Recently, my Visual Communication class had a crash course in web development. CSS may still be beyond me, but Linfield webmaster Jonathon Pierce touched on some intriguing topics that I’ve been turning over in my mind since.
My search for a cohesive way to lay out my reflections has been fruitless, though. It seems the only common thread is my own interests, particularly in PR and social media. So, don’t say I didn’t warn you, this post will be like my thoughts: messy and meandering. Read if you dare.
- On sharing
Mr. Pierce started off by explaining how the web as we know it came about, from its beginnings as a project of CERN. One month before my 2nd birthday (that’s April 30, 1993 for those of you who need to brush up on your Gabi facts), they released it into the public domain as free software, available to everyone.
“Everything we have now—laptops, tablets, smartphones—is derived from that one peculiar act of generosity.”
It’s hard to imagine such a selfless act taking place today, when everything down to pixels is monetized (tangential note: I asked my gamer brother for an example, and he immediately said “Team Fortress 2 hats,” which led me to find this extensive guide to making a profit off of these not just intangible but “purely cosmetic” goods… I have no words… but am admittedly guilty of making donations to receive similarly useless Gaia items in my past. Dark days).
Instead, a paradoxically self-centered type of “sharing” is what we associate with the web nowadays, as in social media marketing. It’s pretty strange if you think about it. We design things for maximum sharing, and beg for reposts (though in my opinion, trying to go viral can almost preclude success. It’s just cringe-worthy when you can tell, and the best things are always what you never expected… like Sweet Brown, or even Gangnam Style). But while we’re clamoring for shares, we’re greedy with our methods (see: SEO).
“Plz RT” is not reason enough to do so. If you want people to spread your content, there has to be something in it for them. It can be as small as a chuckle, but they have to get something out of it. Thankfully, the PR field has recently seen a realigning of focus to value-added, useful content and shift in emphasis from quantity to quality (less about Likes, more about actually liking things).
- Legal issues
Sometimes, though, it’s not sharing. It’s taking. A student asked Mr. Pierce about simply copying someone else’s coding,
“Is that illegal?”
The rules seem blurrier online, like the Internet is one giant grey area. It’s easy to perpetrate but difficult to monitor copying on the web. “Stealing” is child’s play… Literally. I was (unwittingly) doing it when I was just 8 years old with my pokemon fansite (“Blastoise’s Realm” was just a glorified collection of hotlinked images). Maybe it’s the legacy of the web’s basis on an open standard.
The bottom line, though, is to opt for safe rather than sorry. It can be easy to get lazy, but resist temptation. In my experience, meticulousness always pays off. It’s complicated, but it’s important, so know how copyright works. If all else fails, I go by “when in doubt, leave it out.”
- The black art of search engine optimization (SEO)
Excuse me for saying, but I feel like SEO is akin to the emperor’s new clothes. The formulas are secretive to the point of near invisibility but unquestionably respected. Perhaps for fear of seeming ignorant, PR pros pretend to understand SEO much better than us outside of Google actually can. It’s my feeling that we should accept what we don’t know and focus on what we do instead. Mr. Pierce offered some great advice:
“The best thing you can do is structure your page well. Headings matter. Good organic linking will help to boost your rankings.”
And not to be a broken record, but ultimately, to drive meaningful traffic, your content needs to be of quality. Don’t get so obsessed over the tech aspects that you forget the person conducting the search in the first place. If you’re pandering to the search engine instead of your stakeholder, you’re missing the mark. Need I remind you?
- Responsive web design
Mr. Pierce gave us a glance into the next big thing, responsive web design (for example, Linfield’s Business Department page, or Vizify). When you anticipate the context of the user, not only what type of device or browser they’re operating, but also what they’re doing, where they are, and what kind of content will best serve them at the exact moment they access your site, amazing things can happen. The opportunities are vast and exciting. But at the end of the day, advised Mr. Pierce,
“You have to let go. Nothing is fixed.”
There will always be an element of the unknown, and you have to roll with it. I’m a pretty hardcore perfectionist (a.k.a. copy editor), so I can not be reminded of this point enough.
- The best ____.
Mr. Pierce also fielded a question about “the best” platform, to which he said,
“The best smartphone is the one you like.”
Best is relative. I loved this insight, because it applies to everything: Browsers, smartphones, brands of toothpaste… Whichever works for you is the best. This reinforced with me the importance of finding your niche and knowing your audience and their needs keenly.
- Flash player
One last bit of insider info. I may cling futilely to my Zune, but this is an obsolescence I’ll accept: Flash is dying as a standard on the web, said Mr. Pierce. And apparently, Steve Jobs decided to take that one down with him (too soon?):
“[he] saw the writing on the wall—we’ve all suffered through Flash updates…”
Too true, those updates are painful. Like in many other things, Jobs had the foresight to predict Flash’s downfall before it had even started, and only sped the inevitable. Indeed, I don’t think anyone will mourn the loss of Flash. Except for Liz Lemon, anyway:
Quotes from Jonathon Pierce’s presentation on February 26, 2013.