Monday, March 11, 2013

Anonymous Terrorism on the Internet


We launched our redesigned AnandTech 2013 site over the weekend; change is hard I guess, and all sorts of people are coming our of the woodwork to complain and offer their two cents on how a site should look. Chief among the complaints is that the black text on a white background is horribly bright and hard to read. I understand the complaint on the one hand, but let me give a few examples of some major sites that feel this is the correct, up-to-date way of doing things. You might recognize some of these....

Facebook
Yahoo
MSN
Google
Apple
CNET

I think you get the point: most major sites are trending towards white backgrounds. The reason is simple: white is clean, and black text on a white background is easy to read. There are lots of other sites that use a different design language (though many of these are older sites or "amateur" sites, like my own Blogger site for example), but really it's not the end of the world whichever way you go. What's important is to have a site that's useful and present information in a meaningful fashion. That's what AnandTech is trying to do with the latest update, and while I can't say I like every element (I don't like the "box" with the logo, and the changing font sizes for the Pipeline feed seems rather contrived), overall I definitely think the new layout is better than the old. Let me give a few reasons beyond the simple "black on white is better".

First, the last iteration of our site had a section at the top with the three latest articles, which you could scroll through to get larger images of the latest five articles. I'm pretty sure 99% of the time people never looked at the fourth and fifth stories, so they just languished in those positions. Below this area was the main feed, which had the same stories as in the top five but with a longer summary of the article. This is one of my major complaints: we had to create an extra page at the beginning of each article that was to go in this front page view -- an abstract summary, more or less. The problem is that if someone was lazy and didn't give a concise summary, you'd get this huge section of text (and potentially images) on the front page, pushing everything else way down. You can see what the former view looked like (at least for now) on the "staging" AnandTech site.

Now, besides ditching the rather outdated looking gradient color background, we've removed the lengthy "abstract" summary and just use the first paragraph (or few lines) of text for the main document area. In effect, we've increased the article density and the new front page is about 6400 pixels long and will always be that same length, plus all of the articles now get a moderately sized thumbnail image to the left rather than a potentially very large image. Before, the front page could end up being three or four times longer (or more!) because of lengthy text sections and large images. It was a bit of a mess at times, in my opinion, and I suspect most articles past the top screen or two were never seen unless someone linked to them from elsewhere. However, now we get people complaining that our "data density" has gone way down. Most people never bothered with reading the abstracts, instead flipping to the first page to read the article; removing a ton of text from the front page where it just gets in the way does not remove the content from our site; it just puts it in a better place.

There are some other improvements as well, for example the content area is now about 90 pixels wider. That might not seem like a big deal, but if you're trying to fit a table into <600 pixels of width, it can be a pain. The result is usually breaking up more complex tables into multiple tables, which can get ugly and consumes time better spent elsewhere. You can't really go much wider without making things harder to read, but I at least will appreciate the added width. Incidentally, our brains and eyes read better when the layout is moderately wide and more vertical in size -- imagine tracking through a paragraph that's three times as wide and not losing your spot when you move to the next line; this is also why large textbooks use columns.

Okay, fine -- that's a few of the basics of our redesigned site. So where does the "Anonymous Terrorism" come into play? Just read the comments on that article above -- currently around 350 in just a few days, and increasing rapidly. The comments are full of vitriol and hate, with some name calling and other generally undesirable behavior. My favorite are the comments that basically try to hold our site hostage. "If you don't change back to the old layout (or fix problem XYZ), I will never read the site again!" It's not as bad as we see with Facebook updates (every change seems to generate hundreds of petitions to "bring back the old Facebook -- which never actually happens), but there are a lot of people threatening such things. Why? They don't like a few colors, apparently, and they can't be bothered to use something like the Stylish Extension (for Chrome, Firefox, Opera, and Safari -- Internet Explorer doesn't really have an equivalent, as Microsoft is far more close minded when it comes to add-ons/plug-ins/extensions), so they resort to threats to try to get their way.

It's the Internet equivalent of, "I don't like the way you play so I'm taking my ball and going home" attitude that we all experienced as children on the playground. Frankly, I find it just as childish today as it was when I was 10. And that's the problem with anonymity on the Internet: without consequences for what we say, it appears that a large number of otherwise civilized people trend towards anti-social behavior. What gets me is that we have many of the most intelligent and technically adept readers in the world, and still we get this sort of stuff. Personally, as one of the contributors to AnandTech, I love the redesign -- it looks so much better than any of the previous renditions.

If you want a darker background with lighter text, fine, that can be done -- one reader even demonstrates this via his Stylish tweaks. Or if you want to offer meaningful input, do that as well. Just please stop with the threats and name calling. Or put another way: if you wouldn't say something to the face of the site's creator (or you wouldn't say it to a teacher at school, or a boss/supervisor at work, or your parents...), then go figure out a better way to say it and shut your yapper for a minute! That sort of attitude will help you tremendously in life where most people don't particularly appreciate rudeness and derogatory comments. Communication is a skill that is severely lacking in our modern connected world.

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