We’ve all had the unfortunate experience of meeting them. From somewhere within the murky depths of the Internet, they arise, to purportedly “help” beginning webdesigners and developers…but they manage to “help” while sounding incredibly snarky and condescending. They are the “elite designers,” the peddlers of snobbery on the Web.
For sure, their reputation as “elite” designers is well-deserved, generally. They make beautiful designs, seamless coding, and always seem to be fluent in the right Web languages. But their abilities to make such lovely streamlined sites lends itself all too easily to critical judgments of others, who may not be as fluent or as strong, but who are still learning their craft.
Don’t think they exist? Never run into them? Well, here’s a couple of personal experiences I’ve had with Internet snobs:
Web-Snobs in Authority: Anecdote #1
As a fledgling designer back in ’05, wanting to drive more traffic to my site, I ended up applying to various topsites and site directories to get my link “out there” in front of others’ eyes. All was going well, until I visited a particularly beautiful web directory, which had a little “Help Wanted” box on the front page–they not only wanted more links in their directory, but wanted people who would be willing to evaluate submissions.
I jumped at the chance to help evaluate–I figured that the more websites I saw, the more understanding I would get about my own coding, and perhaps it would help me grow at the same time I helped others get admitted to the directory. I submitted my link, as well as an application to become an evaluator, and happily waited for an email back.
But alas, a few Web snobs got hold of me. A few hours later, I received a curt reply that went something like this:
To be an evaluator for (site name deleted), we feel it’s important to have a strong grasp of good design techniques. We have reviewed your site, which you submitted to the directory, and were honestly unimpressed with your content presentation skills; we do not believe you’d know the right criteria for admissions.
We are hereby rejecting your application for evaluator. Also, we suggest that you perhaps take some graphic design courses and resubmit your link at a later date, so your site will be better up to par with the rest of our directory.
So, not only was I rejected as an evaluator, but my link was rejected from the web directory. Why? Because someone had a bug up where the sun don’t shine, basically. They believed my site was designed badly, and they wasted no time making me feel like a pile of poo over it.
I admit, the design in question was not my best work ever (in fact, you can see what it looked like here–it’s Version 4), but it was an example of me trying out new things, trying to be different, trying to get comfortable with doing various design styles. I had been teaching myself web design for only two years at that point, and I didn’t have access to any courses in graphic design; I was going off of what I believed to be best practices.
I know that as a busy web directory, these guys didn’t have a lot of time to waste with nicely-phrased replies. But rejecting a link to their directory, which could have driven traffic their way no matter how badly designed the referring site was? Even now, I regard that as a pretty stupid move, motivated more by snark than common sense. It was an unnecessary flourish; I could have taken the criticism of my design alone and learned from it, but their added sucker-punch of rejecting my site in totality made it seem like an attack.
Needless to say, I was secretly very glad to hear the directory had shut down a few years later. Reason? They didn’t have enough submissions coming in, and the directory was too small to drive links. (I enjoyed quite a nice belly laugh over that irony.) Good to know that snobs don’t always win in the long run!
Mod Gone Mad: Anecdote #2
Along with trying to submit my sites to topsites and directories, I also had joined a few web design forums to learn more and maybe help other beginners out. I joined one nameless webring clique, which was a site review clique as well as a link directory, but quickly found out that according to one of the mods, I didn’t belong there.
She was a popular webmaster and builder of several useful webmaster tools and software; she also knew a whole lot more than I did about the backend part of web design. I respected her and was quite willing to sit at her proverbial feet and learn from her. But I also wanted to bring my unique perspective on web design to the clique’s forums, helping other beginners like me, writing articles much like this very post. To my surprise, she wasn’t having it.
It started with a couple of posts I made about praising websites instead of being overly critical–due to my past experience with critical judgments, I was alarmed at the amount of snarky, cutting reviews on the webring. I knew what harsh judgments could do to a beginning webmaster’s confidence, and I sought to shore up confidence and offer constructive criticism, pointing them to resources and offering to help where I could. But when I posted about praise, her response was simply “I don’t have time for praise. Next.”
OK, I thought, well, I’ll just make a few comments to some beginning designers on here and stay off the forums for a while. So I visited a couple of sites, offered each webmaster detailed help with some encouragement mixed in, and generally felt good about myself for being the bigger person and not continuing the argument. Little did I know, one of my paltry human judgments clashed with the mod’s omniscient, eternal judgment…she followed up both my review comments with suggestions that the other person should completely ignore my “sugarcoated BS,” since I didn’t know what I was talking about.
The stink of her elitism was strong in my nostrils, and in angry haste I responded to her on the forums; I told her exactly what I thought of her following me around the place and acting as if I had no right to be there. Her response: “Well, I’ve seen your designs. You tell me: does someone who doesn’t even know how to validate HTML have ANY right to advise anybody else here?”
I put up a weak response, something along the lines of “I deserve to be here as much as anybody, but I don’t deserve to be talked to like that”, and logged off. Of course, years later I thought of better comebacks, like “Well, since you apparently own the Internet and are so blasted good at this, why does your profile say ‘unemployed’?”…but of course, you never think of comebacks when you need them. That was the last time I accessed that forum, and I promptly took down the webring link and removed myself from it. I had enough snobs in my everyday life–I didn’t need another faceless snob on the Internet trying to shout me down.
What annoyed me the most about this particular mod was that I had been willing to learn from her, and had indeed sought out her advice before this incident. But her advice was always tinged with disdain, as if I “should know better” than to ask, as if I were an idiot for even forming the question in my mind. I had no issue with her being critical of my designs (though it stung badly); I took issue with her tone and how she treated me like a lesser human being. Poorer designer I may have been, but I still deserved better.
A Dirty Secret: My Own Inner Snob
I’ll admit, however, that I am not free from my own inner snobbery, and it has bitten me on the backside more often than not. When I accepted a web design job from a business halfway across the country, for instance, I privately scoffed and laughed at the previous webmaster’s poor attempts at design. I kept thinking to myself, “I could wipe my rear and end up with a better-looking design.”
Little did I know, the company’s owner had apparently loved the previous, awful look and was disappointed with my more web 2.0, sleek and modern design. (I didn’t even really get paid for the work I did, but I was glad to be rid of that contract!) I felt terrible about how I’d passed judgment on the other designer after the fact–that person was just trying to work within the (terrible) design concept, and ended up doing a better job than I did with it.
Web Elitism is Everywhere…How to Fight It?
As my stories show, it’s possible to be both a victim of Web-snobbery and a perpetrator. The key is to realize when you’re being a snob yourself, and tone it down (with an added apology to affected parties for good measure).
Truth is, we all pass judgment on each other, always trying to size each other up to see how skilled we are in comparison to others, etc. It’s like middle and high school all over again, with the “popular” crowd making all the pretty designs, the “geek” crowd with all the l33t coding skills, and the complete “n00bs” who don’t know any better than bright pink backgrounds and tabular layout designs.
Instead of playing on other people’s lack of confidence or apparent lack of skill, and hoarding all the l33t coding hacks and software tricks to ourselves, I think we web designers and developers should be more a community of designers. We don’t have to be in competition with each other–after all, we’re all trying to do the same thing, just in different languages and different programs. Elitism gets us nowhere; in fact, it can kill off confidence in newbie designers who have great potential, but little access to knowledge and tricks.
So, why don’t we put the one-upmanship aside, just for a while, and try helping out someone who might not know everything you do? Who knows, a new friend might be behind that screenname, wishing someone would chat with them and show them how to make a cool website like yours. 🙂