Crowdsourcing Dickens

As an experiment in new new media thinking, I recently crowdsourced a new new literature version of Charles Dickens’s musty old old old lit chestnut, Great Expectations—the familiar tale of Pip, Ms Havisham, the convict Magwitch, et al.

Creative excellence and spin-worthy results required a pool of 10,000 people who had never read Great Expectations. Fortunately, I had access to 10,000 recent American college graduates, so that was no problem.

To add a dab of pseudoscience and appeal obliquely to the copyleft crowd, I remixed the new work’s leading literary themes with the top 20 Google search queries, using an algorithm I found in the mens room at Penn Station.

The result was a work of pure modern genius, coming soon to an iPad near you. (Profits from the sale will be used to support Smashing Magazine’s footer and sidebar elements.)

Gone was the fusty old title. Gone were the cobwebbed wedding cake and other dare I say emo images. It was goodbye to outdated characters like Joe the blacksmith and the beautiful Estella, farewell to the love story and the whole careful parallel between that thing and that other thing.

Gone too was the tired old indictment of the Victorian class system, and by implication of all economic and social systems that separate man from his brothers in Christ, yada yada. As more than one of my young test subjects volunteered in a follow-up survey, “Heard it.”

In place of these obsolete narrative elements, the students and the prioritized Google searches created, or dare I say curated, a tale as fresh as today’s algorithmically generated headlines.

The results are summarized in the table below.

Old Great Expectations New Great Expectations
On Christmas Eve, Pip, an orphan being raised by his sister, encounters the convict Magwitch on the marshes. n/a
The convict compels Pip to steal food from his sister’s table, and a file from her husband the blacksmith’s shop. Pip thereby shares the convict’s guilt and sin—but his kindness warms the convict’s heart. Guy on girl
Pip’s sister, Mrs. Joe, abuses him. Her husband loves Pip but is unable to protect him or offer him a future beyond blacksmithing. Girl on girl (multiple entries)
Pip meets Miss Havisham, an old woman abandoned on her wedding day, who sits in her decrepit house, wearing a yellowing wedding gown, her only companion the beautiful and mysterious girl Estella. Pip falls in love with Estella, but Miss Havisham has trained the girl to break men’s hearts. Guy on guy
Pip visits Miss Havisham until his apprenticeship with Joe the blacksmith begins. Pip hates being a blacksmith and worries that Estella will see him as common. Two girls, one guy
Mrs Joe suffers a heart attack that leaves her mute. A kind girl named Biddy comes to take care of Mrs Joe. After Mrs Joe’s death, Biddy and Joe will marry. Meanwhile, Pip comes into an unexpected inheritance and moves to London, where he studies with a tutor and lives with his friend Herbert. Dragons
Pip believes Miss Havisham is his benefactor and that she intends him to marry Estella, whom he still adores. Day by day, Estella grows more cruel. Pip never tells her of his love for her. Wizards
One stormy night, Pip discovers that his benefactor is not Miss Havisham but the convict Magwitch. The news crushes Pip, but he dutifully allows Magwitch to live with him—worrying, all the while, because Magwitch is a wanted man who will be hanged if discovered. Explosions
Miss Havisham repents having wasted her life and perverted Estella. She is caught in a fire. Pip heroically saves her but she later dies from her burns. Soon afterwards, Pip and Herbert try to help Magwitch escape, but Magwitch’s old enemy Compeyson—who happens to be the man who abandoned Miss Havisham at the altar—betrays Magwitch to the authorities. Magwitch and Compeyson struggle. Compeyson dies and Magwitch is taken to prison. Gunfights
Pip now realizes that Magwitch is a decent man and tries to make Magwitch’s last years happy ones. He also discovers that Magwitch is Estella’s father. Magwitch dies in prison shortly before he was to be executed. Pip tells the dying Magwitch of his love for Estella. Fistfights
Pip becomes ill and is nursed back to health by Joe, whom Pip recognizes as a good man in spite of his lack of education and “class.” Pip goes into business overseas with Herbert. Eventually he returns to England and visits Joe, who has married Biddy. They have a child named Pip. As the book ends, the middle-aged Pip makes one last visit to Miss Havisham’s house, where he discovers an older and wiser Estella. There is the implication that Pip and Estella may finally be together. Anal

Ahem

The first part of my post of 1 February was not an attack on Flash. It described a way of working with Flash that also supports users who don’t have access to Flash. I’ve followed and advocated that approach for 10 years. It has nothing to do with Apple’s recent decisions and everything to do with making content available to people and search engines.

It’s how our agency and others use Flash; we’ve published articles on the subject in our magazine, notably Semantic Flash: Slippery When Wet by Daniel Mall.

We do the same thing with JavaScript—make sure the site works for users who don’t have JavaScript. It’s called web development. It’s what all of us should do.

My point was simply that if you’re an all-Flash shop that never creates a semantic HTML underpinning, it’s time to start creating HTML first—because an ever-larger number of your users are going to be accessing your site via devices that do not support Flash.

That’s not Apple “zealotry.” It’s not Flash hate. It’s a recommendation to my fellow professionals who aren’t already on the accessible, standards-based design train.


THE SECOND PART OF MY POST wasn’t Flash hate. It was a prediction based on the way computing is changing as more people at varying skill levels use computers and the internet, and as the nature of the computer changes.

There will probably always be “expert” computer systems for people like you and me who like to tinker and customize, just as there are still hundreds of thousands of people who hand-code their websites even though there are dozens of dead-simple web content publishing platforms out there these days.

But an increasing number of people will use simpler computers (just as we’ve seen millions of people blog who never wrote a line of HTML).


THE THIRD PART OF MY POST wasn’t Flash hate. It was an observation that Google and Apple, as companies, have more to gain from betting on HTML5 than from pinning their hopes to Adobe. That’s not a deep insight, it’s a statement of the obvious, and making the statement doesn’t equate to hating Adobe or swearing allegiance to Google and Apple—any more than stating that we’re having a cold winter makes me Al Gore’s best friend.

(Although I like Gore, don’t get me wrong. I also like Apple, Google, and Adobe. My admiration for these companies, however, does not impede my ability to make observations about them.)


THE THIRD PART OF MY POST ALSO WASN’T a blind assertion that HTML5, with VIDEO and CANVAS, is ready to replace Flash today, or more adept than Flash, or more accessible than Flash. Flash is currently more capable and it is far more accessible than CANVAS.

We have previously commented on HTML5’s strengths and weaknesses (Exhibit A, Exhibit B, Exhibit C) and are about to publish a book about HTML5 for web designers. HTML5 is rich with potential; Flash is rich with capability and can be made highly accessible.

That it is unstable on Mac and Linux is one reason Apple chose not to include it in its devices; that this omission will change the way some developers create web content is certain. If the first thing it does is encourage them to develop semantic HTML first, that’s a win for everyone who uses the web.

Carry on.


Information Wants To Be Second-Rate

Thousands of … filmmakers and writers around the country are operating with the same loose standards, racing to produce the 4,000 videos and articles that Demand Media publishes every day. The company’s ambitions are so enormous as to be almost surreal: to predict any question anyone might ask and generate an answer that will show up at the top of Google’s search results. To get there, Demand is using an army of [impoverished filmmakers and writers] to feverishly crank out articles and videos. They shoot slapdash instructional videos with titles like “How To Draw a Greek Helmet” and “Dog Whistle Training Techniques.” They write guides about lunch meat safety and nonprofit administration. They pump out an endless stream of bulleted lists and tutorials about the most esoteric of subjects.

via The Answer Factory: Demand Media and the Fast, Disposable, and Profitable as Hell Media Model

Web standards secret sauce

When Apple chose KHTML rather than Mozilla Gecko as the basis for its Safari browser, some of us in the web standards community scratched our heads. Sure, KHTML, the rendering engine in Konqueror, was open-source and standards-compliant. But, at the time, Gecko’s standards support was more advanced, and Gecko-based Mozilla, Camino, and even Netscape 6 felt more like browsers than Konqueror. Gecko browsers had the features, the comparative maturity, and the support of the standards community. Apple’s adoption of KHTML, and creation of a forked version called Webkit, seemed puzzling and wrong.

Yet, thanks largely to the success of the iPhone, Webkit (Apple’s open source version of KHTML) in the form of Safari, has been a surprising force for good on the web, raising people’s expectations about what a web browser can and should do, and what a web page should look like. Had Apple chosen Gecko, they might not have been able to so powerfully influence mainstream consumer opinion, because the fully formed, distinctly mature Gecko brand and experience could easily have overshadowed and constrained Apple’s contribution. (Not to mention, tolerating external constraint is not a game Apple plays.)

Just how has mobile Safari, a relative latecomer to the world of standards-based browsing, been able to make a difference, and what difference has it made?

The platform paradox

Firefox and Opera were wonderful before any Webkit-based browser reached maturity, but Firefox and Opera were and are non-mainstream tastes. Most people use Windows without thinking much about it, and most Windows users open the browser that comes with their operating system, again without too much thought. This doesn’t make them dumb and us smart. We are interaction designers; they are not.

Thus, the paradox: even though Firefox and Opera offered powerfully compelling visions of what could be accomplished with web standards back when IE6 offered a comparatively poor experience, Firefox and Opera, not unlike Linux and Mac OS, were platforms for the converted. If you knew enough to want Firefox and Opera, those browsers delivered features and experience that confirmed the wisdom of your choice. If you didn’t know to want them, you didn’t realize you were missing anything, because folks reading this page sweated like Egyptian pyramid builders to make sure you had a good experience despite your browser’s flaws.

The power to convert

Firefox and Opera are great browsers that have greatly advanced the cause of web standards, but because they are choices in a space where most people don’t make choices, their power to convert is necessarily somewhat truncated. The millions mostly don’t care what happens on their desktop. It’s mostly not in their control. They either don’t have a choice or don’t realize they have one, and their expectations have been systematically lowered by two decades of unexciting user experience.

By contrast, the iPhone functions in a hot realm where consumers do make choices, and where choices are badges. Of course many people are forced economically to choose the cheap or free phone that comes with their mobile service. But many others are in a position to select a device. And the iPhone is to today’s urban professional gym rat what cigarettes and martinis were to their 1950s predecessors. You and I may claim to choose a mobile device based on its features, but the upwardly mobile (pardon the pun), totally hot person standing next to us in the elevator may choose their phone the same way they choose their handbag. And now that the iPhone sells for $99, more people can afford to make a fashion decision about their phone—and they’ll do it.

Mobile 2.0

Although there were great phones before the iPhone, and although the iPhone has its detractors, it is fair to say that we are now in a Mobile 2.0 phase where people expect more than a Lynx-like experience when they use their phone to access the internet. Mobile Safari in iPhone, along with the device’s superior text handling thanks to Apple and Adobe technologies, is changing perceptions about and expectations of the web in the same way social networking did, and just at the historical moment when social networking has gone totally mainstream.

Oprah’s on Twitter, your mom’s on Twitter, and they’re either using an iPhone or a recently vastly upgraded Palm or Blackberry that takes nearly all of its cues from the iPhone. Devices that copy the iPhone of course mostly end up selling the iPhone, the same way Bravo’s The Fashion Show would mostly make you miss Project Runway if you even watched The Fashion Show, which you probably haven’t.

Safari isn’t perfect, and Mobile Safari has bugs not evident in desktop Safari, but Webkit + Apple = secret sauce selling web standards to a new generation of consumers and developers.

Read more

  • Web Fonts, HTML 5 Roundup: Worthwhile reading on the hot new web font proposals, and on HTML 5/CSS 3 basics, plus a demo of advanced HTML 5 trickery. — 20 July 2009
  • HTML 5: Nav Ambiguity Resolved. An e-mail from Chairman Hickson resolves an ambiguity in the nav element of HTML 5. What does that mean in English? Glad you asked! — 13 July 2009
  • In Defense of Web Developers: Pushing back against the “XHTML is bullshit, man!” crowd’s using the cessation of XHTML 2.0 activity to condescend to—or even childishly glory in the “folly” of—web developers who build with XHTML 1.0, a stable W3C recommendation for nearly ten years, and one that will continue to work indefinitely. — 7 July 2009
  • XHTML DOA WTF: The web’s future isn’t what the web’s past cracked it up to be. — 2 July 2009

[tags]webdesign, webstandards, design, standards, browsers, CSS, webkit, gecko, mozilla, firefox, opera, safari, mobile, mobilesafari, iphone[/tags]

A bug in Google Chrome

Between hurricanes and hericanes, you could easily have missed the technology news. Released yesterday in public beta, Google Chrome is a standards-compliant web browser created to erode Microsoft’s browser dominance (i.e. to boost Google’s web dominance) while also rethinking what a browser is and does in the age of web apps and Google’s YouTube.

The new browser is based on Webkit, the advanced-standards-compliant, open source browser engine that powers Apple’s Safari for Mac and PC, but Chrome currently runs only in Windows. You figure that out.

Here are the new browser’s terms of service.

And here’s an important early bug report from Jeremy Jarratt: Google Chrome wrongly displays alternate styles as if active, thus “breaking” websites that use them. (Here’s more about alternate style sheets, from Paul Sowden’s groundbreaking 2001 A List Apart article.)

To compete with Microsoft, the new browser must offer what other browsers do not. The risk inherent in that proposition is a return to proprietary browser code. It is not yet clear to me whether Chrome will compete the wrong way—offering Chrome-only features based on Chrome-only code, thus prompting Microsoft to rethink its commitment to standards—or the right way.

Competing by offering features other browsers do not (easier downloads, streamlined user interface) or by consolidating other browsers’ best features (Opera’s Speed Dial, Firefox’s auto-complete) avoids this risk, as improvements—or at any rate, changes—to the browser’s user interface have no bearing on the display of existing web content.

Competing by supporting web standards ahead of the pack, although not entirely without risk, would also be a reasonable and exciting way to compete. When one browser supports a standard, it goads other browser makers into also supporting it. Because Safari, for instance, supports @font-face, Firefox is not far behind in supporting that CSS spec. @font-face raises font licensing problems, but we’ll discuss those another time. The risk that concerns us here is when a browser supports an emerging specification before it is finalized, thus, essentially, freezing the spec before it is ready. But that is the traditional dance between spec authors and browser makers.

For web standards and web content, we once again live in interesting times. Welcome, Chrome!

[tags]google, chrome, googlechrome, beta, software, browsers, standards, webbrowsers, webstandards, bugs, standards-compliant, alternatestyles, alternatecss[/tags]

Return of the Son of Moto

Q. i have been using your son of moto [blogger template] to build my blogspots. why do i have to have two empty, wide, side fields? pls take a look at the above reference blog. i have to put all the content in the middle, rather narrow field.

A. We regret that we cannot provide technical support for templates we designed in 2004. Please check Blogger’s Help pages and see if they answer your concerns.

Bastardized, corrupted versions of these templates—versions we did not design, based on our work but not done by us—show up all over the web. We don’t know if these bastardized, corrupted versions are authorized (i.e. we don’t know if the republishers paid a licensing fee to Google, who commissioned the templates in the first place). Millions of people use these templates, or unauthorized hacks of these templates. If you need help changing the templates to suit your needs, kindly contact your service provider.

The original templates are part of the 2004 standards-based redesign of Blogger on which we and others toiled. Google paid the least money any of us had ever received on a web design job. But we would have done the work for free. It was all about creating web-standards-based templates—about getting standards out there in a big way: a way only a product with as many users as Blogger, and an owner as powerfully influential as Google, could assure. Finances were beside the point. The reward was making standards-based stuff for millions of people to use and enjoy.

Four years on, we still get a warm feeling out of having worked on the project. But that’s not all we get. Several times a week, we get e-mails from people who want to alter our templates but lack technical know-how. We regret that we cannot debug the style sheets of the universe.

[tags]moto, son of moto, blogger, templates[/tags]