Keats, Reflexive Aesthetic Judgments, and Website Reliability

‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’
— Keats

Perhaps, we might add, that is all you need to know on the Web as well. Tasked with evaluating two different web sites that do more or less the same kind of thing, I found myself initially valuing one over the other and then reversing my judgment after more extensive use of both sites. My initial judgment was almost entirely aesthetic. One site looked clunky, crowded, and out of date, very early 2000s. The other was clean and well organized, minimalistic and inviting. It was only after exploring both sites for a good while that I realized the less aesthetically pleasing site was, in fact, the better site and by far.

That initial aesthetic judgment was, of course, a rather subjective means of evaluating a web site. But I think we do that all the time. It is almost a coping mechanism. If, for example, we are looking for some bit of information and a Google search turns up a 100,000+ hits, who has the time to carefully evaluate even the first 20 results. We open pages and make snap judgments about their worth, we close and move on, or then linger for a slightly more careful consideration. That initial judgment, I think, is probably an entirely aesthetic one. Site design can convey reliability and we pick up on those cues, however trustworthy they may be, almost instantaneously.

To be sure, there are more sophisticated means of evaluating the reliability of a website and I’m sure most of us know what they are and employ them. But how often? I wonder if we fool ourselves into thinking that we reason more about website reliability than we actually do. If we are making initial snap judgments on an impressionistically aesthetic basis, then we are all Keatsian now and mostly out of necessity.

Of course, in another sense, we are not Keatsian at all. For really what we are attuned to is not some ideal form of immutable, eternal beauty, but rather the perpetually shifting styles and fashions of web design. “Contemporaneity in design is truth” may be closer to the mark. And perhaps the more significant manner in which the Web has made us Keatsians is in the fostering of negative capability. Or, more cynically, it may just be apathy.

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