Marchgasm!

I’VE BEEN BUSY this month:

And March is only half over.

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.

Achieving Empathy for Institutions with Anil Dash

Anil Dash

IN BIG WEB SHOW № 115 on Mule Radio, I talk with Anil Dash, a hugely influential entrepreneur, blogger, and web geek living in NYC.

Things we discuss include:

How government, media, and tech shape the world, and how we can influence them in turn. Our first meeting at SXSW in 2002. How selling CMS systems teaches you the dysfunction at media companies and organizations. Working for the music industry at the dawn of Napster. RFP-EZ. The early days of blogging.

Designing websites for the government—the procurement problem. If we’re pouring all this time into social media, what do we want to get out of it? How big institutions work and how to have an impact on them. Living in “Joe’s Apartment.”

Why, until recently, federal agencies that wanted a blog couldn’t use WordPress or Tumblr and how the State Dept got on Tumblr. Achieving empathy for institutions. Being more thoughtful about what I share and who I amplify on social media. The launch of Thinkup, and a special offer exclusively for Big Web Show listeners.

Enjoy Big Web Show № 115.


Sponsored by An Event Apart, the design conference for people who make websites. Save $100 off any 2- or 3-day AEA event with discount code AEABWS.


The Black Hole of The Valley

STOP ME if you’ve heard this one: Guy goes into a venture capital firm, borrows money. Uses money to turn neat idea into product. Gives away product (or sells well below cost) to build a following and thus a demand.

Customers love product, imbue it with their life energy and creativity. Community grows, but not cashflow, because money was something to be figured out later. More investors throw more money at the product, on the theory that what it needs is fancier offices or fifty designers united behind no vision in particular.

Surprisingly (at least to the participants), several rounds of throwing cash and bodies at what was once a neat idea fail to generate ludicrous return on investment. Capitalists demand that product idea be changed.

Change of idea fails to generate ludicrous return on investment. Customers, no longer sure what product is about (or even that it has a future) become less passionate.

Usage falters, then rapidly hits event horizon.

Guy starts shopping no longer loved or interesting product at fire sale price.

Eventually big internet company sucks product and product team into itself, where both disappear forever.

Tweak This!

99designs, the Australian company that has made a fortune soliciting spec work (“crowd sourced graphic design”) from naive designers, and selling $99 logo customizations to small businesses, has just invested $460,000 in a new service:

Tweaky, “the marketplace for website customization,” is the ultimate connector between companies that need quick, simple adjustments to their websites, and designer/developers seeking extra income via no-brainer side work.

The premise is simple: Want to add a subscription come-on to your site but don’t know the first thing about HTML, and don’t have the budget to hire a designer or studio? Tweaky will change your site for $25. Need to update the copyright information in your footer, but don’t know how to do it? Tweaky will handle it for you for $25. Need to add a sidebar to your website? Tweaky will do it for $25. Cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger.

Tweaky sounds like the perfect service for the harried small business owner who needs to make one or two quick adjustments to an existing website, has limited time and means, and needs the changes to be made professionally. The last bit is most important: there’s a difference between hiring a designer to make your logo bigger, and doing it yourself when you’re not a designer, don’t own Photoshop, aren’t expert in HTML and CSS, and so on. Tweaky’s promise is that only qualified designer/developers will be hired to make your $25 tweaks. My guess is that, at least initially, Tweaky will draw on the same community that currently participates in 99designs’s “design contests” (spec work), or at least it will solicit designers from that pool.

Crowd sourcing design is unethical (read Design Is A Job and Design Professionalism if you’re unfamiliar with the standards of conduct in a professional designer/client relationship—or, for now, just read this tweet, and read these two great books later), so I disapprove of 99designs, but its new child appears to have been born sinless. While some designers, possibly including the authors of the aforementioned texts, will dislike the notion of Tweaky on principle, I don’t think designers or studios will lose customers to a $25 tweak service. I don’t think it’s exploitation to accept $25 to change a link in a footer (assuming the designer gets the bulk of the fee). And I don’t think a client with an existing website should have to pay several thousand dollars engaging a designer simply to make a wee adjustment to her site. Tweaky offers customers access to real designers for quick jobs, and offers designers a work and revenue stream. That seems okay to me.

Caveat emptor: I haven’t hired Tweaky (no need), don’t know how they evaluate designer/developers before admitting them to their freelance labor pool, don’t know how much of a customer’s $25 ends up in a designer’s pocket, and can’t speak to the quality of their concierge service and follow-through. But I find their business model unobjectionable and intelligent—it fills a designer’s need for extra work and a customer’s need for quick turnaround on no-brainer mini-projects. Truth to tell, I’ve heard talk of similar networks in the works, and would not be surprised to see competitors to Tweaky sprout up soon enough. It’s the economy, smarty.

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.

Say No to SOPA!

A LIST APART strongly opposes USHR 3261 AKA the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), an ill-conceived lobbyist-driven piece of legislation that is technically impossible to enforce, cripplingly burdensome to support, and would, without hyperbole, destroy the internet as we know it.

SOPA approaches the problem of content piracy with a broad brush, lights that brush on fire, and soaks the whole web in gasoline. Learn why SOPA must not pass, and find out what you can do to help stop it.

A List Apart: Articles: Say No to SOPA.


Illustration by Kevin Cornell for A List Apart Magazine.

In which I unwittingly befoul an otherwise fitting tribute to the late, great Mr Jobs

“SHARE YOUR MEMORIES of Steve Jobs” read the email from Faith Korpi, producer of the 5by5 network to which I contribute a podcast. I thought she meant memories of actually interacting with the guy. I had one such experience: Steve fired me from a freelance project. That being my only “memory” of Steve Jobs, I responded to the assignment by telling that story.

5by5 created a beautiful audio tribute to Steve Jobs. The other contributors, who understood the assignment correctly, carefully crafted personal tributes to Steve Jobs and his legacy. Listening to this series of heartfelt recollections, you get a sense of the contribution Steve Jobs made to all our lives. The testimonials of my colleagues make me feel awe, wonder, hope, and terrible sadness.

A little over twenty minutes into this love fest for a giant of our time, my little story comes along and quickly sinks like a stone. I didn’t write it out in advance (no time, I was chaperoning my daughter’s second grade field trip) and I didn’t record it in my pristine podcasting studio (same excuse). The gist of it is, Steve Jobs fired me and another guy from a project before we did a lick of work, paid us anyway, and afterwards, for nearly ten years, Apple hardware and software that worked perfectly well for everyone in the world misbehaved for me — as if the aborted project had left me cursed.

Pathetic.

I admire and marvel at Steve Jobs every bit as much as my better spoken, better prepared colleagues. Not only did he understand that computing is about people, not technology; he also had the will to unapologetically demand perfection from the human beings who worked for him. If I live to be one thousandth the creative director he was, I will tell myself, “Well done.”

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: