Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Medium?

IN 2003, long before he was a creative director at Twitter, Douglas Bowman wrote articles about design, posted case studies about his design projects, and shared his photography on his personal/business site, stopdesign.com.

A year previously, Doug had attained instant fame in standardista circles by recoding Wired.com using CSS for layout. That sounds nonsensical nowadays, but in 2002, folks like me were still struggling to persuade our fellow web designers to use CSS, and not HTML tables, for layout. Leading web designers had begun seeing the light, and there had been a sudden profusion of blogs and personal sites that used CSS for layout, and whose markup strove to be semantic and to validate. But nobody had as yet applied web standards to a large commercial site—giving rise to the charge, among Luddite web designers, that standards-based design was “okay for blogs” but had no business on the “real” web.

Then Doug recoded Wired.com with CSS, Mike Davidson did the same for ESPN.com, and all the old reactionary talking points were suddenly as dead as Generalissimo Franco—and the race was on to build a standards-compliant, open web across all content and application sectors.


IN THE PROCESS of helping to lead this sea change, Douglas Bowman became famous, and anybody who was anybody in web design began passionately reading his blog. And yet.

And yet, when Doug had a really big idea to share with our community, he published it on A List Apart, the magazine “for people who make websites.”

Did he do so because blogging was dead? Because the open web was in trouble? Of course not. He did it because publishing on A List Apart in 2003 allowed Doug to share his innovative design technique with the widest possible audience of his peers.


PUBLISHING in multiple venues is not new. Charles Dickens, the literary colossus of Victorian England, did it. (He also pioneered serial cross-cutting, the serial narrative, and the incorporation of audience feedback into his narrative—techniques that anticipated the suspense film, serial television narratives like Mad Men, and the modification of TV content in response to viewer feedback over the internet. But those are other, possibly more interesting, stories.)

Nobody said the open web was dead when Doug Bowman published “Sliding Doors of CSS” on A List Apart.

Nobody said the blog was dead when RSS readers made it easier to check the latest content from your favorite self-publishing authors without bothering to type their personal sites’ URLs into your browser’s address bar.

Forward thinkers at The New York Times did not complain when Mike Davidson’s Newsvine began republishing New York Times content; the paper brokered the deal. They were afraid to add comments to their articles on their own turf, and saw Newsvine as a perfect place to test how live reader feedback could fit into a New York Times world.

When Cameron Koczon noticed and named the new way we interact with online content (“a future in which content is no longer entrenched in websites, but floats in orbit around users”), smart writers, publishers, and content producers rejoiced at the idea of their words reaching more people more ways. Sure, it meant rethinking monetization; but content monetization on the web was mostly a broken race to the bottom, anyway, so who mourned the hastening demise of the “web user manually visits your site’s front page daily in hopes of finding new content” model? Not many of us.

By the time Cameron wrote “Orbital Content” in April of 2011, almost all visits to A List Apart and zeldman.com were triggered by tweets and other third-party posts. Folks were bookmarking Google and Twitter, not yourhomepage.com. And that was just fine. If you wrote good content and structured it correctly, people would find it. Instead of navigating a front-page menu hierarchy that was obsolete before you finished installing the templates, folks in search of exactly your content would go directly to that content. And it was good.

So just why are we afraid of Medium? Aside from not soliciting or editing most of its content, and not paying most of its authors, how does it differ from all previous web publications, from Slate to The Verge? Why does publishing content on Medium (in addition to your personal site and other publications) herald, not just the final-final-final death of blogging (“Death of Blogging III: This Time It’s Personal”), but, even more alarmingly, the death of the open web?

You may think I exaggerate, but I’ve heard more than one respected colleague opine that publishing in Medium invalidates everything we independent content producers care about and represent; that it destroys all our good works with but one stroke of the Enter button.

I’ve even had that thought myself.

But isn’t the arrival of a new-model web publication like Medium proof that the web is alive and healthy, and spawning new forms of creativity and success?

And when the publisher of a personal site writes for Medium, is she really giving up on her own site? Couldn’t she be simply hoping to reach new readers?

(If she succeeds, some of those new readers might even visit her site, occasionally.)



Thanks to Bastian Allgeier for inspiring this post.

This piece was also published on Medium.

This article has been translated into Chinese.

Marchgasm!

I’VE BEEN BUSY this month:

And March is only half over.

29 Again

I’M CELEBRATING my birthday with a painful stomach virus that began Thursday night and shows no signs of leaving. It feels like a jackass kicking me from the inside. I can’t eat—I tried last night, with hideous results—and have little energy: walking my daughter to school this morning wiped me out. Aside from joining a couple of remote business meetings later, I plan to spend today horizontal and quietly moaning.

The nice thing about the sickness, which began as a chest cold two weeks ago, is that it spares me from the whole social birthday thing. I’ve been too sick to plan a party or even think about one. And that suits me fine. When you turn 16 or 21, you want the world to hug you for it. But as the years rack up, the urge to announce your birth anniversary fades. Or so I have found.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m overjoyed to be alive after all these years, and boundlessly grateful to the universe and my ex for the child I love and protect. Food, shelter, and love matter. The rest is optional.

Vegan Caviar Wishes

MY FRIENDS have invited me to a New Year’s Eve party, but I’m too sick to leave the apartment. Hell, it took me all day to muster the je ne sais quoi to go downstairs to pick up my laundry.

Achieving that much—it required me to press an elevator button and exchange a few pleasantries with my doorman—wiped me out. Having achieved it, and closed the door behind me, I am more than content to spend the rest of the night (at least as much of it as I can stay awake for) sitting in my apartment in the gathering dark, listening to Kind of Blue, and creating new photographs by recropping old ones.

Anyway, New Year’s Eve is for amateurs. Back when I was a drunk, I had a name for the kind of drinking most normal people will indulge in tonight: I called it Monday. All that bile, all those tears and toilet confessions, all that coming to on somebody’s floor and searching for a fresh drink—it’s nothing I miss.

There was a time between that time and this when I was half of a beautiful couple, and we were expected to show up at social functions everywhere. How happy I was when our newborn baby gave us an excuse to spend New Year’s at home. Now I’m counting the days til my daughter returns from visiting her mom for the holidays, and calling this week’s sick time “me” time. Ain’t no party like a DayQuil party.

I wish you all joy, meaning, and safety in 2015.

No Ken Do (Musketeer Barbie Saves the Prince)

I WATCHED dozens of Barbie videos hundreds of times when my daughter was three and four years old. I can’t praise their animation, dialog, or other cinematic and literary qualities, but this I can say in their favor: every Barbie video we watched was feminist and empowering in its messaging.

This was not the Barbie my girl cousin grew up with, wondering which outfit she should wear to please Ken. This Barbie kicked ass.

In one video, set in 18th Century France, Barbie and her roommates overcame sexism to become Musketeers. They exposed a conspiracy, beat male villains at swordplay, and more than once saved the life of the kingdom’s rather ineffectual prince. (The downside of the Barbie videos’ crude but seemingly heartfelt feminism was that they tended to portray men as wimps or scumbags. Women are strong in the Barbie videos; good men are not.)

In another video, Barbie was an actor who became a film director when the director of the picture in which she was starring tried to patronize her. In Fairytopia, the first and worst animated of the videos, Barbie went on a Lord-of-the-Rings-style quest and saved an entire kingdom from ruin. In A Fashion Fairytale, she saved her aunt’s business from bankruptcy by an evil (woman) competitor, and then helped that competitor turn from the dark side to the light. In other words, she kicked ass but also nurtured and forgave. Assertive and supportive. A fighter and a hugger.

I watched these videos over and over, because children aged three to four thrive on repetition. I got familiar enough that I could quote the dialog as easily as I quote from Rushmore or North By Northwest. I was relieved when my daughter outgrew Barbie, because my mind craved something a little more grown-up in the film narrative department. But I never once worried that the videos were telling my daughter she could be anything but awesome. I never watched a single Barbie video that told girls life was about finding and pleasing anyone besides yourself.

This was also the time in my daughter’s development when we bought Barbie reading books and Barbie dolls. When I was three, Barbie had a thousand ways to look beautiful. When my daughter was three, Barbie had a thousand ways to earn a living.

You can find fault with Barbie. For one thing, she still promotes a vision of the world in which caucasian features set the beauty standard—a world in which, even if there are variously ethnic friends in the mix, the main character is always white. Then there are her unrealistic physical dimensions, which have been tied to self-loathing and eating disorders in girls and women. (Not that Barbie’s is the only unrealistic physique girls contend with—they’re bombarded with the stuff from birth.) The Barbie stories never question the established social order. They inspire girls to achieve, but obviously they don’t address male/female pay discrepancy or other serious social issues.

Musketeer Barbie saves the prince; she doesn’t ask why do we need a prince? Shouldn’t we invent representative democracy? And how about letting a woman run things?

Barbie won’t save us. But she’s not as bad as all that.

For young girls who have just begun seeing the world through the filter of gender, today’s Barbie does some good. Barbie videos were some of the only stories we watched back then that didn’t require me to immediately explain, apologize for, and caution against believing, one or more horrifying biases. Viewed a classic Disney film lately?

The internet feeds on outrage and cat gifs. And the recent outing of a Barbie story that appears to conform to 1950s-Barbie-thinking made perfect fodder. But it might simply be a book that teaches children how different professionals work together to create the digital games they enjoy playing. A designer is part of the mix; so are developers and other professionals, whose complementary skills support each other. That’s how it works when I design stuff. In my work, almost every day, there are things that go wrong that oblige me to call someone else to fix them. I notice a problem on a server; I reach out to a sysadmin. It isn’t because I’m a boy and boys are dumb. It’s because designers aren’t sysadmins.

All right. Fair enough. It was a terrible error for the illustrator to make all the technical people male. That sends an awful message—one lots of us have been working to fight. It’s disturbing that nobody at the publishing house realized the inferences that could be drawn from this mistake. And if this were my only exposure to Barbie in the past ten years, I’d be drawing those inferences and storming the barricades (i.e. retweeting) with the rest of my peeps.

But honestly? I spent two long years with the Barbie franchise. I think the women running it today are serious about girl power. Maybe the unfortunately timed illustration error reveals a deep sexist conspiracy. Or maybe it’s just one of those things nobody thought about while rushing a cheap book to print.

Look Back in Angora

SATURDAY October 25 will be the 14th anniversary of my mother’s passing. Let’s honor it with this 2006 entry from the vaults of My Glamorous Life.

Read: Hi, Mom!

A Sickroom With a View

CHICAGO is a dynamite town, but it may not be the best place to recover from a cold. Since I arrived, my virus has gone from a 4 to an 11. There’s a spectacular view out my hotel window, which I’ve spent the day ignoring by sleeping. I have several nice friends in this town who I’m similarly ignoring, having canceled plans with them today because of this fershlugginer cold. I was flat on my back, sleeping, my phone like a cat on my chest, when my dad called this afternoon to recommend gargling with a three percent peroxide solution. My trainer texted a moment later to ixnay the peroxide. She recommended going back to bed to finish sweating it out, and that looks like my plan for the next twelve hours, give or take a hot bath.

I brought a heap of work with me to Chicago, planning to tackle it between visits with Chicagoland friends, but the cold has pushed all chance of work aside. I got one sentence written for an Ask Dr Web column—the easiest task on my plate—and if I’m being completely honest, I didn’t so much write that sentence as copy and paste it from a reader’s email. Come to think of it, it wasn’t even a sentence. It was a question, which the column I was going to write was supposed to answer. So the sum total of my work today consisted of selecting and copying a question and pasting it into a blank piece of digital paper. Also answering the phone, and removing the Do Not Disturb sign from my door just long enough to admit Room Service.

I get colds a lot. My daughter brings them home from school to visit, and when they see my lungs they move in for the winter. And who can blame them? I’ve got great lungs. All the years I smoked cigarettes, I never caught colds, go figure. There’s a message in that, or maybe not. Maybe I just never caught cold when I was young and had no kid, but time has corrected both of those things.

It’s nice to be awake for a few minutes, listening to the inane chatter that passes for my consciousness and sharing it with you. Thank you for reading. And thank you, Chicago, for your marathon winds. I thought New York was a tough town. New York ain’t nothing to this.

Afternoon Pages

SLEPT much of yesterday. Slept till 1 PM today. Whatever this bug is I’ve got, it lets me work and care for my child during the week, then flattens me all weekend. Fortunately my daughter can amuse herself for hours, as I could at her age. I hope she will not be as lonely as I was. Am.

I Remember

THERE WAS THIS GUY, sax player, used to honk all up and down the Q Train to Coney Island. Thought he was Sun Ra. Wasn’t.