ariadne's thread

I’m not certain whether it has consistently been online since its initial launch, or it was put back up for archival purposes at some point, but the radical 1997 incarnation of Radiohead’s website left a strong imprint on me back in the days of the dial-up modem. Setting aside the band’s music and politics which hold no interest for me, surfing this site has become an even more extraordinary online experience over the years as the Web and its aesthetic have evolved in tandem with its mass commercialization. These days, when I visit the site I can’t help but think of Theseus and the Cretan labyrinth.

In Greek mythology, King Minos of Crete sought revenge on the people of Athens for the assassination of his son. He commissioned Daedalus, an artist and craftsman, to design and construct a great labyrinth. At its center lived the Minotaur—half man, half bull. King Minos ordered that every nine-years, seven boys and seven girls were to be taken from Athens to Crete and sent into the labyrinth where they would eventually be devoured by the brutal Minotaur.

One year, with aspirations of ending the entire affair, the Athenian boy Theseus, volunteered to be among the seven male tributes sent to Crete to face the Minotaur. Upon his arrival, Ariadne, the daughter of King Minos, fell in love with Theseus and gave him a ball of thread so that he may use it to find his way out of the labyrinth after confronting the Minotaur. Attaching one end of the thread at the opening of the labyrinth and carrying the ball with him, Theseus moved through its winding corridors, found his way to its center, and ultimately defeated the menacing beast. Using the trail of thread that had been quietly documenting his journey, he re-traced his path back to the entrance of the maze and heroically escaped to freedom.

I think Theseus would have enjoyed the World Wide Web in 1997; the adventure and excitement that it fostered. Its labyrinthine shape full of passages, turns, tunnels, and the unknown. Websites often eschewed the formal navigation systems we have come to rely on and expect in favour of more open-ended or casual solutions. Moving around a site—much like moving around the Web in general—was a journey that embraced the forking, wandering naturing of hypertext and allowed the user—with varying degrees of agency—to choose their own path through cyberspace, the hero of their own self-authored epic.

Today’s active web design is enraptured with menus as a primary means to navigate a website. All user actions are predefined, and the journey through the material is as prescripted as possible in an effort to achieve maximum linearity. The user starts at point A, and although they may see point X and then Y or vice versa along the way, they are on a path toward point B from the outset—a known and fixed position—in the mind of the modern web designer. Objective parameters such as these might simplify the process of formulating a design solution, but should online experiences really be reduced to uninspired straight lines? Does that not belittle the canon of hypertext and underestimate the intellect of its users?

The trajectory of the Web when treated ever-increasingly as a marketing tool above all else, has resulted in the proliferation of websites that serve as little more than costumes adorning capitalistic calls-to-action for users who function as potential customers, or simply as mere data with an assumed re-market value. The protestation of designers who have created these disguises and shaped this new Web has been terribly insufficient. If the deterioration of online culture beneath the shadow of commerce is not cause enough to push back, surely the lazy pattern- or template-based approach to interface design—an approach that devalues the very practice of graphic design itself—should move designers to adamantly defend their ground. Alas, we continue to see designers quietly focus on beautifying and streamlining this artificial linearity. In an attempt to absolve themselves of blame for their not insignificant contributions to the political landscape and power imbalance of the Internet, designers have adopted a misreading of the term User Experience (UX) to justify their complicity.

Labyrinths provide an interesting model for us to think about experiences on the Web outside of the baggage associated with UX/UI. There is a beginning and an end, but they are a part of a journey instead of being transactional. The line between points is far from straight, taking the user through countless twists and turns, forking paths and new things awaiting them around each corner. A given journey might involve a vast array of text and images, disparate content demanding new, unexpected, and inspired connections between them. From page to page and site to site there exists the ability to be immersed within the moment, present and aware, attuned to each new interface as opposed to being sedated by aesthetic monotony. Surfing the Web in this way is a rare experience; the abandonment of the Home link and the corporate branding and the offscreen navigation that is always just a click-of-a-hamburger-icon away. To travel freely through cyberspace—letting yourself get lost, stumbling upon some undiscovered gem, finding something with no connection to your initial subject which may cause you to think about it in a new way—is a beautiful and memorable online experience, but it is seldom you find yourself in this situation, even if you expressly seek it out.

Web design could benefit from stepping back and reflecting upon its role in shaping individual experiences and, by extension, society in general. Perhaps the practice should look to Daedalus and his labyrinth for inspiration. Daedalus built an object that contained a bloodthirsty beast, but the design provided a chance for its users to choose their path and discover hidden places, even the possibility of eluding or defeating the beast entirely. Not everything we put online should be commerce-based, but even for the projects that are, can’t we uncover ways to give the user some personal agency over their path, and maybe a chance to escape the clutches of the beast to a greater extent than we are right now? We should be designing the Web that we want rather than continuing to force the user into the role of the product, an advertising target and source of revenue.

User experiences and interactions are more than just the cliché animations we insert between two states. Let us not continue to put a new coat of paint on the same old prefabricated straight-line hallway and dress the transom of its familiar doorways in trendy and novel ways. Instead, let us investigate the labyrinthine possibilities in our websites, facilitating journey and adventure; pathways that let the user get lost, discover new connections, escape the mediocre, and take control over their experience. Rather than expelling energy taking steps to ensure our site visitors always know how to get back to point A, let’s remember that the browser itself equips them with the ball of thread needed to escape the maze in the form of the Back button—and the browser History.

Let’s stop fighting against the format. Let’s let UX involve actual experience and let hypertext function as hypertext. Let’s let the Web be a web.