add to this. Not only does the system become more sustainable but it becomes more usable and valuable.

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Permaculture for the Web

So if you haven’t deduced what I’ve been talking about in my last ten posts yet (which means my RSS feed won’t show them all probably) then here is the answer. I’ve been talking about the ten principles of permaculture and I’ll elaborate more later as to why I think this topic literally gives community development on the Web a whole new meaning and outlook. That’s right. As I said before, the future is not so much a change of technology as much as a change of thinking. Utilizing permaculture, you are changing the way you think about the Web so that you are no longer just a single site on the Web but a site within an entire Web "ecosystem". What I find interesting about this approach is that some people are already applying these principles to their sites without even being aware of the encompassing principle that they are trying to work towards.

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Reflective Form

An important and often overlooked function of design is to inform people about their environment and help them understand it. Frequently, for example, the means of technology are hidden behind false building shells, across town in ‘someone else’s back yard’, or in our own utility rooms and basements. Water and food flow in and out of the house and community with little knowledge of how it got there or where it is going. People have lost touch with how technology supports us and how it, in turn, is interconnected with the natural world.

Much of the problem with contemporary design as an informative and educational tool is that it deals more with image than with substance. In this it is reflective of patterns of marketing, advertising, consumption, entertainment and political discourse. It tends toward homogenization across broad geographical and cultural regions. The end result of such trends is to have a singular global economy and culture attuned to standardized mass produced design elements. Form, and much that we see around us bears this out, reflects simplification and loss of diversity. Counter to the push toward globalization is the resistance of people who feel a social and spiritual need for a sense of place and expression of regional, community and personal identity. Designs that grow from consideration of natural systems and forces have the ability to reflect the place and the individual.

People have lost touch with how technology works but only because it is becoming more and more complex I believe. However, there are examples where this isn’t always true. Look at RSS for example. It is very simple technology to use and you can see its inner workings if you so choose to do so. When you have such an easy technology to use, you can then easily start building things with it, assuming you change your thinking to be perceptive to these ideas. My "connected communities" approach is one such idea that can be easily accomplished using the simple technology of RSS.

Now when I read the words in the second paragraph that say contemporary design deals "more with image than with substance" I had to laugh again at the truth to those words. Real design is not about how pretty something looks, it is more about the proper placement of those elements upon the site so that the entire experience of using the site becomes an effortless and appealing one as everything just seems to flow and make sense to the user.

BTW I’m seeing more and more designer truly designing amazing sites that aren’t "homogenized" but have their own local feeling, yet they still exist quite well in relation to the other sites that neighbor them within their "community".

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Informed Decisions

Information and participation replace standardization, power and anonymity of decisions to produce a precise fit between elements and function to meet need. The need for power and standardization to resolve design problems can be countered by substitution of careful observation, acquired knowledge and direct participation. Given adequate information we can achieve precise fits between system and function and make design more closely related to particular user needs. This information may be applied in initial shaping of the environment or during operation and use where feedback may be used.

For much of history design has been an intuitive part of culture. People understood their regions and communities and knew the design templates that would work. More recently, design professions have supplanted intuitive design processes.

Ok there are a couple of really important things being said here. The first quote, which may seem confusing, is really just saying design your environment to suit your taste and approach (but obviously still consider your neighboring sites as mentioned before). In other words, think local vs global. Or if you’ve read any books on designing online communities, most will tell you to build your community based upon the focus of the community itself. In other words, don’t use a cookie cutter approach. Just because another site is using a certain structure and design, it doesn’t mean that same design will work for your site and its community. Figure out your needs or focus and design your site based upon them.

The second thing said here in the next quote is something I’ve seen recently elsewhere actually. It is basically saying that the average person can understand design. However, I believe they often can’t because of the faster paced world we are living in. To understand design, all you need to do is to slow down and observe what is going on upon your site and those neighboring sites around you. Often times people don’t have the time to do this, thus they leave it up to the experts who do focus most of their time to observing and learning these things.

BTW I just remembered one more thing. This local vs global issue is one that I’ve been noticing quite a lot with regards to tagging or categorizing my content. Basically I found tagging my content, say using global Technorati tags, to be pretty much useless for me on a local level because the tag groupings become less useful to me the more I have of them. Instead I find that categorizing my content into meaningful topics works much better. That way each category tag is almost like a discussion thread that someone can follow like reading a story.

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Comprehension

We want to design places where people feel comfortable and have free and open choices of activity and association. Therefore, attention to human needs and the ability of people to comprehend the world around them is important to design. Comprehension starts with considerations of scale and complexity of elements, technology and organizations. People relate comfortably to "human scale" items and organizations where they have a sense of understanding and can exert control over their lives and decisions. As size and complexity increase, people may become less able to comprehend their personal relationship to things and events.

Appropriate technology to meet needs may not necessarily be the most advanced. Some guidelines for selection of appropriate technology include:

  • Use the best, lowest level, technology to meet the need. This will help avoid using technology for technology’s sake.
  • Use technology that minimizes human energy expenditure while maximizing the creative and rewarding nature of personal work.
  • Use technology that can be built and repaired locally.

Ok, when I read the above for the first time, I nearly fell over in my chair, especially with regards to the words "avoid using technology for technology’s sake". As anyone who knows my web development history, I’ve been preaching those words for YEARS! Back in 1999, I saw the proliferation of Flash and didn’t like how people were using it. Often times people were just using it for the sake of using it. "Look I’ve got a Flash site!" But then when you look at the Flash site you realize that pretty much the entire site could have been done in HTML easier except for the ANNOYING repeating sound in the background and the ANIMATED flaming logo. Oh, sorry, not true. You could have made an animated GIF for the flaming logo. Don’t get me wrong, I have actually seen excellent uses of Flash. The only problem is that they were far and few between back then. Today, while there still are bad uses of it, there are actually a lot more good uses of it as well.

With regards to "maximizing the creative and rewarding nature of personal work", this just means utilizing Web technologies that can actually empower you. Weblog software is a perfect example of this because it has allowed us to move past the point of hand coding our sites when what we really want to do is just put down our thoughts. It is like someone who wants to communicate a message but before they can do so they have to build a communication system from scratch first. It just impedes the user’s thoughts and prevents their creativity from just flowing.

Now another point that is mentioned is utilizing technology that can be easily "built" and "repaired" yourself. All that is really being said here is make sure you are using Web technology that you can understand and easily modify yourself. The less complex the technology, the easier it will be to use. What good is powerful technology, if the tradeoff is that it is too difficult to configure and use? Therefore, ensure you are using Web technology that gives you the power that you need but it is still easy to configure and modify yourself. And I actually believe this is very important because one of the important concepts of my "connected communities" approach is to ensure the use of easy and open technologies for creating this connection. If you are using proprietary technologies then often times you won’t be able to build and modify the system to your liking.

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Efficient Energy Planning

Energy flow on a site is enhanced by intercepting and recycling the flow across the site.

What I find quite funny is that I used the word "energy" a long time ago to describe what others call PageRank. David Weinberger said he didn’t like this word because it made the Web sound like an organism. Well no the Web isn’t an organism like ourselves but it definitely acts like one because its interactions upon it are by organisms, us.

This energy is basically the flow of the Web that goes through your site (i.e. people entering and people leaving). As we all know, if a site has a high PageRank and it points to something of interest on a smaller site, then obviously the PageRank for the site is going to go up because of the increased interest and traffic to it.

What I found quite interesting though is that the more "energy" a larger site gives to smaller sites, the more "energy" the larger site will attract to itself. In effect, by giving, you are making yourself stronger. Why? Because it is pointing at interesting things and in doing so, itself becomes more interesting. Why do you think Google is so popular? It is because of what it points to, not because sites point to it.

Therefore, if you notice a site that is bringing some traffic to you looks quite interesting to you, then by all means link to it. In doing so, not only will you be giving your "energy" to it but, in effect, you will be recycling that energy back to yourself as the other site gains more energy and redirects back at you.

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Efficient Resource Planning

Resource planning is one of the main tasks of design. Site elements and forces may be seen as problems or opportunities

Reuse of materials without need for major conversion takes advantage of expenditures and resource conversions that have already taken place and gives old products a new, useful life.

Hehe, every hear of recycling? Recycle and reuse your content often. Use it as much as you can and refer back to it as much as you can.

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Redundancy

A multiplicity of pathways to accomplish a function or satisfy a need allows a flexible response to changing conditions. Multiple pathways are redundant systems that guard against overall system failure. Each important function in a design should be supported by several elements.

This should be pretty obvious to people on the Web. For the longest time people having been saying your home page is your most important page. Well sure it is IF people enter your site that way. What if they don’t though? What if they come in from another site or via a search engine to a specific page? What will they see? Click on a single one of your posts and what do you see? From that single page can you grasp what your website is about? Can you tell what type of discussions are going on upon it? Do you think that person will stay a while and visit or turn to leave immediately?

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Relative Location

Relative location is related to the placement of areas of use and circulation on the site. Putting things in the right place is essential for making useful connections. A useful connection is one in which "the inputs needed by one element are supplied by other elements in the system; and the outputs needed by one element are used by other elements in the system."

The effect of not paying attention to relative location is work, extra effort to meet needs not met within the system, and…outputs that are wasted in the system. To place elements in the right place we must know their potential connections.

Aggregating design elements will bring varied activities together to share space, reinforce each other and eliminate…trips from one area to another. We are always searching for connections between parts of systems and between seemingly disparate systems to establish appropriate relationships in our design.

The act of determining relative locations is, in fact, what we call design.

It is in the realm of the principle of relative location to be an aggregator.

If we viewed each element in a design, not as a discrete smooth-edged entity, but as having protrusions for connections of inputs and outflows, it might help us to better make usable relative location decisions.

That last quote, says it all. How are you making every single bit of information on your site connectable to something else upon it? Every post or thought that you put down should be connecting and linking to something else on the site. It is actually quite hilarious when you think about it. We often link to more information off of our site than the content upon it.

Actually this approach is similar to one of my own in that I always said I wanted each one of my posts to have an area near the bottom where it shows previous posts that relate to the topic I’m currently reading (i.e. if it talks about design, then it shows the last 5 posts about design near the bottom of the post).

Here’s another example. Say you have a movie section on your site where you review movies you’ve seen. Well, anytime you talk about movies in your post (even if only slightly) then you should be linking to those movie reviews (i.e. "And after the conference, we caught a movie with a few other people").

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Natural Model

Using natural forces rather than trying to overcome them is a sound design approach.

The Web has its own ebb and flow of its own. Instead of working against it, work with it.