The ugly truth: why beautiful wins in 2012

Girl with mirror

I looked a lot better in 2011 than 2010.

Not my face, but several parts of who I am online. My travels looked world class. The concerts I attended were of epic proportions. My everyday walks down the street were notable and even my shopping looked as though I had impeccable taste (though admittedly I don’t).

And it’s all going to look even better in 2012.

Unsurprisingly, the tech community didn’t really seem to notice. Instead, we spent a lot of time this year talking about measuring, quantifying and creating influence. We focused on our reach, response metrics and the algorithms we use to quantify it.

But most normal people aren’t deeply motivated by their Klout scores or the statistical impact of their activities on others. In fact, most of the services we saw explode in 2011 aren’t even measured in your Klout score. Instead, they focused on the other side of the social equation — enhancing the quality of our emotional connections with each other.

Looks Matter

What do I mean? The successful web companies of 2011 and beyond are just simply better looking. I don’t mean that on a surface level regarding their precious gradients and logos. I mean, quite literally, visual experiences are starting to become the gold standard of web success.

Before humans ever wanted to be influential, we wanted to be beautiful. Not just beautiful in just the attractive sense, but we want people to look at us and feel things; desire, intrigue, interest. For hundreds of years we’ve been carefully curating our appearance, clothes, jewelry, cars and houses for visceral impact (and judging others). 2012 will be the year these emotions come online full scale. They will change the way we interact with each other, the way we buy things and change our online experiences.

The first wave of the emotional web caught hold over the last year with services like Instagram, Tumblr and About.me.

It’s easy to feel the personal appeal of a product like Instagram. Though the app is simple, it somehow transforms a phone into a window through which we see the lives of the people we love. This feeling of closeness isn’t purely scientific — but somehow by using filters we don’t see exactly *what* the photographer visually sees (as they would with a raw picture) but *how* they see it.

Said another way, Instagram makes our pictures less accurate, but what we lose in exactness we gain in the ability to create instant nostalgia and show our view of our subjects. At its core, Instagram is a simple tool that doesn’t make us better photographers, but better communicators of feelings and experiences, and thats what matters to people.

What makes Tumblr tick

In similar ways Tumblr has changed the way most of us think about blogs. Not only shifting our expectation from text to images, but the structure, layout and emotional appeal we can create ourselves is dramatically improved. For years blogs with beautiful themes, style and content were relegated to design studios and art institutes — until Tumblr. With a total focus on allowing anyone to easily implement a high-art template, source quality content and share virally (sometimes at the cost of usability, or copyright) it clearly struck a nerve.

About.me placed a bet that people weren’t in need of an online directory of their online presences but a page that reflected their personalities and identities first – and directed them to their other sites second. They figured out that the primary source of our identity is how we look and built the site around a browser-sized image of the user.

Each of these services built on a few key concepts (and ultimately on innate human nature):

  • Make it easy for your users to create content they are proud to share. A site that is beautiful and easy to use itself is no longer enough. Sites will be differentiated in their ability to help users’ lives look attractive and interesting. This is important wherever it happens in the process — whether it is beautiful themes for WordPress from WooThemes, images filters in Instagram and Path, or gorgeous blogs on the fly with Tumblr.
  • Prioritize the emotions behind the content over the data within. Images in Instagram are but shadows of their actual situations (sometimes literally). Attribution on Tumblr is barely a hat tip (if that). The best sites will leave accuracy and unneeded information behind to allow the users voice (even if it isn’t theirs) to be heard clearly.
  • Use your real estate. Each of the services made bold choices to utilize large, impactful content wherever possible. This is true especially when using images or video, filling up all appropriate space in the service of creating something beautiful.
  • Dress up your text. About.me and Tumblr do an amazing job of using embedded fonts to enhance their worlds. Typekit (recently acquired by Adobe) is but one pipeline to web beauty.

The Look of Love: 2012 Edition

These services are just the beginning of a revolution that will gain speed in 2012 where all sectors of the net will incorporate their successes.

The existing social titans are already responding. Twitter’s recent redesign integrates media into the core of the site much more closely. The timeline rolled out by Facebook in the past few weeks goes a step further by not only introducing the billboard concept pioneered by Path to its 500M users but auto-creating infographics of users activities.

Business has a lot to learn from these developments as well — and not just from the marketing side.

Social shopping site Svpply is pioneering a visceral online shopping experience that forgoes the common shopping cart metaphor for a tumblr-esque feed of large images. Instead of discerning features and comparing specifications, we browse and react — much like the shopping experience humans have had for the last few thousand years walking through markets – to those products that grip us.

As these concepts gain steam, expect more rich experiences everywhere you touch the web, from travel to heathcare and music to news.

These sorts of concepts simply wouldn’t be possible three or four years ago. The benefit to web and mobile startups today is that now each and every user is outfitted with the tools that can allow for this modified, enhanced beauty: our pockets are buzzing with powerful smartphones with high-quality cameras, video capability, and the processor speeds that can handle the user-side filtering and editing necessary in 2012.

I have a feeling when I look back on 2012 in 365 days, I’ll look even better. Online, at least.

Edward Aten is the founder of Swift.fm, a social music distribution service. You can follow him on Twitter

Image courtesy of Flickr user Cea.

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