The other night, I took my Web content development students at North Vancouver's Capilano College on a virtual field trip. We visited the sites of the Conservative Party leadership candidates, plus Paul Martin's blog and Jack Layton's site.
They were bad. Very bad.
First stop: Belindaland
We started with Belinda Stronach's site. Her just-launched campaign had sent the Globe & Mail into palpitations, as if a girl had sneaked into the dorm of a second-rate boys' prep school. What we found was a gaudy site that resembled a very old issue of Chatelaine. Her colours -- light green, avocado, orange -- can still be seen on 1970s kitchen appliances.
Worse, her banner was identical on all pages, and filled the screen. To see the difference between "Meet Belinda" and "On the Issues," we had to scroll down past the same big buttons (Join, Recruit, Donate). The trip was rarely worth it, since the site had nothing to say.
Moreover, the screen layout stretched the text across most of the screen, making it hard to read. Belinda offered a blog which that night totaled two entries. The most recent started "But," since it was a continuation of the first entry, which of course we hadn't read yet. (Her third post is a classic example of paragraphosis: a solid mass of text enlivened only by typos and grammatical errors.)
Every page also offered a pop-up screen of Java errors, and the hard-to-find link to the French-language version of her site crashed my browser.
Next, Harper Valley
Stephen Harper's site was more usable, and offered some content. He uses only a third of the screen for most of his text, making shorter, more readable lines than Stronach's. Whereas Stronach's site conceals the fact she has nothing much to say, Harper's is overcrowded -- especially the home page, where he tries to cram in too many links.
Looming over the Harper home page is one of the more ominous political slogans in recent history: "One Conservative Voice." One gains the impression that dissent will enjoy little tolerance under Harper's leadership.
On to sad, tiny Clementville
The third Conservative candidate, Tony Clement, offered a site so bad that it was almost a Zen koan in hypertext form. Clement's picture, crudely Photoshopped, loomed over a grand menu of three choices: an email link for those eager to join him, a two-page biography (available as either a Word file or as PDF), and his "remarks" announcing his entry into the race (also Word or PDF). He did offer these items in both official languages.
By the time you visit, some charitable grade-11 Web geek may have taken pity on Clement and upgraded his site. I hope not. In its innocent primitivism it's really endearing -- perhaps even a postmodern satire on Flash-rich, information-poor sites.
Forgotten city of Paul Martin Times
Well, "conservatives are not necessarily stupid," John Stuart Mill observed, "but most stupid people are conservative." Surely the Liberals, media-hip as they are, have more to offer. If so, it's not at Paul Martin's blog. The site lacks any eye candy at all. Text runs endlessly across three-quarters of the screen in long, heavy paragraphs. While not quite as old as the Dead Sea Scrolls, Martin's blog has been a cobweb site since last October 19, when he bravely criticized Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed's ant-semitic remarks.
Last stop, sleepy Jacktown
Jack Layton of the NDP has been getting some attention in the papers and on TV, and maybe he's smart to stick to cautious orthodoxy on his site. It's not a blog, just a routine meet-the-leader page on the federal NDP site. Its logo is downbeat, an autumnal-orange maple leaf. A much larger green maple leaf subliminally promises a new spring for the Left. Some of the photos are colourful, but like Stronach and Martin, Layton runs his text right across the screen.
My students and I reflected on what these Websites had told us about those who would lead 21st-century Canada. If these people can't even hire a good Web designer, how are they going to pick our next ambassador to the US? If they can't make their points in clear English on a computer screen, what can we expect from their laws and policies?
In fairness, these are sadly typical corporate Websites, the result of decisions made by committees ignorant of the way the Web works. (Tony Clement's site, by contrast, is clearly one person's deeply mistaken concept.) Such committees, and such decisions, have made most business and government sites unreadable and unusable.
Perhaps it doesn't matter. Howard Dean's presidential campaign has made much of his Web expertise and the millions he's raised through the Internet. Yet he lost badly in the Iowa primaries. Fascinating as the Web may be to some of us, it is still far less influential than its obese big sister, television. The next leaders of Canada won't be the Web-savvy ones, but those whom the camera loves.
Crawford Kilian is the author of Writing for the Web: Geeks' Edition (Self-Counsel Press, 2000) and a compulsive blogger.