David Coveney

A new manifesto for the web

This blog post has now been re-arranged with the manifesto at the top, and the reasoning that led up to it beneath. Because, after all, placing the important content six or seven hundred words in is hardly being pure, is it?

Web Dogma 24. By me.

Content First. All articles, images, and graphics must be there to serve a purpose. Superficial or filler material is forbidden.

Real-world Photography. Photographs should not be bought from stock suppliers, but either provided by the subjects, or taken by a suitable photographer using only natural and available lighting and real life settings.

No AI. AI generated content is highly derivative, prone to errors, and could get you in trouble. It must not be used on any serious website to create content.

Simplicity in Design. Layouts must be clean and simple, with a focus on readability and user experience. Decorative elements that fail to enhance content comprehension are not permitted.

Environmental Care. A website should be as efficient and fast as possible, minimising the economic impact of running it. Where real life products are created, they should be on recycled paper using biodegradable inks.

No Sacred Cows. There are no firms, people, suppliers or institutions who cannot be investigated or criticised in the event that they behave badly or produce poor work.

Transparent Authorship. All articles and images must be clearly credited. Ghost-writing and anonymous contributions are forbidden.

No Advertisements. The website must be free of advertisements. Revenue should be generated through subscriptions, donations and grants.

Timelessness. Content should focus on timeless principles of the website’s subject matter, avoiding trendy or ephemeral topics.

Interactive and Inclusive. The website should encourage reader interaction through letters, feedback, and community events, fostering an inclusive community.

The story behind this

AI is making it much easier to produce content on the web. I could literally ask it to write this article and it’d do a half decent job of it. It might, of course, be a somewhat plagiarised equivalent, because of the way large language models work, but it would be an article.

They’re amazing. They’re also inauthentic and only relate to the past.

Search engines are getting in on this too – taking the content of websites and digesting it in order to provide what are AI generated responses, rather than sending you to the right websites:

Of course, Google created the problem, and is now offering a solution to the problem it created. How so? Let’s take a look at recipe websites. You’ve got a vegan visitor and you want a recipe for, say, homemade vegan sausages that everyone can enjoy. You’ve never made them before, so you search Google.

And you get not a personal blogger who’s landed on such a great recipe they wanted to share it, but a professional and well made site which isn’t a pleasure to use: https://elavegan.com/vegan-sausage-recipe/

If you don’t run an adblocker, the site is clearly set up to serve ads. Which in many ways, is fair enough – they need to make money, and Google provided this easy monetisation channel. By the time you get to the recipe itself you will see, get this, around twenty-two advertisements! And these sometimes rotate, so it could easily be more and rarely fewer. Meanwhile, I can hear the fan on my laptop starting to spool up as it handles rendering the video advertisements on a moving page.

And people are so, so tired of this. The reason they love TikTok and a lot of the newer social channels that come along is because, frankly, it often feels more authentic. It feels like real people giving advice and having opinions. It’s nice, honestly, although of course TikTok needs to make money too, so they do their thing. At least it’s easy to flick past their ads. People are getting their links inside WhatsApp groups. Emails are, incredibly, becoming a channel once more.

So to help people navigate past the advert dross, Google are, instead, going to serve up AI generated renderings. In fact, Bing are ahead of the curve here. Take a look at this block that you get on a Bing search for vegan sausage recipes:

They’re taking away the need to visit a site at all! Which is, I think, terrifying for sites that have entirely generated their revenue through an overdose of display ads.

But it’s hardly authentic either – and people have a deep distrust of AIs because they’re already noticing they can be really dumb or easily misled.

People have been finding old school search terms less useful and, instead, have been appending site names in order to help get them to more useful content. In fact, it is quite normal to see search terms appended with Reddit, or, in the case of recipes, “BBC” is quite a common suffix. Why? Because we know the purpose of these sites is less to sell a lot of adverts, and more to inform.

People crave authenticity

Designing to hold a reader on your website in order to maximise the value of the reader’s time to advertisers is grating. We all know website publishers have to make money. We all know that it’s hard to do so. Which is why I find myself now subscribing not to the big local newspaper, but to a small, independent one that sometimes scrimps on presentation, but does get deep down into real stories. It doesn’t tell me which tube dress is suddenly selling well in Primark, however.

I don’t think people would even mind some promotional work, but again, only if it’s honest and blended with other genuine, non paid content, just so long as it’s well advertised that it is indeed a paid piece.

The craving for authenticity isn’t just a problem for websites. It’s created new trends in videos, podcasts and reels. This video is a great deep dive into this phenomenon on YouTube:

Of course, to get to where he is, Tom Nicholas above has had to distribute his videos on the YouTube walled garden. Which is favoured by Google’s search engine. Google owns YouTube.

Google in effect has an enormous effect on how the web works, and even how it is designed. But true success now can’t depend on just getting search engine or social media generated traffic. It has to be by being a destination of usefulness for your readers. One so useful, that they feel they’re part of something. Connected to it. Tuned in together.

Which has caused me a lot of navel gazing, and I decided I needed a fundamental set of principles for websites that I think can be the starting point for what is good… And at one point I started to think of Dogme 95 and how influential it was to filmmaking, even if most people haven’t heard of it.

It’s worth noting that Dogme 95 didn’t become the way to make films. Many made in the style were not even particularly successful or critically acclaimed. In large part, because it’s an extreme position that is generally unsustainable. It’s an idea that can season the whole, not the One True Way. So if you head back to the top of this post, you’ll see Web Dogma 24 and that I’m using the same rationale.

But reality will intervene

I don’t think it’s possible to run anything with that sort of purity. Life and the need to make a living means that compromises will have to be sought. But it offers an idea of what’s possible.

What do you think? What would you add or take away? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Have your say

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.