Publishing Versus Performance: Our Struggle for 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.

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.

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.