Digital yarn bombing

Knitting the DMV a cozy sweater

Yarn bombing is the practice of graffitiing public spaces with cozy, whimsical knitted things.

The NYT:

Yarn bombing takes that most matronly craft (knitting) and that most maternal of gestures (wrapping something cold in a warm blanket) and transfers it to the concrete and steel wilds of the urban streetscape.

I love this so much. What might it look like to yarn bomb a digital space?


These thoughts are inspired by Maggie Appleton’s recent explorations in humanizing digital space by creating web interfaces that allow us to share space with others like we would in a coffee shop or museum. For example, a fuzzy heatmap of others browsing a NYT article with you:

Let’s try porting over another physical-space concept to the digital world. As graffiti, let’s suppose yarn bombing (1) beautifies a high-traffic space that might previously have been seen as cold, grimy, or impersonal; (2) originates hyper-locally from the primary residents and users of the space; (3) does so primarily without permission of the property owners.

What if we “yarn bombed” a high-traffic, utilitarian space like a local DMV’s website? Maybe they (and other understaffed government websites) would welcome some cozy UX love. A few months ago I talked to a former lawyer who changed careers to become a UX designer. “The way we implement the law now is through the internet,” she said. While working at the Board of Elections in a battleground state, she saw the NAACP fight tooth and nail for voter rights that were failing because like, voting locations were too hard to find on the website. “If we’re not implementing websites well, it means that people don’t have access to the rights they’ve been given,” she said.

What about yarn bombing Google? I would say Google’s “doodles” are a corporate attempt to yarn bomb - they inject whimsy into a typically spare experience. But they’re missing element (2) - envisioned and executed by the users of Google, which would mean no underlying profit or brand motive. Not necessarily a bad thing - I love Google’s doodles. But it’s certainly less punk.

The most punk element of a digital yarn bomb is number (3) - operating without the permission of the owners. It adds defiance to the act, forcing a perspective shift where one might be uncomfortable. Like the yarn bombing of Wall Street’s symbol of growth and capitalism:

I can totally imagine some cat-eared, grey-hat hackers breaking in and fixing the UX on Ohio’s gnarly LLC filing process. Granted, it’s definitely higher-stakes to break into a government system. What if our yarners broke into Salesforce and added a bunch of satisfying click animations? Meh, I feel like those efforts would be shut down or reverted pretty quickly too.

I feel elements (1) and (2) of a digital yarn bomb are punk design. “We live here, and we’re gonna make it better.” Element (3) makes it punk art. “We live here, and we’re gonna make it better, whether you like it or not.

Honestly, I think it’s interesting enough to think about what the digital equivalents are to city streets, fire hydrants, and sidewalk trees. Salesforce and Google feel too big - yes, tons of people walk down your local road but not everyone in the country.

An ideal digital yarn bomb target seems to be 1. high-traffic enough that people will see it 2. low-stakes enough that it could stay up for a while and wouldn’t bring too much heat on the yarners 3. kinda boring and could use some love. Maybe like, the ordering page on some niche light switch supplier’s website.

The yarn bomb itself might need to be subtle. After all, there’s a difference between yarning one fire hydrant and yarning every fire hydrant for 50 blocks. A little smiley face when you click the submit button, a little wave from the company logo. Something to let you know “a human was here.” When is software beautiful? When is software art? How can one yarn bomber make it more so, in secret and small ways?

Maybe I’ll put up a site called “yarn bomb me!” or something. Maybe I’ll make my personal website yarn-bombable. I guess it already is to a real pentester haha. Alright you have my permission to yarn bomb it as long as you pretty please do not fuck up anything else or any other part of my life. (Darn, does that make it not a real yarn bomb since I’ve given you my permission? Sorry bro.)

If anyone reading this has thoughts on what a cool (and hypothetical!) yarn bomb of a public site could be, I would love to hear them. I haven’t set up a comments section yet but you can DM my Twitter.

What do you think could be digitally yarn bombed?