Old media metaphors in web design

By Aharon Rabinowitz


Alan Lui discusses the use of visual metaphors from older media in web design and argues that such metaphors “naturalize the limitations of the new medium by disguising them within those of older media” (Reader, page 228).

Discuss while giving an example of a website.

Strangely, websites with “cool” design are not the more innovative ones, but those which imitate the appearance of old-fashioned media. Alan Lui gives the example of “web page presented as a notebook complete with a spiral binding” (Lui, 2004: 228), such as this one for instance . Why does a whole new media like the internet, which allows almost infinite design possibilities thanks to the evolution of HTML and CSS, still reproduce preexisting design characteristics?

This trend takes root in the broader phenomenon of continuity (or “remediation”) between the modernist design movement and web design (Lui, 2004: 214). In the modernist era a new pattern appeared in design, whose philosophy was clarity, minimalism and harmony. With the emergence of IT, this paradigm flowed on the internet. Designers were unconsciously influenced by this heritage, and built websites’ design accordingly (Lui, 2004: 206).

For instance Steve Job revendicates that the design of Mac computers was inspired by old calligraphy, as he explains in his famous speech “connecting the dot” (start at 3:00 stop at 5:00).

According to Lui, “cool design on the web copies the look and feel of modernist graphic design”. At the contrary, “pages suck if they become too busy with background images” (Lui, 2004: 210). Similarly, the font “Comic Sans” was mostly inspired by the typography of old American comics book (Merz, 2009: 9).

Moreover web design imitates the characteristics of preexisting media to recreate a familiar environment for computer users. Indeed the internet space can be destabilizing as it differs so much from all traditional conventions. By reproducing familiar conventions, by designing a blog as a calendar for instance, designers make internet users feel comfortable with the interface. The same reason lies behind the “desktop metaphor”, which transfers the symbols of desk, documents, folders, and trashcans to the computers (Merz, 2009: 10). Many Human Computer Interfaces use similar standardization metaphors.

Last but not least, metaphors from preexisting media are used to overcome the spatial and temporal conditions of the internet which “scramble design”. It is indeed difficult for designers to define proportions online as there is no “grid” like in print-based media. There is also a temporal problem as “text and images download at different paces” (Lui, 2004: 223). Designers therefore use frozen visual metaphors from old media to “fight the conditions of the medium” and to control spatio-temporal disturbances (Lui, 2004: 225). For example this photographer uses a flipbook effect to display his portfolio in order to create a façade of spatio-temporal unity. This is why Lui writes that designers “naturalize the limitations of the new medium by disguising them within those of older media” (Lui, 2004: 228).

Yet his statement should not be generalized. Firstly some websites reproduce old media metaphors just because they need it to add veracity to their content. This is the case of this website which displays old archive books: here the flipbook effect is necessary to convey sensations attached to collector’s books.

Moreover a whole new trend of “anti-design” develops online, challenging the philosophy of “good” web design. This deconstructivist movement embraces the unexpected spatio-temporal characteristics of the internet instead of fighting them (Lui, 2004: 228). They put disturbance at the core of their design, creating fluid pages, such as this one, playing with the “distortions of scale and form” and “the shocking use of colour” (Lui, 2004: 216). According to anti-designers, it is foolish to try to reproduce a fixed design harmony online as “good design cannot be equated with informational clarity because information itself is profoundly unclear” (Lui, 2004: 222). For instance this website  plays with the internet’s fuzziness by taking visitors to many fake or irrelevant pages.


Leo Merz, ‘Comic Resistance’, in Olia Lialina and Dragan Espenschied (eds) Digital Folklore Reader, Stuttgart: Merz Akademie, 2009, pp. 225-237.

Alan Lui, ‘Information is Style’, in Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004, pp. 195-230.

The socio-cultural functions of piracy

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Medosch argues that: “piracy, despite being an entirely commercially motivated activity carried out in black or grey markets, fulfills culturally important functions” (Reader, page 318).

Discuss ONE of these arguments while giving an example online

Piracy is usually studied in economical or legal debates through the prism of copyright infringement. Here I would like to take a more original approach and examine this phenomenon from a sociocultural perspective.

One of piracy’s unexpected outcomes is cultural democratization. Medosch takes the example of China, where the government tightly controls the production of cultural goods and filters  foreign movies. In this context the sale of illegal movies’ copies at low cost on black and grey markets allows people to access to independent art movies that are not distributed by official channels (Medosch, 2008: 81). Piracy can therefore be the vector of  a counter-hegemonic culture. This shows another face of the pirate, as a “connoisseur who caters sophisticated tastes and needs” (Medosch 2008, 81). Whereas in China the access to foreign film collections was limited to elite institutions such as the “Beijing Film Academy and China Film Archive”, the pirate market introduced movies like Tarkovsky’s Nostalgia to the public and allowed the creation of a cinephile community (Lu, 2011: 7). In Iran, the widespread circulation of pirate copies of the movie “Persepolis” (which denounces the regime’s exactions) even led the government to stop the censorship.

We find a similar pattern in democratic, developed countries. In this case the hegemonic power is not the government but international media corporations. Major music labels and film studios indeed monopolize cultural distribution channels and prevent local businesses to produce more diverse cultural works at cheaper prices. Piracy is a way to overcome these economic barriers (Medosch, 2008: 80).

Outside the cultural field, Murdoch also argues that piracy can also have political functions. He gives the example of the LAN houses in the Brazilian favelas, “mixtures of internet cafés, public gaming centers and computers shops” where the internet connection is pirated (Medosch, 2008: 81). These LAN houses allow marginalized populations to access to critical information about their human rights. LAN houses are “places for citizenship, e-government services, and even education” (Lemos, 2010: 33). In this sense piracy has therefore a civic role of digital inclusion and helps to reduce the digital divide. We can relate this phenomenon with the pirate movement of “free software”, which makes licensed softwares freely available  in order to liberate the cyberspace and to empower computer users (Stallman, 2002).

Yet it seems to me that the real factor of democratization  is more the internet access in general than piracy in particular. Indeed the internet is a great tool of democratization: it increases communication and sharing of information services to such an extent that the United Nations has even proposed to make internet access a Human Right.

Besides we should not forget that these social and cultural functions of piracy are more the exceptions than the rule. Piracy, as Medosch says, remains “an entirely commercially motivated activity”. The most pirated movies are rather mainstream than eclectic, as this top 10 reveals. Pirates are mainly “interested in dealing in a small range of the most popular international recording artists, sure-fire in demand entertainment products that are highly sought after and can be easily sold” (Panethiere, 2006: 24). Lastly it should also be noted that while piracy can sometimes help local artists, most of the time it has harmful consequences. This testimony of a small writer nuances the cultural, economical and social benefits of piracy.


Medosch Armin, ‘Paid in Full: Copyright, Piracy and the Real Currency of Cultural Production’, in Deptforth. TV Diaries II: Pirate Strategies, London: Deptforth TV, 2008, pp. 73-97.

Lemos Ronaldo, ‘LAN Houses: A New Wave of Digital Inclusion in Brazil’,  in Information Technologies & International Development, Volume 6, SE, Special Edition 2010, 3 1 – 3 5

Lu Ji , The Viral Life of An Alternative Cinematic Public Sphere: Piracy, Circulation and Cultural Control in Cyber Age China, MIT, 2011

Panethiere Darrell , The Persistence of Piracy: the Consequences for Creativity, for Culture, and for Sustainable Development, UNESCO, 2006

Stallman Richard , ‘Why Software Should Be Free’, in Joshua Gay (ed.) Free Software, Free Society: Selected Essays of Richard Stallman, Boston: GNU Press, 2002, pp. 121-133.

How internet modifies our brain

UCLA scientists conducted a study on the impact of the internet on neuronal activity.

They examined the neural circuitry of two teams of participants, one doing internet searches while the other was reading books.  It appeared that the internet stimulates areas controlling complex reasoning and decision-making, whereas books don’t.

Source: UCLA Newsroom

According to the principal investigator Dr. Gary Small, “Internet searching engages complicated brain activity, which may help exercise and improve brain function.”

On the other hand, the technology writer Nicholas Carr argues in his book that “we are sabotaging ourselves, trading away the seriousness of sustained attention for the frantic superficiality of the Internet”.

Indeed although internet gives us access to unlimited information, it has fragmented our knowledge and makes it more difficult to have an overview about a topic. Carr takes the example of Google:  “We don’t see the forest when we search the Web […] we don’t even see the trees. We see twigs and leaves.”

Moreover when working on a computer, our concentration is always distracted by what Carr calls the “ecosystem of interruption technologies”: we click on links, we check our emails, we go on Facebook, on Twitter… Because of its plasticity, the brain adapts to this permanent multi-tasking state. As a consequence it is more difficult for internet users to only focus on a difficult text. In the worst scenario in the future we won’t be able to read books anymore.

The scary Panda


The impact of  Google’s new algorithm, “Panda 2.1“, clearly shows the extent of Google’s power on the internet. Indeed businesses seem to have become completely dependent of the Californian firm, which control 90% of internet researches.

This updated algorithm aims to filter content farms from Google’s search results. Yet it causes devastating collateral damages on small businesses, as  some of them lost 60% of traffic since this update came out. Strangely, the web visibility of Ciao.co.uk, owned by Microsoft, even dropped by 94% according to the BBC.

Everything is OK on the New York subway


I really like this video. It shows  an activist of  the Love Police  in the New York subway denouncing commercial media . According to him, “the real information is on the internet”. It is a good example of the media/blog debate that I tackled in the previous post.


“Free newspapers are not design to enlighten you, they are design to fill your mind with war and terror, poverty and famine, in order to make you buy more products… This is the New York happy carriage, all free newspaper will be confiscated”

In an era where communication is more and more mediated by computers and the internet,  the speaker encourages direct, human-to-human interaction: “eye contact is now permitted in the happy carriage, you can make eye contact with your fellow human beings!”.

The end of journalism?

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Russell (et al.) compares elite media and institutions with bloggers and ponders the following question: “Do bloggers, with their editorial independence, collaborative structure and merit-based popularity more effectively inform the public?” (Reader, page 136). Do you agree? Use examples to illustrate your point of view


When it comes to inform the public, blogs have undeniable advantages compared to traditional media. Firstly, they provide more original information. Traditional media indeed need to cover only the profitable topics to survive financially. At the contrary, thanks to the low cost of publishing and editing on the internet, and with the help of RSS to distribute content, it is now very easy for bloggers to disseminate knowledge (Russel, 2008: 43). Bloggers can write about very specific topics even if they only interest small audiences: it is Anderson’s theory of “the long tail”.

Besides the concentration of media ownership by few companies can undermine journalistic independence. Some practices, such as the embedded journalists in Irak, raise doubts about press impartiality (Russel, 2008: 66). Blogs appear as a solution to the mainstream media’s legitimacy crisis. They are a form of DIY journalism, free from political and financial pressure and provide a diversity of insights. For example the blogger Jean Quatremer was the only one  who talked Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s behaviour with women before his arrest. Moreover bloggers manage to acquire public legitimacy thanks to reputation filters among the blogosphere (Lasica, 2003: 73). As Lasica summarizes it, “they introduce fresh voices into the national discourse on various topics and help build communities of interest through their collections of links” (Lasica, 2003: 72).

Furthermore with blogs we move from a top-down relationship between media and consumers to a peer-to-peer relationship between “produsers” of information. Contrary to the centrally organized media’s structure, blogs are founded on  participation (Bardoel, 2001: 97). With their ethic of open sharing, they represent a shift in the balance of power between producers and consumers of news (Russel, 2008: 67). They enable individuals to play an “active role in the process of collecting, reporting, analyzing and disseminating information”. This is why the website OhMyNews states that “every citizen is a reporter”.

Blogs therefore contest the “uniqueness of journalism as a profession”: in this view every blogger can define himself as a journalist; all it takes is to analyze events in a meaningful and accurate way (Flew, 2008: 151).

Yet it would be wrong to think that blogs should replace traditional journalists. Providing quality information requires time to verify the facts and sources, and financial resources to conduct investigations. Only professional journalists have it: Bob Woodward took for instance 18 months to investigate on “Obama’s Wars”. Corporate media’s close relationship with political powers also has its advantages, as it enables journalist to access to sources and inside information (Flew, 2008: 154). Moreover “new media provide a platform where al voices can be heard but not all voices attract equal amounts of attention”: most of the blogosphere traffic is captured by few “A-list” blogs (Russel, 2008: 67). Citizens who get their information only from these blogs therefore risk to only be exposed to subjective news coverage.

The famous Instapundit blogger warned his audience against this phenomenon:

“What worries me more, in a way, are the friendly emails from people saying that they get all their news from InstaPundit. Don’t do that! It’s “InstaPundit,” not “InstaNews Service.” […] What you get here — as with any blog — is my idiosyncratic selection of things that interest me, as I have time to note them, with my own idiosyncratic comments. What’s more, to the (large) extent that it’s shaped by my effort to play up stories that Big Media are ignoring, it’s even more idiosyncratic. I hope you like it, but making it your sole source of news is probably not a good idea. It’s like living solely on appetizers and desserts: there’s no “four food groups” approach here.”

Rather than thinking old and new media as two separate spheres it is therefore better to see bloggers as complements and watchdogs of traditional press (Drezner, 2008: 18). The two spheres mutually influence each other. Many journalists have their own blog, and mainstream media slowly move toward more interactivity and participation by opening articles to comments, inviting bloggers on their websites and practicing participatory journalism. There is a “continuum of openness across online new sites” (Flew, 2008: 145). Mainstream media need bloggers for their grassroots reporting. For instance Egyptian bloggers such as Ramy Raoof  gave first account of the Egyptian spring’s events  whereas journalists could not access to the Tahrir square.

The Bondy blog school is a good example of collaboration. During the 2005 French riots the Bondy Blog provided the point view of young people living in the suburbs.  Thanks to the help of professional journalists, this initiative is still going on today.


Bardoel, Jo, Deuze, Mark,. Network Journalism: Converging Competences of Media Professionals and Professionalism. In: Australian Journalism Review 23 (2), 2001 pp.91-103

Drezner Henry, Daniel W.The power and politics of blogs”, in Public Choice, Jan 2008, Vol. 134 Issue 1/2, p15-30

Flew Terry, ‘Citizen Journalism’, in New Media: An Introduction, Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2008, pp. 106-116.

Lasica J.D., Blogs and Journalism Need Each Other, Nieman Reports Fall 2003, v57 i3, p70(5)

Russell Adrienne, Mizuko Ito, Todd Richmond and Marc Tuters, ‘Culture: Media Convergence and Networked Culture’, in Kazys Varnelis (ed.) Networked Publics, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008, pp. 43-76.

Is there such a thing as YouTube celebrity?

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Regards,Burgess and Green argue that: ordinary people who become celebrities through their own creative efforts “remain within the system of celebrity native to, and controlled by, the mass media” (Reader, page 269).

Discuss this argument giving an example of a YouTube video (embed it into post). Specify chosen argument in your answer.


YouTube is a space of community building, where the boundaries between users and the producers, between professionals and amateurs are blurring. It is a powerful tool for the democratization of cultural production and a space of expression  for amateur cultural production. For instance the video clip “Hey”, which is described as a celebration of the “bedroom culture” got over 21 millions views (Burgess, 2009: 26). YouTube videos are part of a vernacular creativity process practiced outside the dominant cultural value system. Indeed YouTube users promote videos on other support (blogs, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts); there are no intermediaries between the audience and the cultural productions.

At first sight YouTube therefore appears as a user-driven social platform which differs from the traditional media’s business model. Thanks to the comments, the rating system and the views counting, YouTube developed its own internal system of celebrity. It enables to launch stars even if they don’t fit in the mainstream media system as a buzz video on YouTube can instantly be viewed by millions of people worldwide.  YouTube is founded on the myth of DIY (Do It Yourself) celebrity, on the idea that  talents can access to fame without going through the mass media system, thanks to new means of digital distribution (Burgess, 2009: 27).  In this sense “Broadcast Yourself” would be the new motto to become rich and famous.

YouTube’s celebrity system is user-based, open and democratic compared to the elitist and hard-to-access commercial media system. The website seems to announce a shift in celebrity building, already announced by reality TV: ordinary people are the new stars (Turner, 2009: 13). Indeed “recording labels and talents scouts increasingly turn their attention to online publishing” (Burgess, 2009:22), mainstream media now look on YouTube to find the next buzz video. It is the phenomenon of “celebrification”: “ordinary people have never been more desired by, or more visible within, the media” (Turner, 2009: 13).

Yet mass media still occupy a central role in the celebrity making process. Indeed even although YouTube promotes “the cult of the amateur”, the only way for DIY celebrity to avoid sinking into oblivion is to gain mass media coverage. Mass media are indispensable to cross the boundary between the “ordinary” and the “media” worlds (Couldry, 2000). YouTube can produce temporary buzz, but only mass media have the ability to create real stars in the long term, to reach broader audiences and to provide important financial resources (Turner, 2009: 12).

Tay Zonday, whose video “Chocolate rain” has more than 66 millions views, typically went from being a YouTube personality to reach the status of mass media celebrity.

Only three months after his song was post on YouTube in July 2007, he made the front page of the Los Angeles Time and appeared in many national TV shows such as Lily Allen and Friends on BBC Three.

Besides some interesting initiatives exist, such as MyMajorCompany, which allows internet users to give micro-donations to finance DIY celebrities, but they are too rare to constitute an alternative remuneration model.

The fact that YouTube talent discovery’s prizes are contracts with commercial companies demonstrates the limits of DYO celebrity. Indeed “new media technologies can open up possibilities for the commercialization of amateur content but the marker of success for these new forms measured not only by their online popularity but by their ability to pass through the gate keeping mechanism of old media” (Burgess, 2009:24). Ordinary celebrity is not an alternative to the mass media celebrity: it is rather a new trend within the celebrity system controlled by mainstream media.

We find a similar pattern in other counter-culture movements such as graffiti art. The graffiti world also has its own internal celebrity system in the streets, yet the only graffiti artists who managed to leave the “ordinary world” had to embrace the commercial art system and expose their graffiti in traditional galleries (Lachmann, 1988).

The quality discourse on YouTube is another sign of  mainstream media’s influence. The proliferation of online tutorials and “how to” articles providing audiovisual tips undermines the  myth of amateur culture. It reveals the persistence of established standards and conventions (Muller, 2009: 130).

Overall I agree with Burgess’ statement: YouTube proposes an alternative celebrity system but it can be sustainable only with the help of mass media. YouTube therefore combines a bottom-up and a top-down conception of celebrity.



Burgess Jean and Green Joshua, ‘YouTube and The Mainstream Media’, in YouTube: Online and Participatory Culture, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009, pp. 15-37

Couldry Nick, The Place Of Media Power: Pilgrims and Witnesses of the Media Age, Routledge, 2000

Lachmann Richard, “Graffiti as Career and Ideology” in American Journal of Sociology volume 94, n°2, 1988

Müller Eggo, ‘Where Quality Matters: Discourses on the Art of Making a YouTube Video’, in Pelle Snickars and Patrick Vonderau (eds) The YouTube Reader, Stockholm: National Library of Sweden, 2009, pp. 126-139.

Turner Graeme, Ordinary People and the Media: The Demotic Turn, Sage Publications Ltd; First Edition edition, 2009