App-Site Spectrums

Websites and applications are two overarching artifacts of today’s digital design. Part of their differences occurred to me when I read Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn. Brand sees architecture as an evolving thing that’s never finished upon completion but rather adapts and transforms over time. He quotes Christopher Alexander complaining why most buildings are crappy: “There is real misunderstanding about whether buildings are something dynamic or something static.”

In this light, application is a lot like architecture. They are both dynamic, highly interactive, and somewhat invisible to their users—so deeply embedded in people’s lives that they become as transparent as air. Users are often unaware of their existence in everyday use because they are mere means to other ends. They are functional, utilitarian, and fluid—in a continuous exchange of data shaping and being shaped by the people who use them.

Website, on the other hand, feels more like posters. They are more static, do not subject to alteration or improvisation as much. They assume less function but are more for presentation. Their mode of interaction is that between subject and object, acting upon and provoking responses in their beholders. Their presence is more pronounced and assertive, operating in viewers’ consciousness. People do not use them, but instead visit and encounter them in discrete occasions.

That’s when the following list of antithesis emerges, constituting two ends of a continuum.

Invisible, embeddedVisible, present
Means to other endsEnds in it self
For everyday useFor visit and encounter
Level actantsSubject-Object
Mutually shapedActing upon
Servile artsLiberal arts

While applications are ever-changing (ephemeral) and have no end state (boundless), websites are more finite and have more permanence to them—albeit not literally permanent. Some of these extensions are farfetched, like websites are usually not ends in themselves, nor transcendent or even remotely considered as liberal arts. But if we see these pair of words as spectrums, maybe it’s fair to say that websites fall more on the right side than applications, and vice versa.

There are also some interesting correlations along one axis. For instance, it seems that the more interactions something bears, the more functional, useful, and invisible it is. If there’s a causality or which should take precedence, I am not sure. Is the intensity of interaction a prerequisite of being embedded in people’s lives, or does functionality inherently call for invisibility?

A deliberate mixture of two ends can generate some thought-provoking questions as well. Such as: can we encounter functional things discretely, or instead, can liberal arts be invisible and ephemeral? These questions, though unlikely to survive rigorous examination, are nonetheless a good starting point for further investigation.