Unexamined Privilege is the real source of cruelty in Facebook’s “Your Year in Review”

UNEXAMINED PRIVILEGE is the real source of cruelty in Facebook’s “Your Year in Review”—a feature conceived and designed by a group to whom nothing terrible has happened yet. A brilliant upper-middle-class student at an elite university conceived Facebook, and college students, as everyone knows, were its founding user group. The company hires recent graduates of expensive and exclusive design programs and pays them several times the going rate to brainstorm and execute exciting new features.

I’m not saying that these brilliant young designers are heartless, or that individuals among them haven’t personally experienced tragedy—that would be mathematically impossible. I have taught some of these designers, and worked with others. Those I’ve known are wonderful people who want to make a difference in the world. And in theory (and sometimes in practice) a platform like Facebook lets them do that.1

But when you put together teams of largely homogenous people of the same class and background, and pay them a lot of money, and when most of those people are under 30, it stands to reason that when someone in the room says, “Let’s do ‘your year in review, and front-load it with visuals,’” most folks in the room will imagine photos of skiing trips, parties, and awards shows—not photos of dead spouses, parents, and children.

So it comes back to this. When we talk about the need for diversity in tech, we’re not doing it because we like quota systems. Diverse backgrounds produce differing points of view. And those differences are needed if we are to put the flowering of internet genius to use actually helping humanity with its many terrifying and seemingly intractable problems.

If we keep throwing only young, mostly white, mostly upper middle class people at the engine that makes our digital world go, we’ll keep getting camera and reminder and hookup apps—things that make an already privileged life even smoother—and we’ll keep producing features that sound like a good idea to everyone in the room, until they unexpectedly stab someone in the heart.

1 Of course, not all my former students and employees work at Facebook; most don’t. But those who have gone there had other, equally lucrative options; they took the job to make Facebook, and maybe the world, a little better.

From Chicago, With Love

Marina City, Chicago, IL, USA. Part of a photo set by Jeffrey Zeldman.

HEY, FRIENDS. I write from the magical city of Chicago, where I’m enjoying the first Happy Cog Summit. Next week, following our meet-up cum strategy session cum karaoke party, comes An Event Apart Chicago, three days of peace, love, and web standards (plus more Chicago magic).

I won’t be writing here much while these events continue, but I’ve started a Chicago 2012 photo slide show for your pleasure, and will add to it as time and aesthetics permit. You can also stalk me via my new Foursquare Chicago list.

Once An Event Apart kicks in, starting Monday August 27, and until it ends Wednesday night, August 29, I’ll post links and notes here—and you can follow the hot tweet-by-tweet action on A Feed Apart, the official feed aggregator for An Event Apart. Yowee!

Leo Laporte interviews JZ

IN EPISODE 63 of Triangulation, Leo Laporte, a gracious and knowledgeable podcaster/broadcaster straight outta Petaluma, CA, interviews Your Humble Narrator about web standards history, responsive web design, content first, the state of standards in a multi-device world, and why communists sometimes make lousy band managers.

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!

Happy Cog Web Designers Join Ganapati Kulam

YESTERDAY AND TODAY the Ganapati Kulam held a two-day intensive kick-off meeting with three members of Happy Cog, a leading web-design firm that the monastery hired for a complete, professional redesign of this Himalayan Academy/Kauai’s Hindu Monastery website using funds raised during last year’s Digital Dharma Drive.”

Today at Kauai’s Hindu Monastery, 9/01/2011: Happy Cog Web Designers Join Ganapati Kulam.

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:

One blog post is worth a thousand portfolio pieces.

I HIRED JASON SANTA MARIA after reading this post on his site.

The year was 2004. Douglas Bowman, one of my partners on a major project, had just injured himself and was unable to work. I needed someone talented and disciplined enough to jump into Doug’s shoes and brain—to finish Doug’s part of the project as Doug would have finished it.

I lack the ability to emulate other designers (especially classy ones like Douglas Bowman) and I was a Photoshop guy whereas Doug worked in Illustrator, so I knew I needed a freelancer. But who?

A Google search on Illustrator and web design led me to a post by a guy I’d never heard of. The post was enjoyably written and reflected a mature and coherent attitude not simply toward the technique it described, but to the practice of design itself. Yes, the blog itself was intriguingly and skillfully designed, and that certainly didn’t hurt. But what made me hire Jason was not the artistry of his website’s design nor the demonstration that he possessed the technical skill I sought, but the fact that he had an evolved point of view about web design.

Anyone can write a how-to. Not everyone thinks to write a why.

Jason had.

I offered him the thankless task of aping another designer’s style for not a ton of money under extreme time pressure, and to my pleased surprise, he accepted. He did so well, and performed so selflessly, that I hired him for another project, this time one with full creative freedom. I have never regretted those decisions.

Just about everyone I know and work with I first met online. And, although well-done portfolio services have their place, neither I nor anyone at Happy Cog has ever hired someone purely (or even largely) on the basis of their portfolio. It’s all about how you present yourself online. Before I even meet you, do I feel like I know you—or like I wish I knew you?

Have you got a point of view? Are you sharing it?

On Creative Direction

IN MY APPRENTICE DAYS, I worked for Marvin Honig, a Hall of Fame copywriter who created indelible commercials for Alka-Seltzer, Cracker Jack, and Volkswagen during the 1960s and 1970s, and who assumed creative leadership of Doyle Dane Bernbach upon legendary founder Bill Bernbach’s death. It was not one of those bloody successions that stain the pages of history and advertising. Bill chose Marvin to carry on in his place.

By the time I met Marvin, he and I were toiling at Campbell-Mithun-Esty. He had been brought in to radically upgrade the financially successful but talent-challenged agency’s creative product. I was there because it was the first job I could get in New York.

Marvin was gentle. He never told you how stale your ideas were or how disappointed he was in you for not working harder. He made you believe you were the future, not only of the place, but of the profession.

Besides his warmth, what I remember most is a piece of advice he gave me: “If you’re not a creative director by the time you’re 40, get out of the business.”

Continue reading But What I Really Want to Do is Direct at Cognition, the blog of Happy Cog.