Read this Post because it has Zeldman in the Title

In his recent post Remove Forebrain and Serve Zeldman targets popularity (incorrectly). Instead of focusing on the exceptions like Zeldman does, I think we need to see popularity in terms of how people use it, as a proxy for good judgment.

In his clever but poorly-named article Remove Forebrain and Serve, Jeffrey Zeldman knocks down and kicks tag clouds, those faddish interfaces created from the aggregate behavior of users that have garnered attention on sites like and Flickr. Zeldman makes the argument that tag clouds are like mullets, cool for a second because someone was drunk but not worth a second look.

I agree with Zeldman on that point: tag clouds aren’t very useful. They’re a snapshot of the most popular words on the web site, given visual weight to signify as such, but aren’t helpful as navigation tools. Fortunately for us, but seemingly unbeknownst to Zeldman, those sites don’t rely on tag clouds for their primary navigation.

After Zeldman dutifully puts tag clouds into the trash heap, he then turns his attention to all popularity-based systems. He says:

“Popularity sometimes promotes quality but it is often a finder of mindlessness: extreme leftist or rightist rants, passed-out co-ed photos, embarrassing videos of people who can’t dance trying to dance and people who can’t sing trying to sing.”

Zeldman’s examples are certainly embarassing reminders of systems gone wrong, but who exactly have they gone wrong for? Have they gone wrong for people who have made the thing popular…who find entertainment in such things? No, they’re delighted. Have they gone wrong for those of us who take a gander but simply aren’t interested? No, we simply move on. Have they gone wrong for the person who passed out before becoming photogenic? Perhaps, but they’ve got bigger problems. Zeldman’s point, I think, is that they’ve gone wrong for another, silent party, the party whose content could be receiving our attention instead of content involving the poor co-ed.

This is an amazingly difficult argument to make, simply because it’s going against the rules of the game of humans which state that we use popularity as a proxy for good judgment. It’s just the way we are. To ignore it would be to ignore the behavior of the human race. Even so, in most cases things that are popular are of good quality. There will be nasty exceptions, of course, but those are easy to see (or easy to forget) because they don’t stay popular for long. We can’t dismiss the rules of the game simply because they conceptually lead to a few dead ends. And, in cases like re-electing a President, we sometimes have to admit that a bigger segment of the population simply sees things differently than we do.

Zeldman’s response to popularity is the thinking-man’s response. It’s the response that life shouldn’t work that way because it’s not right. Instead, the people writing the quiet but quality content should get recognition and attention that they deserve. Yeah, and I should have been more popular in high school…tough luck, Joe.

The ironic thing is that Zeldman is a product of the very systems of popularity that he’s complaining about. Even some of the comments left on his site demonstrate that. One person had this to say:

“I found this article through Furl. At the time I saw it, only one person had ‘furled it,’ so there were no motivations based on popularity for me to click on the link. There was, however, the word ‘Zeldman’ in the link text and that is what got me to come take a look. I have, in a manner of speaking, a personal, internal flag for the word, one based on my experience with reading other things you’ve written, Jeffrey.”

The same situation happened to me. I’ve had Zeldman’s blog in my feed reader for a year now, and I happened to catch his posting within 10 minutes of his putting it live. I went to read it not because the article was popular, but because Jeffrey’s always got something interesting to say. That’s why he’s been so popular for so long. Subsequent people may be reading it, however, because now it is popular. If this is the case then the system seems to be working correctly because it was a thought-provoking and well-written post.

Well, I say thought-provoking and well-written only on the assumption that I still have my forebrain.

Published: May 6th, 2005