America has a problem with websites. We all agree they're the 21st-century way to advertise ourselves to the world, and that every government or business entity needs a good one.
But a stranger might survey some local websites and conclude we haven't quite learned what to do with them yet. Are websites mainly there to portray their sponsors in the best light? Are they there mainly to disseminate information? To raise money? Somehow all of these things at once, on one glowing rectangle?
And does anyone really ever expect them to be, like, up to date? As current as a weekly newspaper, say?
Who knows. For better or worse, a website is often the first glimpse the world sees of our hometown and favorite institutions. An aesthetically unappealing, anachronistic, or dorky website may reflect on all of us.
Many, perhaps most websites are worm-eaten with dysfunctional links, out-of-date material, and categories that once made sense to the Web designer, but are no longer used much. Some work better on Macs than PCs, or better on desktop computers than on smartphones. To work perfectly on all formats available, a functional website has to be a small miracle, and one that recreates itself daily.
People do complain about websites, but perhaps not often enough to the people who design and maintain them. Hence we present this in the spirit of public good, a critique of Knoxville's public or prominent semi-public websites.
Are they any different from those in most cities? Maybe, in some surprising ways.
For a community that has long boasted of its beauty, it's remarkable how we avoid displaying images of ourselves.
Nationally, there are different minds of how a city presents itself to the e-universe. Some are very practical, just-the-facts-ma'am propositions, sites that are immediately useful to reporters and businessmen and appreciated for that fact.
At the opposite end, other websites are gorgeous works of art. They hypnotize with their appeal, and aim for love at first click.
Knoxville's official website is decidedly on the extreme practical end. A bulletin board of useful information and links to more useful information, cityofknoxville.org is laid out like an old-school newspaper, cramming in items wherever there's a space. Except for the fact it's hard to read via iPhone—a common complaint about local websites—it's pretty user friendly. It's just what reporters need.
But cityofknoxville.org presupposes that you're already interested in Knoxville. It will not make you interested in Knoxville.
It's a regularly updated bulletin board of today's important stuff: plans, meetings, events, improvements. On the main page there's the familiar resume-style headshot of our mayor, and up in the corner—you might not notice it at first—one rather tiny photo of our city. It doesn't move or change or blow up when you click on it. It's a river picture of downtown's skyline with the Henley Bridge in the foreground. It must be several years old, because the bridge appears to be intact.
Nashville, Chattanooga, Charlotte, and Huntsville open their websites with big, appealing, sometimes stunning photographic extravaganzas showing the respective city, its skyline, its natural attractions, its historic sites, its citizens having fun. Montgomery, Little Rock, Clarksville: Their main pages offer good-sized, flattering, sometimes sentimental, sometimes artistic shots of the city, often a diversity of them, that can give you a sense of what the place is proudest of. Some are surprising, like the one for Lexington, Ky., which shows a rolling series of serene nature scenes, some of them involving horses, for which that city is famous.
Our favorite municipal rival's website is an interesting model. Call up chattanooga.gov, and you'll get a large artsy portrait of Chattanooga. Which image you'll see is anyone's guess. There are several, and you'll get a different one every time you call it up. Stunning shots of bridges, the Tennessee Aquarium, a paraglider, a park populated with colorful people, Horseshoe Bend from Lookout Mountain. If Tina Fey calls up Chattanooga's website, she'll say, "I want to go to there."
Knoxville's okay with its postage stamp of the Henley Bridge a few years ago, and much more practical information on the main page than Chattanooga has. It will appeal to hard-headed folks who want to get on with business and don't have time for artsy tomfoolery. Maybe that's who we are, and maybe that's admirable. We've got clutter, and we're bold enough to admit it on the main page.
Its motto is "Making Knoxville America's premier city in which to live, work and raise a family." It's refreshing to see actual grammar on a local website, even when it forces the sentiment to sound a little unnatural.
Knox County's website, knoxcounty.org, opens with a different sort of clutter, and differs sharply from most of the nation's urban-county websites. Its main page's operating assumption is that what people around the world need to know about Knox County is what our county officials look like when they're grinning. Its main page is a spread from a high-school yearbook, with the faces of 22 identifiable public servants. Some of them do look better than their mug shots.
It could be a 1970s newspaper ad for big-shot realty company or a used-car dealer. Its message is, "Have we got a deal for you!"
Or maybe just, "Looky here! We're on a website, Maw!"
A couple of pretty women holding open double doors symbolize "Open Government" on the homepage with the subtlety of a Lee Greenwood video.
I checked Tennessee's urban and semi-urban county websites: Shelby, Hamilton, Nashville-Davidson, Sullivan, Williamson, and several more outside of the region. None compare to Knox County's in the category of face count. Some county websites do include a portrait of the county mayor, but most prefer to show appealing images of their counties: historic sites, downtown scenes, natural features. Chattanooga's Hamilton County's main page shows a rather long video of views of the county's distinctions: parks, riverfront, downtown, industries, battlefield. Only Knox County aims to attract the Internet public primarily through the appeal of its leaders' faces.
It can be a little puzzling. These are people you're not likely to meet if you visit Knox County or even move here. Why do we need to know that they look like? Maybe that's just our homey style. To look at these faces, heck, you can't help but like us.
The face theme seems to be ascendant across the county: Knox County Election Commission's website, knoxcounty.org/election, was recently strictly businesslike, with useful links. Now it's face-centric, showing the administrator and four commissioners' portraits. One space, Democratic-minority commissioner Dennis Francis', is unexplainably blank.
It may be a public service. If a brunch restaurateur chooses not to seat some particular politician, they'll be able to recognize them at the door.
Knoxville's websites shun banner imagery. Few American cities' websites show less scenery. Maybe there's something admirable in that, a suggestion that we're a city of function over form, substance over style. But you can't help wondering if we're missing some grab.
The University of Tennessee's main website, utk.edu, has recently been rejiggered. It's comparable to Knoxville's and Knox County's in one respect: It doesn't make much of the looks of the place, with one exception.
The main page has lot of orange and white, of course, and busy references to campus events, but there's hardly a picture of the campus except for a ghostly one of Ayres Hall, near the bottom.
Follow the links, and you can find at least four different views of Ayres Hall's tower by clicking around from the main page. The item "Best Value Colleges," about the Princeton Review survey, shows a different angle on Ayres Hall's tower. Under the heading "About UT," subcategories "Quick Facts," "History," "Administration" all show big photos of Ayres Hall. A recycling-advocacy video and several other sites more prominently showing UT's cheekily grinning Chancellor Jimmy Cheek, have Ayres in the background. It's a handsome hilltop building, and useful as a symbol, even if thousands get their degrees from UT without ever setting foot inside of it.
Does the great University of Tennessee come with more than one building? It does, and some of them are fine buildings that were, unlike Ayres Hall, designed by UT alumni. A prospective student and his parents could spend a rainy afternoon clicking around UT's site and not get a very strong impression of UT's non-Ayres architecture.
To be fair, many colleges' websites lately emphasize programs without campus views. There seems to be some anxiety, nationally, about showing pictures right up front. UNC Chapel Hill's website has an unobtrusive background of the college, and you can turn it off or bring it up and look at it closely.
The most prominent message on UT's main page, the message it presents to the world, is: "Contribute to a big idea. Give to UT."
Okay. First, can you tell us what UT is?
Knoxville Area Transit takes first impressions to a whole new level. Launched about the time KAT opened its new transit center, katbus.com is public Knoxville's flashiest, busiest, noisiest, most image-conscious website, the one most likely to stun. It won some Addy Awards in 2011. It comes with sound effects, not necessarily of buses, but of whooshing traffic on moist streets; a high-tech tinkle opens a constantly moving montage of a half-dozen images of diverse crowds, businessmen, shoppers, and young people, in a modern cityscape. The contrast between that swank flash and popular assumptions about bus-riding is probably what they were going for.
The mix makes Knoxville look more exciting than you ever imagined. Everyone who encounters it studies the pictures. Where is that, they ask. One shot looks sort of like the Old City, others might pass for certain blocks of Gay Street.
But keep studying them, and you come to realize it's not Knoxville at all. KAT's site's only images—and the motion and sound effects make them the most conspicuous images on any local public organization's website—are of bus transit in some other city. See if you can figure out which one. Several volunteers are stumped. Philadelphia? Charlotte? New York's financial district?
In fact, few local websites use their main pages to present interesting images of our particular city, or of themselves.
You'd think a zoo famous for its work with colorful animals from all over the world would inspire all sorts of creativity, and knoxville-zoo.org does offer some colorful changing announcements. But its one static, permanent shot, at the top of the main page, is just a picture of the entrance to the zoo, the big rambling brownish building where you pay your admission. It looks sort of like a rustic hotel or countryside bargain mall. Few zoos are famous for their architecture, and for people going to the Knoxville Zoo, that building does its job. It has some bathrooms and an interesting gift shop. It may be unlikely to persuade.
The Market Square District Association's website, which tends to come up when you Google "Market Square Knoxville," is classy and understated. On knoxvillemarketsquare.com, Market Square sounds unexpectedly posh, calling itself "The District," the words presented in the sort of font you see on soap wrappers in luxury hotels. ("The District" isn't trademarked; commercial Bearden calls itself that, too.) The only image is an aerial shot of people walking in grass and on a sidewalk. Maybe it's the Square. It could as easily be Turkey Creek's greenway or UT's Presidential Court or Fountain City Park. Market Square may be the most picturesque block in Knoxville, but photographing it's problematic. Due to the nature of the long, double row of facing buildings that makes up the Square, any photo would be more advantageous to some businesses than to others. An image, or even a set of images, that would please everybody might be a tall order.
So the dominant image on that page is that of the "Featured Sponsor," which changes every time you click on the site. And, as you might notice, only a minority of the featured sponsors are located on Market Square proper. One, Hampton Inn, is six blocks away.
The Knoxville Chamber's headquarters are on that same square. Their busy website, knoxvillechamber.com, opens with a jaw-dropping shot of the Knoxville skyline from the west under a deep blue sky of fluffy white clouds. But then it disappears when it swaps out with four other less-stunning billboard-style announcements that occupy this dominant space 80 percent of the time. Naturally, commerce is a big part of what the Chamber's about.
The website of Visit Knoxville (the reorganizing tourist bureau) at knoxville.org shows only little postage-stamp shots of the city, most of them more artistic detail shots; you can blow them up, and most of them are pretty, but there's no explanation of what they are and what they have to do with the place.
"Before you see Knoxville, you gotta see this," it declares on the main page, and the advice sounds intriguing, maybe a hint at why a promotional website seems shy about imagery. But click on it and you get a word description of a smartphone app.
Knoxville's most effective promotional imagery may come from organizations with more specific purposes than promoting the city.
The Central Business Improvement District's website, downtownknoxville.org, opens with a pretty gorgeous, colorful photo of the east side of Market Square on a sunny afternoon, with green, leafy trees and a crowd afoot. In just one shot, it makes downtown Knoxville look lush, interesting, historic, popular. That website doesn't offer much else, but they deserve credit for that photo.
Preservationist non-profit Knox Heritage has one of the most appealing-looking websites, knoxheritage.org, showing a colorful collage of both restored buildings and an especially interesting ruin in need of restoration. Within it are some gallery-quality photos of Knoxville landmarks, big, picturesque scenes right out of National Geographic Traveler.
On cornerstone.org, the faith-based charity Cornerstone Foundation shows an interesting aerial view of downtown at twilight that makes the city look pretty urban, and a little mysterious.
The Legacy Parks Foundation's ever-changing rotation of outdoor scenes, people, and wildlife at legacyparks.org seems as if it could be a model for other promotional sites for combining visual appeal and function. The associated but aesthetically distinct website outdoorknoxville.org is playful and practical, simple and clear, with optional videos. (Note to website designers, especially those who do so for TV news stations: Videos are most appreciated when they're optional.) One, for the Appalachian Mountain Biking Club, opens with its motto: "BIKES N BEER. WE RIDE, WE DRINK, LIFE IS GOOD."
Most of the ones we surveyed were either government entities, non-profits, or cooperative organizations, not private businesses, but our best-known public-relations firm's website is worth mentioning. Moxley Carmichael's website opens with a whimsical landscape, a tastefully wacky, slightly animated cartoon representation of Knoxville, with Victorian houses, the Sunsphere, the stadium, the riverboat, and giraffes at the zoo.
Any prospective tourist or investor Googling Knoxville from, say, Budapest or Omaha, will get a mosaic of different points of view and perceptions—and assumptions about what the Internet audience is looking for. Knoxville's boosters will be lucky if those browsers run across the ones that might tempt them.