End the Tyranny of Arial

The big internet platforms use the same fonts and backgrounds. Let’s make it interesting again.

A customized Facebook page with wacky fonts, lots of colors, and a watermelon slice background.
Photo illustration by Slate.

In the days of dial-up internet, I identified my online friends in two ways: by their screen names, and by their font. I frequented X-Files chatrooms with regulars whose fonts I still remember more than 20 years later, though I remember little else about them: Jeff from Colorado used a bolded Lucida Sans in army green, and Emily from Fort Myers, Florida, used a hot pink Verdana, which, at the time, I thought was understated and very sophisticated. (We later became pen pals, and she also wrote me letters in that font.) My font of choice during that period was decidedly less sophisticated. I typed in a cerulean blue Comic Sans with a neon green highlight.

If I’m being honest with myself, my taste never really improved, and for better or worse, I was able to plaster whatever I wanted all over my digital spaces. My old AOL website is a mess of colors and Mark Wahlberg photos, and I spent hours tinkering with HTML so that my LiveJournal displayed custom text announcing my comment counts and music selection. It boasted a Hot Topic–esque black-and-white checker theme with hot pink accents. Years later, on Tumblr, I still couldn’t resist the urge to make things my own. I frequently toggled between themes based on the aesthetic I wanted to convey that month.

After an era where customizability was the norm, we’ve now reached a period where everything we read online looks the same. Blogging is dead, and the current dominant social media platforms have settled on a unified look: Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram pages largely look the same. While Slack offers themes to change its default colors, and there are third-party apps to modify WhatsApp, there’s little you can do to change the look of messages you send.

So, too, do the baby pictures, links, crowdfunding campaigns, and rants blend together as you scroll. I frequently mistake NIMBY posts in my neighborhood group for parody posts from a pro–public transportation meme group, or an ad for a friend’s vacation photo. Perhaps that’s the point: It’s a marketer’s dream for their ads to blend in with everything else—that’s why native advertising came into being. Is this post talking up a meal delivery service from a friend, or is it just the same ad for the 40th time? My brain doesn’t really differentiate between those things while just scrolling through. It just absorbs the fact that I’ve seen it.

To break up that sameness, we could return to the era of custom fonts or colors. Just as marketers embrace fonts to promote brands, perhaps individual users, too, might embrace the opportunity to select a font online that conveys their personality, or even just the tone of what they’re posting. In a 2012 study, researchers polled 102 people on which emotional descriptions—rested, stimulated, concerned, agitated, amused, etc.—they associated with each of 36 fonts. Arial was ranked highly for being organized and focused. It also happens to be the most used font on the internet: the default on Google, Facebook, Amazon, China’s QQ, and Twitter. It’s unclear whether its “organized, focused” appearance drove its popularity or whether its popularity shaped our perception of it, but either way, it conveys officialness, which seems to have become the default mode of so many of our posts now.

The authors of the font analysis also discuss our love/hate relationship with one particular font. “No discussion of typeface emotion would be complete without some mention of Comic Sans,” they write. “The typeface sends viewers in all major emotional directions at once: we’re both agitated and amused, but calmly concerned about it. This is a distasteful feeling for many but other enjoy it, much as some hate riding a roller coaster and enjoy it.” Its fellow black sheep, Papyrus, evokes similarly divergent emotions but on a smaller scale. With so few ways to convey tone online, font choice could provide context. There’s no sarcasm font, but posting in Comic Sans or Papyrus could fill that niche. Similarly, being able to control font size or color could add nuance.

A pair of Japanese researchers apparently had this same pet theory and published a paper last year to test it. They designed a texting app with custom fonts and observed conversations between users. They found that typeface did indeed give context to the emotions of the texters. Whereas Arial, their neutral font, “evoked formal and business-like feelings” and conveyed positive emotion, use of “dramatic” fonts felt more intimate. An incongruence in font type and message—say, a font that looks befitting of a metal band saying “I am happy these days!”—is taken as sarcastic and humorous, leading the authors to conclude that font “will expand channels of nonverbal signals.” Granted, the participants in this study, all between the ages of 24 and 34, might be more online than the average person given their age and more accustomed to chatting online. Surely, not all users would interpret fonts in the same way as these folks, but the study shows how fonts could allow for additional nuance in our text conversations.

Whether people would actually use custom fonts is another question. For users, fonts’ sameness has become the status quo, and people who deviate from the norms of posting are weirdos. MySpace is still the butt of jokes, after all, and I admittedly still feel a bit suspicious when someone emails me using a colorful or serifed font. Even when Facebook introduced the option to add background colors or patterns to text posts, people—tech media, in particular—were quick to declare them ugly.

Still, people are finding little ways to bend the constraints of social media platforms. On Twitter, folks tweak their display names to appear upside down or in different fonts, or use ASCII art to stand out from the usual format. (Every Sheriff is a wonderful and silly example of this.)

And of course, there’s Snapchat and Instagram stories, which are an oasis of creativity. There, people seem more playful, a little freer to lean into their own styles, thanks to the ability to choose between texts, colors, GIFs, emoji, and filters allow for novel creations. There’s the sex educator who takes nude selfies but covers them up with stickers, the designer who layers text in two colors to give certain words a pop-out 3D effect, the tech employee that posts one phrase at a time so you’re tapping to read the next message. These posts take no more time than one on any other social media site, but they instantly convey a thousand times more personality.

According to a 2017 Mashable post, part of why Facebook added custom backgrounds to text posts was a bid for more personality. It wanted to make the platform more fun as it competed with Snapchat for users. In the end, it seems that emulating the creativity of Snapchat was the best way to compete: TechCrunch reported that as of January, the function had 500 million daily users. If its success is any indication, users could be receptive to ways to break up the sameness on big platforms. I’m not saying our Facebook pages and Twitter profiles need to autoplay custom songs and display our Top 8 friends, but a little freedom to make our pages our own could go a long way.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.