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.

A Beautiful Life

LIZZIE VELASQUEZ, age 25, weighs 64 pounds. Born with a rare syndrome that prevents her from gaining weight, she was not expected to survive. Her parents took her home, raised her normally, and, when she turned five, sent her to kindergarten, where she discovered, through bullying, that she was different.

The bullying peaked when an adult male posted a photo of thirteen-year-old Lizzie labeled “World’s Ugliest Woman” on YouTube. The video got four million views. The uniformly unkind comments included sentiments like, “Do the world a favor. Put a gun to your head, and kill yourself.”

Rather than take the advice of anonymous cowards, Lizzie determined not to let their cruelty define her. Instead, as she reveals in this inspiring video captured at TEDxAustinWomen, Lizzie channeled the experience into a beautiful and fulfilling life.

From NYPL to DC Comics: the lettering of Ira Schnapp

Action Comics logo, 1938

Superman, 1940

HE DESIGNED the lettering on The New York Public Library and the James Farley Post Office (“neither snow nor rain…”), created titles for silent movies, movie posters, and pulp magazines in the 1920s, and started working for DC Comics in 1938, where he designed the masthead for Action Comics, refined the Superman logo, and brought dozens of DC Comics texts and titles to life. A new exhibit at The Type Directors Club honors Ira Schnapp and sheds light on his decades of influential work.

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

Web Design Manifesto 2012

THANK YOU for the screen shot. I was actually already aware that the type on my site is big. I designed it that way. And while I’m grateful for your kind desire to help me, I actually do know how the site looks in a browser with default settings on a desktop computer. I am fortunate enough to own a desktop computer. Moreover, I work in a design studio where we have several of them.

This is my personal site. There are many like it, but this one is mine. Designers with personal sites should experiment with new layout models when they can. Before I got busy with one thing and another, I used to redesign this site practically every other week. Sometimes the designs experimented with pitifully low contrast. Other times the type was absurdly small. I experimented with the technology that’s used to create web layouts, and with various notions of web “page” design and content presentation. I’m still doing that, I just don’t get to do it as often.

Many people who’ve visited this site since the redesign have commented on the big type. It’s hard to miss. After all, words are practically the only feature I haven’t removed. Some of the people say they love it. Others are undecided. Many are still processing. A few say they hate it and suggest I’ve lost my mind—although nobody until you has suggested I simply didn’t have access to a computer and therefore didn’t know what I was designing. This design may be good, bad, or indifferent but it is not accidental.

A few people who hate this design have asked if I’ve heard of responsive web design. I have indeed. I was there when Ethan Marcotte invented it, I published his ground-breaking article (and, later, his book, which I read in draft half a dozen times and which I still turn to for reference and pleasure), and I’ve had the privilege of seeing Ethan lecture and lead workshops on the topic about 40 times over the past three years. We’ve incorporated responsive design in our studio’s practice, and I’ve talked about it myself on various stages in three countries. I’m even using elements of it in this design, although you’d have to view source and think hard to understand how, and I don’t feel like explaining that part yet.

This redesign is a response to ebooks, to web type, to mobile, and to wonderful applications like Instapaper and Readability that address the problem of most websites’ pointlessly cluttered interfaces and content-hostile text layouts by actually removing the designer from the equation. (That’s not all these apps do, but it’s one benefit of using them, and it indicates how pathetic much of our web design is when our visitors increasingly turn to third party applications simply to read our sites’ content. It also suggests that those who don’t design for readers might soon not be designing for anyone.)

This redesign is deliberately over the top, but new ideas often exaggerate to make a point. It’s over the top but not unusable nor, in my opinion, unbeautiful. How can passages set in Georgia and headlines in Franklin be anything but beautiful? I love seeing my words this big. It encourages me to write better and more often.

If this were a client site, I wouldn’t push the boundaries this far. If this were a client site, I’d worry that maybe a third of the initial responses to the redesign were negative. Hell, let’s get real: if this were a client site, I wouldn’t have removed as much secondary functionality and I certainly wouldn’t have set the type this big. But this is my personal site. There are many like it, but this one is mine. And on this one, I get to try designs that are idea-driven and make statements. On this one, I get to flounder and occasionally flop. If this design turns out to be a hideous mistake, I’ll probably eventually realize that and change it. (It’s going to change eventually, anyway. This is the web. No design is for the ages, not even Douglas Bowman’s great Minima.)

But for right now, I don’t think this design is a mistake. I think it is a harbinger. We can’t keep designing as we used to if we want people to engage with our content. We can’t keep charging for ads that our layouts train readers to ignore. We can’t focus so much on technology that we forget the web is often, and quite gloriously, a transaction between reader and writer.

Most of you reading this already know these things and already think about them each time you’re asked to create a new digital experience. But even our best clients can sometimes push back, and even our most thrilling projects typically contain some element of compromise. A personal site is where you don’t have to compromise. Even if you lose some readers. Even if some people hate what you’ve done. Even if others wonder why you aren’t doing what everyone else who knows what’s what is doing.

I don’t think you will see much type quite this big but I do think you will see more single-column sites with bigger type coming soon to a desktop and device near you. For a certain kind of content, bigger type and a simpler layout just make sense, regardless of screen size. You don’t even have to use Typekit or its brothers to experiment with big type (awesome as those services are). In today’s monitors and operating systems, yesterday’s classic web fonts—the ones that come with most everyone’s computer—can look pretty danged gorgeous at large sizes. Try tired old Times New Roman. You might be surprised.

The present day designer refuses to die.


Tantek Çelik on Mozilla & Microformats: Big Web Show

TANTEK ÇELIK is my guest on Episode No. 68 of The Big Web Show (“everything web that matters”).

Currently web standards lead at Mozilla, Tantek is one of the founders of both the microformats.org open standards community and the Global Multimedia Protocols Group, and an invited expert to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Cascading Style Sheets working group.

Tantek has played a key role in the development and popularization of practical social network portability technologies such as the hCard and XFN microformats. In 2003, Tantek collaborated with Eric Meyer and Matt Mullenweg in the invention of the XHTML Friends Network (XFN), which has since become the most popular decentralized social relationship format in the history of the Web. In 2004 Tantek proposed hCard for representing people and organizations, which has since similarly become the most popular user profile format on the web.

During his years as Technorati’s Chief Technologist, Tantek played an active role in refining and evangelizing hCard, bringing it from a wiki proposal to one that’s endorsed and supported by individuals, numerous small organizations, major companies ranging from AOL to Yahoo, and implemented for over a hundred million user identities and business listings on the web.

At Microsoft, Tantek led the development of Internet Explorer 5 for Macintosh and its Tasman rendering engine, which was the most standards-compliant layout engine of its time. He was also an early member of The Web Standards Project, and is the creator of the Box Model Hack, the first IE hack that let developers work around the incorrect box model in old versions of Internet Explorer.

Listen to Episode 68: Tantek Çelik on Mozilla and Microformats.

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CSS & Mobile To The Future | Embrace Users, Constrain Design | An Event Apart Seattle 2012 Day II

TUESDAY, 3 APRIL 2012, was Day II of An Event Apart Seattle, a sold-out, three-day event for people who make websites. If you couldn’t be among us, never fear. The amazing Luke Wroblewski (who leads a day-long seminar on mobile web design today) took excellent notes throughout the day, and shares them herewith:

The (CSS) Future is Now – Eric Meyer

In his The Future is Now talk at An Event Apart in Seattle, WA 2012 Eric Meyer talked about some of the visual effects we can achieve with CSS today. Create shiny new visual elements with no images using progressive enhancement and CSS that is available in all modern browsers.

A Philosophy of Restraint
– Simon Collison

In his A Philosophy of Restraint talk at An Event Apart in Seattle, WA 2012 Simon Collison outlined his design philosophy and how he applies it to web projects. Embrace constraints; simplicity and complexity; design aesthetic; design systems as foundations that prepare us for future projects and complexity; affordances and type; focus and content; audit and pause — prevent catastrophic failures and shine a new light on what you’ve learned with each project.

Touch Events – Peter-Paul Koch (PPK)

In his Touch Events talk at An Event Apart in Seattle, WA 2012 Peter-Paul Koch talked about touch support in mobile browsers and how to handle touch events in web development. Includes a ranking of current mobile browsers; interaction modes in mobile versus desktop (mouse) and keyboard — how do we adjust scripts to work with touch?; touch events; supporting modes; event cascade; and “stick with click.”

Mobile to the Future – Luke Wroblewski

Alas, Luke could not take notes on his own presentation. Here’s what it was about: When something new comes along, it’s common for us to react with what we already know. Radio programming on TV, print design on web pages, and now web page design on mobile devices. But every medium ultimately needs unique thinking and design to reach its true potential. Through an in-depth look at several common web interactions, Luke outlined how to adapt existing desktop design solutions for mobile devices and how to use mobile to expand what’s possible across all devices.Instead of thinking about how to reformat your websites to fit mobile screens, attendees learned to see mobile as way to rethink the future of the web.

What’s Your Problem? – Whitney Hess

In her What’s Your Problem? Putting Purpose Back into Your Projects talk at An Event Apart in Seattle, WA 2012 Whitney Hess outlined the value of learning about opportunities directly from customers. Understand the problem before designing the solution. Ask why before you figure out how. There is no universal solution for all our projects, we need to determine which practices are “best” through our understanding of problems. Our reliance on best practices is creating a world of uniform websites that solve no one’s problem. Leave the desk and interact with people. Rather than the problem solver, be the person who can see the problem.

Properties of Intuitive Pages
– Jared Spool

At An Event Apart in Seattle WA 2012, Jared Spool walked through what makes a design intuitive, why some users need different treatment, and the role of design. Current versus acquired knowledge and how to bridge the gap (how to train users, thus making your site or app “intuitive”). Redesigns and how to avoid disaster. Design skills. The gap between current knowledge and target knowledge is where design happens. Why intuitive design is only possible in small, short iterations.


Day III begins in 90 minutes. See some of you there.

Photos: AEA Seattle Flickr pool or hashtags #aea and #aeasea on Instagram.

The maker makes: on design, community, and personal empowerment

THE FIRST THING I got about the web was its ability to empower the maker. The year was 1995, and I was tinkering at my first website. The medium was raw and ugly, like a forceps baby; yet even in its blind, howling state, it made me a writer, a designer, and a publisher — ambitions which had eluded me during more than a decade of underachieving desert wanderings.

I say “it made me” but I made it, too. You get the power by using it. Nobody confers it on you.

I also got that the power was not for me alone: it was conferred in equal measure on everyone with whom I worked, although not everyone would have the time or desire to use the power fully.

The luckiest makers

Empowerment and desire. It takes extraordinary commitment, luck, and talent to become a maker in, say, music or film, because the production and distribution costs and risks in these fields almost always demand rich outside investors and tightly controlling corporate structures. (Film has held up better than music under these conditions.)

Music and film fill my life, and, from afar, I love many artists involved in these enterprises. But they are mostly closed to you and me, where the web is wide open, and always has been. We all know gifted, hard working musicians who deserve wide acclaim but do not receive it, even after decades of toil. The web is far kinder to makers.

To care is to share

Not only does the web make publishers of those willing to put in the work, it also makes most of us free sharers of our hard-won trade, craft, and business secrets. The minute we grab hold of a new angle on design, interaction, code, or content, we share it with a friend — or with friends we haven’t met yet. This sharing started in news groups and message boards, and flowered on what came to be called blogs, but it can also slip the bounds of its containing medium, empowering makers to create books, meet-ups, magazines, conferences, products, you name it. It is tough to break into traditional book publishing the normal way but comparatively easy to do it from the web, provided you have put in the early work of community building.

The beauty is that the community building doesn’t feel like work; it feels like goofing off with your friends (because, mostly, it is). You don’t have to turn your readers into customers. Indeed, if you feel like you’re turning your readers into customers, you’re doing it wrong.

If you see a chance, take it

The corollary to all this empowerment is that it’s up to each of us to do something positive with it. I sometimes become impatient when members of our community spend their energy publicly lamenting that a website about cats isn’t about dogs. Their energy would be so much better spent starting bow-wow.com. The feeling that something is missing from a beloved online resource (or conference, or product) can be a wonderful motivator to start your own. I created A List Apart because I felt that webmonkey.com wasn’t enough about design and highfive.com was too much about it. If this porridge is too hot and that porridge is too cold, I better make some fresh, eh?

I apologize if I sometimes seem snippy with whiners. My goal is never to make anyone feel bad, especially not anyone in this community. My message to my peers since the days of “Ask Dr Web” has always been: “you can do this! Go do it.” That is still what I say to you all.

This media life – and death

IN A GORGEOUSLY PACED ESSAY at n+1, “the magazine that believes history isn’t over just yet,” an amazing young (22?) writer named Alice Gregory reviews a novel by Gary Shteyngart while simultaneously describing her exhausted and shattered mental life as a Twitter- and Tumblr-following, iPhone-carrying, socializing-while-isolated Internet addict, i.e. modern young person:

This anxiety is about more than failing to keep up with a serialized source, though. It’s also about the primitive pleasure of constant and arbitrary stimulation. That’s why the Facebook newsfeed is no longer shown chronologically. Refresh Facebook ten times and the status updates rearrange themselves in nonsensical, anachronistic patterns. You don’t refresh Facebook to follow a narrative, you refresh to register a change—not to read but to see.

And it’s losing track of this distinction—between reading and seeing—that’s so shameful. It’s like being demoted from the category of thinking, caring human to a sort of rat that doesn’t know why he needs to tap that button, just that he does.

Sometimes I can almost visualize parts of myself, the ones I’m most proud of, atrophying. I wish I had an app to monitor it! I notice that my thoughts are homeopathic, that they mirror content I wish I weren’t reading. I catch myself performing hideous, futuristic gestures, like that “hilarious” moment three seconds into an intimate embrace in which I realize I’m literally rubbing my iPhone screen across his spine.

I urge you to read every word of n+1: Sad as Hell. Hat tip: New York designer Darren Hoyt.

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: