I seem to be one of a dwindling number of people who believe that opinions are among the most valuable commodities we have. Somehow, we’ve allowed the old ‘everyone’s got one’ joke to convince us that all opinions are equal, when they clearly aren’t. I think it’s hurting our creativity, it’s robbing us of leadership, and ultimately is retarding the pace and quality of innovation.
Photo by pink_fish13
I’m sure it’s a function of the recession that people become more risk averse. People want ‘proof’ that their ideas will work before they spend money on executing them. But predicting what will work in the future is and always has been just expensive guesswork.
I am by now heartily sick of people responding to a blog post by saying ‘yeah, well that’s just your opinion’. The reason I’m sick of it is that by definition, blog posts are a statement of an opinion, not of some carefully researched objective factual reality. Sensible people don’t react to reading Montaigne by saying ‘yeah, well that’s just your opinion’. (What a thought a blog by Montaigne is, by the way.)
I believe that strongly held, clear opinions are the key to developing great websites, and two such have caught my eye recently.
The first is Thinking for a Living. (I misjudged this site initially, by the way, and was set right by Isaac.) Check out the beautiful horizontal scrolling, something we’re told that people hate, but I bet they don’t when it works this well.
Screenshot of the “Curated” section of Thinking for a Living
The second is the excellent TPUTH, which describes itself as a “socially generated newspaper for geeks, designers and venture capitalists”. It apes the design of the Soviet-era Pravda. (The name is a multi-level play on the English word ‘truth’, as if rendered in the Cyrillic alphabet. Pravda – which means ‘truth’ in Russian – was the official newspaper of the Communist Party, and a place for almost anything except the truth, a not so subtle jibe at the sites that TPUTH frequently links to.) It uses monstrously large typography and takes an amusing editorial line by, for example, linking to a story about Apple’s decision to remove “sexy” apps from the iPhone app store with the headline “BOY FINDS THE WORDS «ORAL AND ANAL SEX» ON IPHONE: LIFE RUINED!”
Contrast this with the rather limp Guardian Zeitgeist, a service that aims to show the hottest content from their website in a single view. To me it’s a void, a service that has no opinion whatsoever, and is nothing more than a glorified ‘most popular’ panel. It’s a joyless collection of links with a confusing colour-coding system (sport, football and environment are all green; spot the odd one out).
I think we’ve become too rational, too cautious, and too worried about failure. The result is, one or two outstanding examples apart, a rather depressing homogeneity to the web. It’s a bit like watching a game of schoolboy football, where all the players just follow the ball around the whole time, or like playing the lottery with the winning numbers from last week. As soon as something new happens, everyone starts working out how to do something similar.
The truth is that great work on the web takes guts. Even companies that start out opinionated – like Google – are now reduced to aping other services rather than producing things that seem like they are driven by a very definite opinion about how things should be. GMail has a terrifically strong opinion about how email should be; you may dislike it, but it could never be called a Microsoft Outlook clone. How sad to see them launch the tame Twitter clone that is Google Buzz.
Opinions, of course, can be wrong. The problem is that having no opinion and just borrowing someone else’s is even more wrong. In fact an opinion is a prerequisite in any situation where it would be more costly to appear cautious than it would to be wrong. I think that Buzz has cost Google a good deal of credibility because of how anaemic it is.
So. Let’s stop lazily attacking opinion per se as if it were something of no value. Instead, we should only do things that are the result of a strongly opinionated vision. Let’s not jump on something opinionated and criticise it because it is not exactly like something else we already understand. That way we can build things that we can be proud of, even when they fail.