Unintentional Hipster Faculty

Graduate students today fall squarely in the millennial generation, which means we’re steeped in hipster culture. Readers of a certain age may still associate hipsters with aficionados of 1940s bebop. But today’s version is a different postmodern animal, demonstrating coolness by cultivating tastes and habits that run counter to prevailing consumer-culture norms.

By those standards, an ugly Christmas sweater, a mustache, and $1.99 neon-plastic sunglasses aren’t kitschy, they’re cool, because they reject the mass-media notion that we should look like Calvin Klein models. Watery beer, white bread, and processed cheese singles make for a romantic first date. The more you show the world you don’t care about its expectations, the higher you’ve climbed on the hipster ladder.

It’s easy to see how that can create cultural misunderstandings between generations. Which brings us to college professors and their graduate students. I’m a computer-science Ph.D. student, and over several years, I’ve come to notice that many of our esteemed faculty have personal Web sites that are the digital equivalent of, well, Pabst Blue Ribbon.

Exhibit A: Three Web sites from pre-eminent computer-science faculty at MIT (one of whom, David R. Karger, is my adviser). All three of these professors have published papers in top-tier user-interface conferences. User-interface conferences! Pretty sophisticated stuff. But their home pages look like they were written in Microsoft Word. You might expect the Web sites of such esteemed faculty to be in 3D, or have some sort of Siri integration, or at least to contain a color palette broader than blue and black.

But we graduate students know better.

What hipster badasses! we think. The more eminent the professors get, the more primitive their Web pages become! Just try to print all my publications; you’ll waste a whole toner cartridge. That’s what these 1995-style home pages scream. And while my sample is biased, it’s a trend across campuses—go look for yourself. (Donald Knuth, a patron saint of computer science, is a particularly hipster specimen.)

I’ve asked around and found that my colleagues have a similar reaction to our role models: We believe their primitive Web pages to be a powerful hipster-signaling mechanism. We carefully curate our own Web sites to become our online research-and-teaching portfolios. We learn Web-design tricks, use Photoshop, and make sure our home pages are shiny and pixel-perfect, just in case someone who might hire us one day stops by to look. Secretly, though, we dream of the day when we, too, can have hipsterishly spartan sites to tell the world that we no longer need to care what it thinks.

“When I’m tenured,” we grad students tell ourselves, “I’ll revert my Web site back to plain text, too. No, I’ll go one better. I’ll just leave the Web entirely and buy a fax machine! Surely that’s a sign of academic prowess!”

But then I started researching the process of Web design: How do people actually go about designing and building a Web site? I wandered around Cambridge asking people that question: students, people at start-ups and consulting firms, even my barber (who lamented the demise of Front Page). Eventually I reached the offices of some of those academic hipster luminaries.

It turns out they aren’t hipsters at all. They don’t even own neon-plastic sunglasses. They just don’t have the extraordinary amount of time it takes to build a modern-looking Web site. Some even seemed embarrassed when I brought up the topic. (“Oh, yeah, I should probably update that page.… ”)

We grad students have duped ourselves, projecting our millennial hipster culture onto a situation actually caused just by a lack of good tools to make Web sites easy to build. Your adviser may be a legend, but I can tell you that she secretly wishes she had an awesome Web site.

And—to switch here into computer-guy mode—that should give those of us in the Web community a moment of pause. Making a nice-looking Web page is just too hard. The physicists across the street are teleporting matter! But yesterday I had to read a tutorial on how to vertically center an image. We’ve still got a lot of work to do to make the Web an accessible, expressive medium for everybody.

That’s actually an exciting thought. The Web has already made an enormous dent in human history; most would agree a good dent. That we still have so much work to do is only an indication of how much larger that dent will become.

Ted Benson is a Ph.D. student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

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