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RE: A new iconography? (was:How to convince businesses to be accessible...)

From: Charles F. Munat <chas@munat.com>
Date: Tue, 17 Oct 2000 22:58:58 -0700
To: "'Anne Pemberton'" <apembert@crosslink.net>, "'David Woolley'" <david.woolley@bts.co.uk>, <w3c-wai-ig@w3.org>
Message-ID: <000201c038c8$825e59d0$8f21e7d8@aries>
Anne Pemberton wrote:

>>The objections are to the use of word art when plain text would carry
>>the same information, and to the use of large quantities of multimedia
>>for atmosphere, when that multimedia, more often than not, fails because
>>of bandwidth constraints.

>Fails? fails what? Such sites are very popular, and more come online every


I've been reading with interest your posts over the past few months. On more
than one occasion, I've been tempted to reply, but have been loath to add to
the fray. The above comment, however, begs for a rebuttal.

The list to which you've been posting is a list concerning accessibility on
the Web. Yet, to my mind, you seem more interested in promoting graphics and
multimedia, accessibility be damned. How else can you explain your disdain
for slow Internet connections? This is a form of economic discrimination. I
can sit at home with my 1Mb SDSL connection and download multimedia all day,
but my less fortunate neighbor with his 28k modem and dial-up connection has
to go to the library and wait an hour in line so he can get 15 minutes
on-line? Why? So web sites can screech and roar while graphics swirl?

I build web sites for a living. My experience is that fancy, high-tech
graphics have a lot more to do with the designer's ego (or with marketing's
desire to manipulate) than with usability. And all of the research I've seen
seems to back that experience up. While I agree that careful use of graphics
and multimedia can enhance the ability of a site to convey information,
let's be honest: that is by far the exception. The rule is that such
"enhancements" most often detract from the usability of the site.

When cable TV first arrived in the mid-1970's, we were promised "one hundred
channels of commercial-free content." Have you watched TV lately? I don't
have one, but I've seen my sister's satellite TV: 100+ channels of crap.
Many of those channels are nothing more than 24-hour "infomercials." But
boy, the special effects are great!

Over the past 50 years, the state-of-the-art in audio-video has advanced in
orders of magnitude. Have all these great special effects resulted in better
TV? Better radio? Better movies? Hell, better magazines? For just one
example, compare today's "infotainment" news shows to the kind of news
Walter Cronkite reported during the Vietnam war. This is advancement? I
remember black-and-white documentaries from the 60's that provided more
information in the first ten minutes than most current efforts manage in two
hours of color special effects!

As I see it, the Web is rapidly becoming nothing more than interactive-TV,
and as with TV, the medium is being deliberately dumbed-down for the sake of
marketing. In ten years--mark my words--the Web will be the same vapid
wasteland that TV is today. Probably sooner.

So when you say "Fails? Fails, what?" I say "Read what he said." Multimedia
"more often than not" fails because FAILS: because it doesn't download,
because it can't be viewed or heard, because it plain doesn't work. What on
earth does the popularity of heavy graphics sites have to do with it? With
whom, exactly, are these sites popular? Certainly not with those limited to
28k modems and dial-up connections, which includes a great many people in
rural areas both in the U.S. and elsewhere. And are these sites popular
because of the multimedia content or in spite of it? Given two sites equal
in all respects except that one uses "word art when plain text would carry
the same information" and "large quantities of multimedia for atmosphere,"
can you provide any evidence to show that the slower-to-download,
multi-media heavy site would be more popular? Have you any examples at all?

I think that your arguments have more to do with ideology than with
accessibility. And I think that your ideology is a market ideology: To wit,
the only people who count are those with buying-power. After all, who has
the high-bandwidth connections? Certainly not the poor. So, hey, let's build
lots of multimedia-heavy sites, and when told that the poor are starving for
bandwidth we'll reply, "Let them watch TV!"

I think somewhat differently. I think that special effects, graphic design,
and multimedia are most often used as a crutch, or perhaps more accurately,
as smoke and mirrors. They are used to distract us, to prevent us from
realizing that the site/show/movie we are viewing really has nothing of
value to say. That's a great benefit when your goal is to sell people more
junk they don't really want or need, but it is terribly harmful when your
goal is to educate or to build community: It is a tale told by an idiot,
full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Fool that I am, I want to use
the Web to undo some of the damage wrought by television, not to exacerbate

Forgive me if I've misread your intentions, but after rereading your posts,
I'm pretty sure I haven't.

Here's my view:

Multimedia should be:

1. The last resort, not the first;
2. Used only if it enhances communication;
3. Used only if the information conveyed is available to all. If that means
duplicating the information, so be it. And if it's too expensive to do it
accessibly, then it's to expensive to do it at all.

Furthermore, when multimedia is used, it should be optimized to the greatest
extent possible to provide the most bang for the byte. On a games site where
nothing of importance is conveyed, bandwidth-intensive multimedia might be
fine, but on a news site or any other site containing important information,
it should be used only when it meets the above criteria.

I'm all for high-bandwidth. I think that the governments of the world should
subsidize high-bandwidth connections for the poor of every nation. But then
I also think that we should feed them, clothe them, and provide them with
medical care, shelter, and education, so perhaps I'm unrealistic. I'm also
for a constitutional amendment (and the equivalent in other nations)
guaranteeing equal access to all, both on and off line. Maybe I'm just plain

Crazy or not, I'm smart enough to know that none of the above are likely to
happen anytime soon. Until they do, I favor lean, clean,
aesthetically-pleasing, content- and information-packed, user-friendly,
non-commercial, accessible-to-all sites free of gratuitous special effects
and graphic-design-for-the-designer's-sake.

Just my two cents. Pardon my interruption. Please continue with your

Charles F. Munat,
Seattle, Washington
Received on Wednesday, 18 October 2000 01:54:11 UTC

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