Publishing v. Performance—or, 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.

The Nation, America’s oldest weekly news magazine, launches responsive, large-type redesign.

ON ITS 150th anniversary, The Nation (“a magazine of ideas and values”) relaunches its website, created in partnership with Blue State Digital and Diaspark. As one would expect of an editorially focused web entity in 2015, the new site is responsive, and uses big type and clean layouts designed for readability. It also incorporates social media innovations first seen in Medium, such as the ability to tweet or email any brief passage of text you select.

Executive Editor Richard Kim’s mini-article introducing the new site explains how the editorial process has changed—and how it has stayed the same—since the launch of the magazine’s first site in 1997:

Back then, writing for the magazine was a comparatively monastic experience. You’d work for weeks on an article, defend its arguments against vigorous but loving critiques from the editors, and gratefully accept changes from fact-checkers and copy editors. Finally, the issue would ship to the printer. And then: the vast silence. If you were lucky, a few weeks later, someone might approach you at a party and say how much they liked (or hated) your piece. Some letters from impassioned subscribers would eventually come in via the Postal Service, but encounters with actual readers were rare and cherished events.

We continue to publish the print magazine under these rigorous standards, and it will remain an essential part of our identity, offering readers a considered and curated take on matters of critical interest. The digital revolution, however, has allowed us to connect to vastly more people, and to get to know them better. Today, The Nation publishes about 70 articles a week online, which go out to more than 420,000 Twitter followers, almost 290,000 Facebook fans, and 200,000 e-mail subscribers. And believe me, we always hear back from you….

There’s also a multi-tiered approach to reading and commenting:

For the next few months, there’s no paywall: All of our articles will be free to everyone—our gift to you in The Nation’s 150th-anniversary year. Later, we’ll introduce a metered system that continues to put The Nation in front of new readers, but also asks our regular visitors to contribute to the cost of independent journalism. Finally, only subscribers will be able to leave comments—and they’ll be asked to identify themselves with a first and last name. We realize this will be controversial to some, but keeping the comments free of trolls and bots has taken an increasing amount of effort. We think it’s only fair that commenters stand by what they write, and give something to the community in return.

Why humans run the world

History professor Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind, explains why humans have dominated Earth. The reason’s not what you might expect:

The real difference between us and other animals is on the collective level. Humans control the world because we are the only animal that can cooperate flexibly in large numbers. Ants and bees can also work together in large numbers, but they do so in a very rigid way. If a beehive is facing a new threat or a new opportunity, the bees cannot reinvent their social system overnight in order to cope better. They cannot, for example, execute the queen and establish a republic. Wolves and chimpanzees cooperate far more flexibly than ants, but they can do so only with small numbers of intimately known individuals. Among wolves and chimps, cooperation is based on personal acquaintance. If I am a chimp and I want to cooperate with you, I must know you personally: What kind of chimp are you? Are you a nice chimp? Are you an evil chimp? How can I cooperate with you if I don’t know you?

Only Homo sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. One-on-one or ten-on-ten, chimpanzees may be better than us. But pit 1,000 Sapiens against 1,000 chimps, and the Sapiens will win easily, for the simple reason that 1,000 chimps can never cooperate effectively. Put 100,000 chimps in Wall Street or Yankee Stadium, and you’ll get chaos. Put 100,000 humans there, and you’ll get trade networks and sports contests.

Source: Why humans run the world

No Good Can Come of Bad Code: Ask Dr Web in A List Apart

Remember: the future will come whether you design for it or not. If your company charges $300,000 for a website that won’t work on next week’s most popular device, your company won’t be able to stay competitive in this business. It might not even be able to stay in the business, period. After all, clients who pay for sites that break too soon will look elsewhere next time—leaving your company perpetually hunting for new clients in a downward spiral of narrowing margins and diminishing expectations.

Your company’s survival is tied to the ability of the products it makes to work in situations you haven’t imagined, and on devices that don’t yet exist. This has alwaysbeen the challenge of web design. It’s one A List Apart has taken seriously since we began publishing, and our archives are filled with advice and ideas you can boil down and present to your bosses.

Source: No Good Can Come of Bad Code

On Design Conferences

A GOOD CONFERENCE is a designed experience. I don’t mean a visually over-designed brandgasm. I mean an educational and emotionally considered narrative.

To me, the ideal conference offers a single track, so that all attendees (and all speakers) share the same intense experience over one or more days. The content of each presentation should be discussed with the organizer far in advance of the show, just as the content of an issue of a magazine gets reviewed with editors long before the issue is published.

Too many conferences focus on the mechanics and skimp on the up-front editorial strategizing, shaping, and planning. It is not enough to simply hire people because they are respected in the industry, or because they are in demand, or because their name sells tickets, or because they are available.

A great conference is like a great playlist or LP; every song should contribute, and the sequence in which they are heard should have an inevitability to it, like the song sequence on your favorite albums. The order in which sessions take place is critical; there should be music to the ebb and flow; related ideas should be presented in blocks that help attendees see connections across sessions and topics.

A trained ape can invite the same speakers who speak everywhere else. Conference planners should constantly seek new talent and new ideas. Even more, they should strive to create an environment in which speakers actually want to sit and listen to other speakers, thus further improving the editorial flow and the conscious interplay of related ideas.

To put together great editorial content requires deep and broad knowledge of your discipline, and of the people who contribute to it. It takes sensitivity and experience to choose just the right speakers, on just the right topics, and to arrange their presentations across time for maximum educational and strategic benefit.

If I do say so myself, cough cough.

With thanks to my friend Louis Rosenfeld, who has asked a number of conference founders to share their thoughts on the subject. Watch this space for links to a polished conglomeration of all they had to say, coming soon.

Thanks also to Jim Heid, who ran Web Design World back in them days. And to Eric, Marci, Toby, and Stephen, eternally.

A List Apart news

Presenting Sara Wachter Boettcher, ALA’s new editor-in-chief.

WITH THE RELEASE on July 10, 2012 of the A List Apart Summer Reading Issue (a collection of favorite articles from 355 issues of the magazine), ALA’s editor-in-chief Krista Stevens has hung up her spurs and moved on.

Over six significant web years, Krista’s passion for great writing led to such extraordinary articles as More Meaningful Typography by Tim Brown, Orbital Content by Cameron Koczon, In Defense of Readers by Mandy Brown, Responsive Web Design by Ethan Marcotte, and many others.

She helped ALA anticipate the important ideas in the rapidly changing fields of web design, web development, user experience, and content strategy, and continued the magazine’s tradition of pioneering and promoting best practices, while also broadening the kinds of stories we covered. Behind the scenes, she also updated our processes; coaxed the best work possible out of authors and staff; remembered birthdays and anticipated conflicts before feelings could get hurt; and more. She led us and mothered us, and she will be missed. You can follow Krista on Twitter, benefit from her user advocacy at Automattic, and continue to be enlightened by her via Contents Magazine. Thank you, Krista.

New editor-in-chief Sara Wachter Boettcher is a content strategist and writer who recently moved to Lancaster, PA, where she bucks the local Amish tradition by spending her days making, reading, and writing things on the web. She is the author of the upcoming Rosenfeld Media book Content Everywhere, a frequent conference speaker, and has contributed articles and essays to A List Apart (Future-Ready Content) and Contents (On Content and Curiosity).

Currently a consultant under her own shingle, Sara previously spent a half-dozen years working in agencies, mainly at Off Madison Ave, where she started as a web writer and became the director of interactive content and marketing strategy. Although her A List Apart editorship does not officially begin until August, Sara has already dived in behind the scenes. She is whip-smart and a pleasure to know.

Welcome, Sara!

My mind and welcome to it

IN MY DREAM I was designing sublime new publishing and social platforms, incandescent with features no one had ever thought of, but everybody wanted.

One of my platforms generated pages that were like a strangely compelling cross between sophisticated magazine layouts and De Stijl paintings. Only, unlike De Stijl, with its kindergarten primary colors, my platform synthesized subtle color patterns that reminded you of sky and water. Anyone – a plumber, a fishmonger – could use the tool to immediately create pages that made love to your eyes. In the hands of a designer, the output was even richer. Nothing on the web had ever touched it.

Then the dream changed, and I was no longer the creator. I was a sap who’d been off sniffing my own armpits while the internet grew up without me. A woman I know was using the platform to create magazines about herself. These weren’t just web magazines, they were paper. And they weren’t just paper. In the middle of one of her magazines was a beautiful carpet sample. The platform had designed the carpet and woven it into the binding of the printed magazine. I marveled at her output and wished I had invented the platform that allowed her to do these things. Not only was I no longer the creator, I seemed to be the last sap on earth to even hear about all these dazzling new platforms.

Then I was wandering down an endless boardwalk, ocean on my right, a parade of dreary seaside apartment buildings on my left. Each building had its own fabulous content magazine. (“Here’s what’s happening at 2171 Oceanfront Walk.”) The magazines appeared on invisible kiosks which revealed themselves as you passed in front of each building. The content, created by landlords and realtors, was so indifferent as to be unreadable. But this did not matter a bit, because the pages so dazzled in their unholy beauty that you could not look away. Every fool in the world had a meaningless publication which nobody read, but which everyone oohed and ahed at as they passed. And I — I had nothing to do with any of it. I was merely a spectator, a chump on a tiresome promenade.

For Tim and Max. You are the future.

Apple accepts Javascript in EPUB ebooks in iBookstore

Last night my photography ebook, “Barcelona Beyond Gaudí” was accepted into the iBookstore. While I’m personally very excited, I’m also professionally excited (!), since this means that Apple accepts Javascript in EPUB files for iBooks.

There is so much that Javascript will let us do in ebooks.Walrus Studio in Paris has an intriguing demo video showing text that can be revealed and blurred, and game points being added, erased, and tallied.

Continue reading Apple accepts Javascript in EPUB ebooks in iBookstore on Liz Castro’s site.

An Event Apart Atlanta 2011

YOU FIND ME ENSCONCED in the fabulous Buckhead, Atlanta Intercontinental Hotel, preparing to unleash An Event Apart Atlanta 2011, three days of design, code, and content strategy for people who make websites. Eric Meyer and I co-founded our traveling web conference in December, 2005; in 2006 we chose Atlanta for our second event, and it was the worst show we’ve ever done. We hosted at Turner Field, not realizing that half the audience would be forced to crane their necks around pillars if they wanted to see our speakers or the screen on which slides were projected.

Also not realizing that Turner Field’s promised contractual ability to deliver Wi-Fi was more theoretical than factual: the venue’s A/V guy spent the entire show trying to get an internet connection going. You could watch audience members twitchily check their laptops for email every fourteen seconds, then make the “no internet” face that is not unlike the face addicts make when the crack dealer is late, then check their laptops again.

The food was good, our speakers (including local hero Todd Dominey) had wise lessons to impart, and most attendees had a pretty good time, but Eric and I still shudder to remember everything that went wrong with that gig.

Not to jinx anything, but times have changed. We are now a major three-day event, thanks to a kick-ass staff and the wonderful community that has made this show its home. We thank you from the bottoms of our big grateful hearts.

I will see several hundred of you for the next three days. Those not attending may follow along:

Progressive enhancement: all you need to know is here

Adaptive Web Design

ONE GLORIOUS AFTERNOON in March, 2006, as a friend and I hurried past Austin’s Downtown Hilton Hotel to catch the next session of the SXSW Interactive Festival, a young stranger arrested our progress. With no introduction or preliminaries, he announced that he was available to speak at An Event Apart, a conference for web designers that Eric Meyer and I had launched three months previously. Turning to my companion with my best impression (which is none too good) of Mr Burns of “The Simpsons,” I asked, “Who is this brash young upstart, Smithers?”

The brash young upstart quickly became an essential colleague. In the months and years that followed, Aaron Gustafson created dazzling front- and back-end code for some of my agency’s most demanding clients. Just as importantly, he brilliantly tech-edited the second and third editions of Designing With Web Standards. The job largely consists of alerting Ethan Marcotte and me to the stuff we don’t know about web standards. I’ll let you think about that one. For five years now, Aaron has also been a tough but fair technical editor for A List Apart magazine, where he helps authors succeed while ensuring that they are truly innovative, that their methods are accessible and semantic, and (thanks to his near-encyclopedic knowledge) that they give all prior art its due. Moreover, Aaron has written seminal pieces for the magazine, and, yes, he has lectured at An Event Apart.

Given my experiences with the man and my admiration for his knowledge and abilities, I was thrilled when Aaron told me the premise of this book and began letting me look at chapters. This isn’t just another web design book. It’s an essential and missing piece of the canon. Our industry has long needed a compendium of best practices in adaptive, standards-based design. And with the rise of mobile, the recent significant improvements in desktop and phone browsers, and the new capabilities that come with HTML5, CSS3, and gestural interfaces, it is even more vital that we who make websites have a reliable resource that tells us how to take advantage of these new capabilities while creating content that works in browsers and devices of all sizes and widely differing capabilities. This book is that resource.

The convergence of these new elements and opportunities is encouraging web professionals to finally design for the web as it always should have been done. Adaptive design is the way, and nobody has a wider command than Aaron of the thinking and techniques required to do it well. In these pages you will find all that thinking and those methods. Never again will you lose a day debating how to do great web design (and create great code) that works for everyone. I plan to give this book to all my students, and to everyone I work with. I encourage you to do likewise. And now, enough preliminaries. Dive in, and enjoy!

Adaptive Web Design: Crafting Rich Experiences with Progressive Enhancement
by Aaron Gustafson
Foreword by Jeffrey Zeldman