The Gentrification of the Web

After handling the counter of Josie’s Java on Court Street in Brooklyn for two decades, Josie D’Esposito passed away in May 2004. (1) A few weeks of confusion followed, during which neighbors’ whispers (trying to predict the fate of the familiar counter) were quickly followed by the close of the coffee shop. More whispers were followed by a notably cool, yet out-of-place, Thai restaurant’s move in. The gentrification of the neighborhood had officially begun.

When a neighborhood transitions from original storefronts — with their hand-painted signs and handcrafted goods — to new and shiny establishments, there is a pang of simultaneous nostalgia and anticipation. Outwardly, locals complain that food isn’t as genuine, that sales staff isn’t as knowledgeable, that experiences aren’t as enjoyable. Secretly, however, they may be enjoying newfound access to organic chicken and soy lattes. When sandwich boards are traded in for five star menus, often the new establishments provide the same content and services as the previous ones. An Eckerd replaces a local pharmacy; a Dunkin Donuts replaces a coffee shop/newsstand combo; and so on. While the content remains the same, the appearance of the neighborhood changes, and with it, its identity. The neighborhood is, in fact, undergoing a kind of redesign.

What happens when we consider this same transition online? What seems true for the transitions of our neighborhoods seems also to be true for websites. Think, if you can, about the last time one of the sites you visit daily was redesigned. Sure, the site may have looked cleaner; maybe it was actually easier to use. But, if you’re like me, you might have felt left out. You no longer had to click three times to reach search results or wait for the flight choices to slowly load, but those workarounds seemed comfortable. It was an experience you learned and knew, and it is no longer there. Your website has been gentrified.

What we know to be traditional principles of good design do not necessarily make for a better experience. (2) In fact, bad design — let’s call it design that defies accepted principles of usability and aesthetics — is many times preferable. (3) Is there a difference between logical goodness and desirability? Let’s look at the gentrification of neighborhoods as a way of reaching a possible answer.

People define themselves in part by having exclusive information about a thing. Knowing the best place to get fresh buffalo mozzarella in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, for example, may win you more social currency than having a penthouse apartment in Dumbo in some circles. Expert navigating of the exclusive brings with it inexplicable value that is lost once that same knowledge is public. Once Whole Foods moves in, for example, offering its own fresh buffalo mozzarella, the once-exclusive knowledge immediately loses its value.4 Entire reputations that have been built on elite knowledge of a neighborhood’s secrets dissipate overnight, leaving the carcasses of identities in their wake.

What’s interesting here, in part, is that neighborhoods are being gentrified in spite of you. You, likely, are part of the gentrification process. In the same way, your participation, patronage, and page views of your favorite website has enabled its redesign. When the site was not as popular, its design and usability may not have mattered.

What this means for designers, I’m not sure. I don’t claim to have any larger assumptions about what will happen. To me, it’s just interesting to consider how this might change our approach, our portfolios, design education. Should we be striving, intentionally, to create lo-fi designs? Should designers be taught lo-fi in school? And what do we have to learn from the nostalgia of authenticity?

Whether it’s with websites or with neighborhoods, there is a recalibration of the baseline that happens with gentrification. Is this gentrification forcing our neighborhoods to become too similar, or is this just a path to creating further variety? Not sure. A look around any new suburb or at the ubiquity of left navigation would lead one to stand in the similarity camp. According to Jane Jacobs in The Nature of Economies, these are the very principles that allow for differentiation to emerge: “Differentiation emerging from generality. Differentiations become generalities from which further differentiations occur.” The very assimilation of our neighborhoods, therefore, may be the path to innovation and differentiation. Might the assimilation of websites to all adhere to principles of good design also be a path to further innovation?

1 After Josie passed away, the local paper printed an article that best sums up Josie:

“Between the shoeshine man and Caputo’s, there is a dank, grim coffee shop where the customer is often wrong. The place is called Josie’s Java. It resembles a truck stop, and breakfast and lunch are served every day. Get dinner someplace else. In the evening, the door is covered by a grate painted to depict a full cup of coffee with an arm reaching up from inside the liquid, drowning or waving.

You do not pour cream into your coffee at Josie’s; you say when. She pours. She opened the place as a video shop two decades ago; that explains the free movies that sometimes come with coffee to reward good behavior. Once, in recognition of a 20-cent tip, she bestowed a copy of the Talking Heads concert film ‘Stop Making Sense.””

Michael Brick. “The Coffee Was Poured With Negative Reinforcement,” New York Times. 4 June 2004.

2 There are some assumptions here (perhaps outdated; perhaps untrue). Better-designed sites are easier to use. Easier-to-use sites are more approachable. More approachable sites generate more traffic.

3 At the 2006 South By Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas, a group set out to redesign craigslist. Decisions to organize information were smart, page layout was cleaner, branding was markedly improved. But was it better? Although intellect tells us that craiglist’s current design is not “good,” emotion tell us that the current design is more desirable. What gives?

4 The proposal of Bruce Ratner’s Atlantic Yards complex is forcing Brooklyn residents to take sides on this issue now. This controversy proposes, at the very least, to put a 19,000-seat arena in Park Slope (people have been wrongly referring to it as “Downtown”), Brooklyn. The heroes, underdogs, and everyone in between are in a tizzy.