My daughter, the user
What my toddler told me about making websites
And yes I know that sounds like clickbait but it really is the subject of the essay
I have toddler twins. Dressing my son in the morning is easy, save for some fidgeting. But my daughter has body-shaking opinions over what clothes she will allow onto her body. These opinions weren’t there, and then one day, a little over a year ago, they were. Suddenly a docile, plump two-year-old could be transformed, by the sight of a pair of overalls, into a sort of wolverine. After being repeatedly kicked in the jaw I sat her down — she didn’t have any words yet — and watched her grieve outright, mouth turning down and opening. Above a quivering tongue and around a crooked front tooth sailed a horrible wail.
But over…overalls. Thus began a routine, the daily Evaluation of the Pants and Skirts, which occasionally ends in her dressed and just as often ends with her sobbing until she goes limp and consents to leggings. We’re a year in. It’s typical toddler stuff.
One thing though: As my daughter pounded her fists against my chest I was overcome with deja vu. I couldn’t place it. It took weeks. Then one day as the sight of some taupe slacks (presented in desperation after the rejection of star-emblazoned pants, green jeans, pink skort, gray wool leggings, and a formal plaid party dress) rendered her into screaming jelly, it came to me: The Gap Logo freakout of 2012.
Perhaps you remember it. Gap, the clothier, offered up to the world a new logotype. Granted, this new logo did look like something someone jimmied up in PowerPoint. But nonetheless, no one could have predicted the massive collective panic that occurred. The world, by which I mean that portion of the world which can take to the Internet and type enragedly about logos, shouted with fire in its tweets, such that the Gap retreated to its old logo, utterly conceding defeat to the commons.
I had nothing to do with that debacle, but in far smaller ways, working as a writer and builder of websites, I’ve seen how people react to aesthetics up close and personal in emails. They get angry! They write you long emails about how you’ve ruined everything. They kvetch on Twitter and proclaim the end of civilization. The poet Don Marquis—one of the more famous popular poets of the last century—once said that publishing verse is like “dropping a rose petal down the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo.” If so, launching a new website or app is like dropping a match into a bucket of jet fuel and waiting for the ambulance.
This used to be an experience that only web nerds shared, all the sudden emails with subjects like YOU FAILED, the emailed suggestions of painful sexual acts that were perceived as your due, and so forth. Now it’s a regular part of civilian life — watching warm pools of humanity overreact. It surrounds and suffuses us, this urgency of opinion. The people inspiring such reactions laugh it off, but of course it leads to hunched shoulders and overeating. It leads to dread as you watch common humanity react in the same damn ways, repeatedly. It leads to this weird sense of despair.
And yet. Here was my daughter, whom I love, out of her mind over yellow when yesterday yellow was all she’d wear. Buttons or spangles, sparkles or her hair tied up in a knot; she is mercurial, and her preferences come from some strange inner wellspring that I will never find or understand. Some days we send her to nursery school in leopard-skin leggings and a paisley top, like she works at a coffeeshop in Taos.
When it comes to clothes, she’s the consumer. I’m the service and content provider. Thinking of the GAP, I realized: I understand this relationship. When you aggregate enough people and get them to talk about design they become, basically, a single giant toddler. This is how MySpace happened!
It can make for a hell of a bedtime, for it applies to pajamas as well, and it has led me to consider turning her into a tiny Steve Jobs, with nothing to wear but 20 identical turtlenecks and 20 pairs of blue jeans. But that would be cruelty. I want her to have opinions. Her sense of pants is hers alone.
For decades now I’ve been doing my stuff and bracing myself for emails and tweets. I’d spent an entire career conflating preference with criticism. I’ve been holding up tiny articles of clothing to strangers and waiting for the scream. Here’s what my daughter taught me: You can’t win. Everyone sobs it out, puts on their pants, and gets on with their day.