Publishing Versus Performance: Our Struggle for the Soul of the Web

MY SOUL is in twain. Two principles on which clued-in web folk heartily agree are coming more and more often into conflict—a conflict most recently thrust into relief by discussions around the brilliant Vox Media team, publishers of The Verge.

The two principles are:

  1. Building performant websites is not only a key differentiator that separates successful sites from those which don’t get read; it’s also an ethical obligation, whose fulfillment falls mainly on developers, but can only happen with the buy-in of the whole team, from marketing to editorial, from advertising to design.
  2. Publishing and journalism are pillars of civilized society, and the opportunity to distribute news and information via the internet (and to let anyone who is willing to do the work become a publisher) has long been a foundational benefit of the web. As the sad, painful, slow-motion decline of traditional publishing and journalism is being offset by the rise of new, primarily web-based publications and news organizations, the need to sustain these new publications and organizations—to “pay for the content,” in popular parlance—is chiefly being borne by advertising…which, however, pays less and less and demands more and more as customers increasingly find ways to route around it.

The conflict between these two principles is best summarized, as is often the case, by the wonderfully succinct Jeremy Keith (author, HTML5 For Web Designers). In his 27 July post, “On The Verge,” Jeremy takes us through prior articles beginning with Nilay Patel’s Verge piece, “The Mobile Web Sucks,” in which Nilay blames browsers and a nonexistent realm he calls “the mobile web” for the slow performance of websites built with bloated frameworks and laden with fat, invasive ad platforms—like The Verge itself.

The Verge’s Web Sucks,” by Les Orchard, quickly countered Nilay’s piece, as Jeremy chronicles (“Les Orchard says what we’re all thinking”). Jeremy then points to a half-humorous letter of surrender posted by Vox Media’s developers, who announce their new Vox Media Performance Team in a piece facetiously declaring performance bankruptcy.

A survey of follow-up barbs and exchanges on Twitter concludes Jeremy’s piece (which you must read; do not settle for this sloppy summary). After describing everything that has so far been said, Mr Keith weighs in with his own opinion, and it’s what you might expect from a highly thoughtful, open-source-contributing, standards-flag-flying, creative developer:

I’m hearing an awful lot of false dichotomies here: either you can have a performant website or you have a business model based on advertising. …

Tracking and advertising scripts are today’s equivalent of pop-up windows. …

For such a young, supposedly-innovative industry, I’m often amazed at what people choose to treat as immovable, unchangeable, carved-in-stone issues. Bloated, invasive ad tracking isn’t a law of nature. It’s a choice. We can choose to change.

Me, I’m torn. As a 20-year-exponent of lean web development (yes, I know how pretentious that sounds), I absolutely believe that the web is for everybody, regardless of ability or device. The web’s strength lies precisely in its unique position as the world’s first universal platform. Tim Berners-Lee didn’t invent hypertext, and his (and his creation’s) genius doesn’t lie in the deployment of tags; it subsists in the principle that, developed rightly, content on the web is as accessible to the Nigerian farmer with a feature phone as it is to a wealthy American sporting this year’s device. I absolutely believe this. I’ve fought for it for too many years, alongside too many of you, to think otherwise.

And yet, as a 20-year publisher of independent content (and an advertising professional before that), I am equally certain that content requires funding as much as it demands research, motivation, talent, and nurturing. Somebody has to pay our editors, writers, journalists, designers, developers, and all the other specialtists whose passion and tears go into every chunk of worthwhile web content. Many of you reading this will feel I’m copping out here, so let me explain:

It may indeed be a false dichotomy that “either you can have a performant website or you have a business model based on advertising” but it is also a truth that advertisers demand more and more for their dollar. They want to know what page you read, how long you looked at it, where on the web you went next, and a thousand other invasive things that make thoughtful people everywhere uncomfortable—but are the price we currently pay to access the earth’s largest library.

I don’t like this, and I don’t do it in the magazine I publish, but A List Apart, as a direct consequence, will always lack certain resources to expand its offerings as quickly and richly as we’d like, or to pay staff and contributors at anything approaching the level that Vox Media, by accepting a different tradeoff, has achieved. (Let me also acknowledge ALA’s wonderful sponsors and our longtime partnership with The Deck ad network, lest I seem to speak from an ivory tower. Folks who’ve never had to pay for content cannot lay claim to moral authority on this issue; untested virtue is not, and so on.)

To be clear, Vox Media could not exist if its owners had made the decisions A List Apart made in terms of advertising—and Vox Media’s decisions about advertising are far better, in terms of consumer advocacy and privacy, than those made by most web publishing groups. Also to be clear, I don’t regret A List Apart’s decisions about advertising—they are right for us and our community.

I know and have worked alongside some of the designers, developers, and editors at Vox Media; you’d be proud to work with any of them. I know they are painfully aware of the toll advertising takes on their site’s performance; I know they are also doing some of the best editorial and publishing work currently being performed on the web—which is what happens when great teams from different disciplines get together to push boundaries and create something of value. This super team couldn’t do their super work without salaries, desks, and computers; acquiring those things meant coming to some compromise with the state of web advertising today. (And of course it was the owners, and not the employees, who made the precise compromise to which Vox Media currently adheres.)

Put a gun to my head, and I will take the same position as Jeremy Keith. I’ll even do it without a gun to my head, as my decisions as a publisher probably already make clear. And yet, two equally compelling urgencies in my core being—love of web content, and love of the web’s potential—make me hope that web and editorial teams can work with advertisers going forward, so that one day soon we can have amazing content, brilliantly presented, without the invasive bloat. In the words of another great web developer I know, “Hope is a dangerous currency—but it’s all I’ve got.”


Also published in Medium.

This Week In The Death of Publishing & The Web

FAST COMPANY writes:

Apple, like Facebook, has entered into a standoff with the publishing industry and the open, if for-profit, web. And it’s being done under the aegis of design: choose a better reading experience on our curated platform, they offer, or let us clean up that pesky advertising on the open web.

Source: Apple Saves Publishing… For Itself

N.B. This is not the first time this conversation has arisen, nor will it be the last. Off the top of my head, see also:

⇛ Is the web under threat? Will Facebook or Apple kill or save journalism? Share your thoughts or your favorite links on the subject. Bonus points for older articles.

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We Didn’t Stop The Fire.

OUR LIBRARY IS BURNING. Copyright extension has banished millions of books to the scrapheap. Digital permanence is a tragically laughable ideal to anyone who remembers the VHS format wars or tries to view Joshua Davis’s 1990s masterpieces on a modern computer. Digital archiving is only as permanent as the next budget cycle—as when libraries switched from microfilm to digital subscriptions and then were forced to cancel the subscriptions during the pre-recession recession. And of course, my digital work vanishes the moment I die or lose the ability to keep hosting it. If you really want to protect your family photos, take them off Flickr and your hard drive, get them on paper, and store them in an airtight box.

Though bits are forever, our medium is mortal, as all but the most naive among us know. And we accept that some of what we hold digitally dear will perish before our eyes. But it irks most especially when people or companies with more money than judgement purchase a thriving online community only to trash it when they can’t figure out how to squeeze a buck out of it. Corporate black thumb is not new to our medium: MGM watered down the Marx Bros; the Saatchis sucked the creative life and half the billings out of the ad agencies they acquired during the 1980s and beyond. But outside the digital world, some corporate purchases and marriages have worked out (think: Disney/Pixar). And with the possible exception of Flickr (better now than the day Yahoo bought it), I can’t think of any online community or publication that has improved as a result of being purchased. Whereas we can all instantly call to mind dozens of wonderful web properties that died or crawled up their own asses as a direct result of new corporate ownership.

My colleague Mandy Brown has written a moving call to arms which, knowingly or unknowingly, invokes the LOCKSS method (“Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe”) of preserving digital content by making copies of it; she encourages us all to become archivists. Even a disorganized ground-level effort such as Mandy proposes will be beneficial—indeed, the less organized, the better. And this is certainly part of the answer. (It’s also what drives my friend Tantek’s own your data efforts; my beef with T is mainly aesthetic.) So, yes, we the people can do our part to help undo the harm uncaring companies cause to our e-ecosystem.

But there is another piece of this which no one is discussing and which I now address specifically to my colleagues who create great digital content and communities:

Stop selling your stuff to corporate jerks. It never works. They always wreck what you’ve spent years making.

Don’t go for the quick payoff. You can make money maintaining your content and serving your community. It won’t be a fat fistful of cash, but that’s okay. You can keep living, keep growing your community, and, over the years, you will earn enough to be safe and comfortable. Besides, most people who get a big payoff blow the money within two years (because it’s not real to them, and because there are always professionals ready to help the rich squander their money). By contrast, if you retain ownership of your community and keep plugging away, you’ll have financial stability and manageable success, and you’ll be able to turn the content over to your juniors when the time comes to retire.

Our library is burning. We didn’t start the fire but we sure don’t have to help fan the flames. You can’t sell out if you don’t sell. Owning your content starts with you.

The Great Salami Caper

In the late 1980s, while making efforts to move to New York City, I came up with the winning ad campaign for Hebrew National Kosher Salami. Only I didn’t win.

Hebrew National held a contest to see if people outside Madison Avenue could come up with a great ad idea for their 83% fat free salami. The grand prize was $83,000.

Even in New York, $83,000 would have more than covered a moving van, broker’s fee, and first and last month’s rent.

But creating the winning ad carried a benefit even bigger than the cash for someone like me who was trying to break into New York advertising. I’d worked for a couple of years at Washington, DC-area ad agencies, one of them pretty good, but that and my portfolio bought me nothing in the competitive New York advertising job market of the late 1980s. There were kids coming out of school with better portfolios than mine.

Winning that contest, I believed at the time, would make a New York ad agency take me seriously.

My then-girlfriend Eva S and I submitted an ad built around the headline, “You should be so fat.”


Well, we never heard back after entering the contest, and months passed the way they do.

I continued to drive back and forth from DC to NYC looking for jobs and an apartment.

A couple of times I flew to New York for an interview in the middle of my work day. I told my DC-area-agency creative director I was seeing a doctor. I still feel bad about that lie.

One day I open a magazine, and there’s a picture of an athletic woman wearing a leotard, working out.

The headline reads, “You should be so lean.”


Lean. You should be so lean.

It was our concept made safe. “You should be so lean” was a faster read and a much less interesting idea.

Hebrew National had said in the contest rules that, in the event of duplicate ideas, they would pick the one that was best executed. I am certain today that several people submitted similar ideas and Hebrew National and its agency chose the best-looking comp, which was not mine. Quite probably the winner even wrote “You should be so lean.” All perfectly ethical.

But at the time I was sure that we had gotten ripped off.

So I confided in the president of the DC-area agency where I worked—like he needed another reason to fire me—and asked him if I should sue Hebrew National.

I sought this advice while buying a drink for the president of the agency when I should have been at my desk, working. I figured if the president of the agency was spending the afternoon in a bar, he wouldn’t mind his peon employee doing likewise.

I was thirsty and not very bright. A while later, for many reasons, the agency let me go, surprising absolutely no one but me.

But meantime I’m in the bar buying my boss a drink on his time.

He tells me something I’ll never forget: a big company has lawyers on retainer, and you don’t.


Blur

Presumably in order to avoid having to pay the child model and secure a release, Google deliberately blurred the Gap Kid model’s face on the giant outdoor Gap Kids poster before uploading this photo (and hundreds of seamlessly interwoven related photos) to Google Maps Street View.

It’s hard to say if the human beings on the street have had their features blurred as well.

Does Google go to this kind of trouble with every poster on every block of every city in the world? They must.

I bet their arms get tired.

Related: Recently, some friends and I have noticed news photos, and TV news video, where people’s faces are perfectly clear, but corporate logos have been deliberately blurred or pixelated. This is the world we live in.

Google Maps Street View blurs model’s face in poster