Voice of the Web

In Libre Graphics Magazine issue 1.3 (free download on website), Eric Schrijver writes in “The voice of the shell—in collaboration with my computer”:

The command-line […] is another way of accessing and manipulating the data on your computer. The query-response format is wonderful. I amaze students with the whoami command—the computer knows the answer! This gives the impression, to some, that it is possible, through the console, to have a conversation with the computer.
I’m not sure the Turing Test of the future is going to be CLI-based, but I put that distraction aside and read on.
I do often feel like I am talking to the computer. But when the computer talks back to me, from time to time the voice of the computer gives way to the voice of the programmer; or at least, to my image of this programmer.
He gives two examples. 7zip announces its version number, some task parameters, a list of files extracted, and ends with “Everything is Ok”. Eric imagines this programmer as a “pretty, dark-haired boy […] shy and his eyes, hiding already behind large glasses, avoid your gaze.” Meanwhile, when in response to your “RCPT:” Telnet says “Error: I can break rules, too. Goodbye.”, Eric pictures “crouched behind his computer, staring intently at the screen, a system administrator, overweight and with unkempt hair, staring maniacally at the screen, laughing out loud about this error message that is going to upset the people using his code.”

Having used the CLI for some time, I know where he’s coming from. This “voice of the programmer” makes itself felt in many CLI-based projects, especially one-man projects. And stories abound about the personality of programmers manifesting themselves right in the code they write, especially in code comments. But that’s not my concern here.

There is much code we interact with, particularly on the web. And not only programmers, but web designers and copywriters (whether one entity or in separate roles), leave just as much influence on the “voice of the programmer.” Perhaps we should start calling it “voice of the web” instead.

When Google Drive tells me “the last edit was made 2 hours ago by username”, I imagine a receptionist, cool gaze on her company-issued TN monitor,  tapping on the keyboard, then looking up with a standard worded response to my query. Full, grammatical sentences. I nod in appreciation.

When Dropbox says “Restored recently_deleted_file.ext”, a busier receptionist, possibly wearing glasses, black hair tied back into a ponytail is juggling a phone call, scribbling down notes from it while whispering “can I help you?” in my direction. Fast and efficient on the keyboard, she turns to face me again a few seconds later. “Your security card. First door on left.” Busy, efficient, with a certain curtness that Singaporeans would be familiar with. I’m not one to be displeased by fast service. (You may prefer the image of a well-dressed, sweatered fellow, lips straight, movements sharp. It’s your imagination.)

When Trello says nothing at all, giving only visual cues, I peer over the counter at a freckled face inches away from the screen, and gingerly pass him/her (it’s hard to tell) my letter of request. He/she looks back up at me, nods and points to the door. No words are necessary; gestural communication alone suffices for the directions I need. I smile in thanks and head off on my way.

That’s what a modern sans-serif does for you; the impression of contemporary cleanliness and professionalism, and ready service. In contrast, Readability asks you, “Are you sure you want to remove this article? Delete It or Cancel.” Alfred the butler right there, classic but not out of place, all serifed up in Minion Pro.

Feedly’s “Refreshing, please wait …”, Mibbit’s amusing parodies of customer service lines, various other web service status messages … they form the voice of our various web servants. The impressions I’ve described above are subjective and solely my own, but for designers and copywriters I think it’s always worth the time and effort to think about how design and typesetting convey a message just as much as gesture and body language does. We are responsible for the subtler nuances of our own real-world experiences, just as much as for our online interactions.

On a related note, there are the unexpected coincidences that leave us conflicted. Screenshots of Despair has a few. Computers, with their scripted responses, are still capable of human-machine faux pas!