Where Are the People?

Consider a beautiful website. It’s got it all: deep (yet accessible) content, well-structured navigation systems, clear visual hierarchies, timeless typography, balanced page layouts, practical (yet engaging) visuals, and more. Your first impression is of professionalism: much thought and energy went into creating it. It’s gorgeous.

And yet, something’s missing. People. Where are they? Perhaps there’s a byline here and there, but there’s no space for me or you or anybody else. How do you make the place better? How do you reach out to potential collaborators around this information? You can’t. Can’t comment, rate, suggest, ask… So the place feels empty. Beautiful and empty.

There are probably other people here with you, but you wouldn’t know it. Each of you is experiencing the place on your own. It’s only you and the content. Same as it ever was — at least since people started writing things down. Even though it’s an interactive experience, this website is no more alive than a mail order catalog. It could be so much more! Rather than a mere publication, it could be a place that engages people to help it grow and evolve and become better and more useful over time.

It’s become fashionable to criticize social media — justifiably so. Social media have had a pernicious effect on our politics, our ability to focus, our demeanor. So a backlash is building. But social media don’t feel empty in the same way your beautiful website does. There are people in social media! You can see them, interact with them. They share their humanity — at least those parts they deem fit for sharing. As a result, social media feel alive in a way that other information environments don’t.

As we move to use social media more responsibly, what can we learn from them to make other digital interactions more human? What lessons do they offer to help us center our information environments on people, unshackled​ from business models that monetize their attention?