Defining the damn thang

Chris recently documented the results from his survey which asked:

Is it useful to distinguish between “web apps” and “web sites”?

His conclusion:

There is just nothing but questions, exemptions, and gray area.

This is something I wrote about a while back:

Like obscenity and brunch, web apps can be described but not defined.

The results of Chris’s poll are telling. The majority of people believe there is a difference between sites and apps …but nobody can agree on what it is. The comments make for interesting reading too. The more people chime in an attempt to define exactly what a “web app” is, the more it proves the point that the the term “web app” isn’t a useful word (in the sense that useful words should have an agreed-upon meaning).

Tyler Sticka makes a good point:

By this definition, web apps are just a subset of websites.

I like that. It avoids the false dichotomy that a product is either a site or an app.

But although it seems that the term “web app” can’t be defined, there are a lot of really smart people who still think it has some value.

I think Cennydd is right. I think the differences exist …but I also think we’re looking for those differences at the wrong scale. Rather than describing an entire product as either a website or an web app, I think it makes much more sense to distinguish between patterns.

Let’s take those two modifiers—behavioural and informational. But let’s apply them at the pattern level.

The “get stuff” sites that Jake describes will have a lot of informational patterns: how best to present a flow of text for reading, for example. Typography, contrast, whitespace; all of those attributes are important for an informational pattern.

The “do stuff” sites will probably have a lot of behavioural patterns: entering information or performing an action. Feedback, animation, speed; these are some of the possible attributes of a behavioural pattern.

But just about every product out there on the web contains a combination of both types of pattern. Like I said:

Is Wikipedia a website up until the point that I start editing an article? Are Twitter and Pinterest websites while I’m browsing through them but then flip into being web apps the moment that I post something?

Now you could make an arbitrary decision that any product with more than 50% informational patterns is a website, and any product with more than 50% behavioural patterns is a web app, but I don’t think that’s very useful.

Take a look at Brad’s collection of responsive patterns. Some of them are clearly informational (tables, images, etc.), while some of them are much more behavioural (carousels, notifications, etc.). But Brad doesn’t divide his collection into two, saying “Here are the patterns for websites” and “Here are the patterns for web apps.” That would be a dumb way to divide up his patterns, and I think it’s an equally dumb way to divide up the whole web.

What I’m getting at here is that, rather than trying to answer the question “what is a web app, anyway?”, I think it’s far more important to answer the other question I posed:

Why?

Why do you want to make that distinction? What benefit do you gain by arbitrarily dividing the entire web into two classes?

I think by making the distinction at the pattern level, that question starts to become a bit easier to answer. One possible answer is to do with the different skills involved.

For example, I know plenty of designers who are really, really good at informational patterns—they can lay out content in a beautiful, clear way. But they are less skilled when it comes to thinking through all the permutations involved in behavioural patterns—the “arrow of time” that’s part of so much interaction design. And vice-versa: a skilled interaction designer isn’t necessarily the best at old-skill knowledge of type, margins, and hierarchy. But both skillsets will be required on an almost every project on the web.

So I do believe there is value in distinguishing between behaviour and information …but I don’t believe there is value in trying to shoehorn entire products into just one of those categories. Making the distinction at the pattern level, though? That I can get behind.

Addendum

Incidentally, some of the respondents to Chris’s poll shared my feeling that the term “web app” was often used from a marketing perspective to make something sound more important and superior:

Perhaps it’s simply fashion. Perhaps “website” just sounds old-fashioned, and “web app” lends your product a more up-to-date, zingy feeling on par with the native apps available from the carefully-curated walled gardens of app stores.

Approaching things from the patterns perspective, I wonder if those same feelings of inferiority and superiority are driving the recent crop of behavioural patterns for informational content: parallaxy, snowfally, animation patterns are being applied on top of traditional informational patterns like hierarchy, measure, and art direction. I’m not sure that the juxtaposition is working that well. Taking the single interaction involved in long-form informational patterns (that interaction would be scrolling) and then using it as a trigger for all kinds of behavioural patterns feels …uncanny.

Have you published a response to this? :

Responses

Kartik Prabhu

The Blogging DeadBlagofaire from xkcdReliable sources have finally confirmed that the blog is dead 1. According to Jason Kottke, the blog is dead, long live the blog. People seemed to be giving up on blogging and moving on to bigger and better things. Twittering (is that right?), Facebooking, Instagramming (one ‘m’ or two?), and Google+ing seem to be the hip-thing to do in 2014.So let’s look back and pay our last respects to the memory of Blogging.So what is blogging?I don’t know. I honestly don’t know.Blogging seems to mean different things to different people. Wikipedia, the modern sum of all human knowledge (no?), has an entry on Blog which nicely represents the state of affairs. The introduction describes a blog as a website with basically every feature or adjective under the sun.Blogs can be written by individuals, small teams, large corporations and think tanks. They can be about a single subject, a diverse range of topics, personal events and thoughts, brand advertising, or feature updates about a service or product. They can contain text, photographs, video, animations and illustrations. They can have comments and discussion by readers, or not. Blogging is not restricted by the kind of authors or type of content.So what is blogging?Jason seems to distinguish the ‘blog format’, the reverse-chronological stream of posts that blogs traditionally have. Even though most blogs use the stream format to present a list of posts, this is a UI decision. It works nicely for some kinds of content—periodic photography posts (Street Photography by Sagi Kortler, Streets of Athens by StamatisGR), personal diary, product/service updates (Gridset Blog, Building Feedly). I don’t think the stream works for sites with a lot of eclectic topics; I don’t really like the stream nature of the archives of this site, but I don’t have any better ideas yet (suggestions welcome!). Blogging is certainly not restricted to the time-stream format 2.So what is blogging?Is blogging just writing?For a long time blogging was a derogative for writing on Web. If you wrote on the Web, you were a blogger, not a ‘real’ writer; it was a blog post, not a ‘real’ article; it was blogging, not ‘real’ journalism 3. Blogging was, simply put, bad writing.I hope that in 2013, it is clear that this was an asinine point of view. This type of blind bigotry against content just because it lives in a different medium is still rampant (comics vs. real literature, anyone?); but it seems we have finally accepted content on the Web as a legitimate form of writing.A book is no longer considered bad just because it is digital or on the Web 4. Comics on the Web have received wide acceptance. The success of House of Cards has finally shattered the perception that good drama can exist only on film and television 5. Lot of mainstream magazines and newspapers are now online. Many scientists write blogs about their research 6.Good content is good content, regardless of the medium. The Web is a global, open, accessible, flexible medium for writing content; and writing on the Web is not bad writing. Blogging is not a dirty word anymore.So what is blogging?Blogging is, simply put, writing on the Web. Blogging is not some special exotic activity that suddenly everyone gave upon (planking?), it is just writing on the Web. People have been writing on the Web long before 1997 (the birth year that Jason put on the Blog’s epitaph).1997 was around when web-publishing tools became accessible to the not-so-technical crowd. Everyone and their mother started writing on the Web, and called it a ‘blog’; a portmanteau of web and log. Later as people realised that blogging was not just about choosing a peppy website name, a snazzy visual theme and cool widgets; and that you actually had to write good, interesting content, most people gave up. The blogging fad died, slowly and painfully, exactly because people realised that blogging was about writing—and that it demanded hard work, lots of thought, sometimes multiple edits, just like ‘real’ writing. Most people who had jumped on the blog bandwagon were simply not prepared to do this work. It is much easier to follow on Twitter, ‘like’ on Facebook, reshare on Google+, than it is to create and write interesting content yourself. We have become passive followers rather than active creators.The people who stayed with active writing either, enjoyed the process (like me) or had been writing on the Web before ‘blogging’ became the it-thing. In fact, a lot of these folks no longer refer to their writing as blogs. Mark Boulton, Craig Mod, Jeremy Keith have journals, while Randall Munroe has a xkcd blag. Jeffrey Zeldman prefers to just call it a website!Of silos and walled gardensJason also seems to use the word blogging to distinguish writing on your own website from writing on silos (Facebook, Tumblr, Medium, Google+… ).The tightly-integrated walled garden that these silos provide is very, very tempting compared to the wild, anything-goes, shoot-from-the-hip nature of the open Web. If you write on these silos you are given easy access to a large audience along with plenty of easy-to-use tools for sharing. But, you also miss out on the people who don’t live in your particular walled-garden. Should you post multiple copies of your content on every silo? Should you update all of them and keep them current?The most problematic aspect of this is that there are only copies, no original! If in the future someone wants to read your content, in which silo should they look for the best representation?Another issue I have is conformity. Every tweet, post on Facebook looks and feels exactly the same. Medium, for instance, seems to exert a lot of control on how its articles look. While it helps to exert some quality control, this makes the platform very restrictive 7.What happens when one of these silos shuts down? Imagine if every time a popular book publisher closed down, every copy of all the books they ever published just disappeared. What a disaster! That is the situation with writing on silos. Sure, they might give you a backup copy of all your posts, but then you’d republish them on another silo and the cycle begins anew. It is much better to publish on your own site as the canonical version and syndicate copies elsewhere aka POSSE.In this sense, the blog isn’t dead. It is just sleeping or the blog might be dying, but the web’s about to fight back.ReawakeningBlogging is not a form, not a style, not a UI format, not a medium. It is a made-up buzzword like Web2.0 or web-app 8. Blogging, the buzzword might very well have lived from 1997-2013. As for writing on the Web, it has existed as long as the Web has, and will continue to do so.As of today, people are increasingly turning to walled-garden silos to host their content. If the death of blogging means the end of a fad, of a buzzword, of bad writing then I am all for it. If, on the other hand it means the end of original writing on the Web, or writing solely on silos, I really hope ‘blogging’ rises back from the dead to haunt us.In any case, let’s not ‘blog’, let’s just write—on our own personal place on the Web.Notes & ReferencesMore on ‘Blogs being dead’: The blog is dead, long live the blog and R.I.P. The Blog, 1997-2013 by Jason Kottke.The Death of the Blog, Again, Again by John Scalzi.The blog isn’t dead. It is just sleeping. by Colin Devroe.The blog might be dying, but the web’s about to fight back by Ben Werdmuller.This is a website by Jeffrey Zeldman.Blogging and UI: Weblog Weirdness by Eric Meyer.Blog Interface Design 2.0 by Luke Wroblewski.Blogging and journalism: Is Blogging journalism? by Paul Andrews.Blogging vs. Journalism: The Ongoing Debate by Jacob Friedman.the transition to digital journalism by Paul Grabowicz.Books on the Web: The Feynman Lectures on PhysicsButterick’s Practical TypographyThe James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture 2013—Kevin Spacey about the paradigm-shifting success of House of Cards.Blogs by scientists: What’s new by Terry Tao.Not Even Wrong by Peter Woit.One Universe at a Time by Brian Koberlein.Musings by Jacques Distler.Azimuth by John Baez.This restrictive post format is one of the main reasons I moved to own site. I would not be able to post a lot of things I have here, on Medium or Facebook or Google+.Webapp or not: By any other name and Defining the damn thang by Jeremy Keith.Poll Results: “Sites” vs “Apps” by Chris Coyier.