Cicadas

I’m finishing my 17th year making money doing the web.

The 17th year is significant for me because I grew up around the 17 year cicadas. As a kid I remember finding what’s called Brood IV — the black and orange Magicicada cassinii — around our backyard, their molted shells covering our fence and trees. I was 8 years old. Their grandchildren emerged from the ground in early summer last year.

Cicadas evolved the 17 year cycle as a way to throw off predators. The annual cicadas come out in force knowing they will be eaten by birds more often than successfully mating. 17 year cicadas, they sit there, buried in the Midwest soil, waiting out generations of predators before coming out in force to bewildered predators.

17 years in this industry. I’ve evolved myself, from a kid with a copy of HomeSite and HTML knowledge to a user experience such-and-such armed with new tools, a lot of experience, and a secret memory of how I got here.

I don’t have any tattoos. I wonder how, as a Gen X’er, I’ve managed to never get inked, especially given how many tattoos cover my friends. But I’ve thought about getting one of a Magicicada cassinii. A symbol of making it this far. Of maybe, this year, climbing out of the dirt to unleash the cacophony.

But what happens in year 18? I don’t know. Evolution, change, it’s part of the way things are. And should be.

A blogger recently fretted about the “sameness” of the web (yet again) and how machines would replace design (yet again). A lot of people read it, shared it, loved the message. But I saw a sameness there. A fear of what happens when evolution stops.

Meanwhile, another blogger fretted that things change too fast, that the rules of building websites are moving at such a speed that maybe it would be good to pause the “innovation.” That blogger was derided, rightly, for that belief. But I saw a sameness there. A fear of what happens of not being able to evolve fast enough.

The Magicicada cassinii evolved a solution to a very real problem — they needed to live to fight another day. There are many ways to solve this problem in nature. You can dump your offspring out in one big cloud and hope a few of them survive. You can choose a defense mechanism, like poison, or a stinger. You can also choose to move up the food chain, requiring more energy to sustain yourself and your population, but you’ll be damned if a bird’s gonna eat you.

The cicada chose a different defense mechanism. Time.

But time is what we lack with the internet. Things are evolving, fast, crazily, and we cannot keep up.

But the websites I designed and built in 1999? They’re still there, on someone’s server. They live on.

Like a cicada, I made it here, 17 years on. Unlike a cicada, I didn’t bury myself. I fought to stay alive amid so many predators, bad bosses, bad companies, bad ideas.

So, like an orange eyed, black bodied Cassini, I’m here. And now the new questions happen. What now? where to next?

I don’t know. But I don’t want to bury myself. I want to make my noise and keep on going. I want to keep annoying everyone with my drone. I will not stop. Not now. Not ever.

Author: Dylan Wilbanks

Dylan Wilbanks is a web roustabout, raconteur, and curmudgeon currently practicing as a user experience designer in Seattle. He’s spent over 15 years designing, building, and perfecting online experiences, and every once in a while does a good job. Occasionally, he speaks at conferences like SXSW and Webvisions. He created one of the first Twitter accounts used in higher education, but that was an accident, and he's really sorry about it. With Kyle Weems, he co-hosts Squirrel And Moose, a podcast about designing and building the web, when they remember to talk about it. He likes nectarines. You can read his tweets at @dylanw and learn more at dylanwilbanks.com.