Jean Cocteau (French poet and artist) died in 1963. We therefore don’t know what he’d say about the web; whether he’d be passionate about it or critical. But he said something else in an interview when he was explaining the design of a postal stamp with the portrait of Marianne, France’s national symbol. Turns out, Marianne was a bureaucrat’s wife, and so on Cocteau’s stamp there was this female head, not really heroic or even beautiful. The journalist asked if Marianne on the stamp was perhaps too typical.
–Yes, maybe, – Cocteau replied, – but I think it’s good. When one is licked by so many it doesn’t pay to be too singular, lest one is licked with disgust.
I remembered this when I read Chris Brogan’s recent post – Is Your Web Presence Multi-use – and the commentary to it. Put simply, Brogan’s idea in the post is to encourage website owners to bear in mind that they are read by hundreds, if not thousands, different people. In addition to all the different things about those people, they may also speak a different language. The latter fact alone puts a whole new spin on the story.
Some commentators, though, were at odds with such suggestion. “It’s not possible to be all things to all people” and “isn’t the web is all about finding the niche and catering for it?” sum up the criticism amply.
I often find that we lock ourselves in a niche, either as producers or consumers. We think that we found the proverbial purple cow, but what few people remind us of is that the colour fades in the sun. The day will come when your cow is lilac or even white – and that’s not the same as purple. So you at least need to paint your cow once in a while, to freshen it up – which, in terms of a website, may mean changing its design, or putting a new spin on your niche subject.
I’d argue that it’s impossible to cater for a niche. On the one hand, there’s always a bigger picture, and if it’s possible to have your niche border on several supportive subjects, then why not? A blogger’s block often happens in a competitive niche. On the other hand, exactly how niche can you be? So, you may be making a website about scrap cars, but so are a few dozen of other people. What makes you different? How sustainable is your business? Imagine the worst case scenario: the day came when no-one wants to scrap their cars. What will you do? What will make your site – and your name – continue appearing in search results?
You therefore cannot be too niche, and at the same time you have to attract different people if you’re working on the web. Some will come for information; others will come to spend money. I’m one of the kind who believes in the possibility of blending humanism and business. And although it’s not possible to be all things to all people, there’s nothing wrong with making an impact on lives of many people – pretty much like what we’re seeing for over a week now since Michael Jackson is no more.
To round up – a quote from the magnificent Peter Blake, about what makes a person an icon: “You’ve got to have your own style. But not so that in a short while you’re out of fashion. It’s not about being fashionable; it’s just a look, a feel“. Perhaps, we can think of our web presence as if we’re Vivienne Westwood, and, should it be our vision, blend punk with tartan, even if this goes against what the savvy folks teach us. Or think of our web presence as if it’s Kate Moss. She can sniff crack; she can wear a dress in royal blue colour at the Queen’s dinner. But when a fashion journo asks people in the street “who is your fashion icon?“, we all know what the answer will often be.
The image is courtesy of Charles Blomefield, the leading specialist in French stamps.