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.

Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Medium?

IN 2003, long before he was a creative director at Twitter, Douglas Bowman wrote articles about design, posted case studies about his design projects, and shared his photography on his personal/business site, stopdesign.com.

A year previously, Doug had attained instant fame in standardista circles by recoding Wired.com using CSS for layout. That sounds nonsensical nowadays, but in 2002, folks like me were still struggling to persuade our fellow web designers to use CSS, and not HTML tables, for layout. Leading web designers had begun seeing the light, and there had been a sudden profusion of blogs and personal sites that used CSS for layout, and whose markup strove to be semantic and to validate. But nobody had as yet applied web standards to a large commercial site—giving rise to the charge, among Luddite web designers, that standards-based design was “okay for blogs” but had no business on the “real” web.

Then Doug recoded Wired.com with CSS, Mike Davidson did the same for ESPN.com, and all the old reactionary talking points were suddenly as dead as Generalissimo Franco—and the race was on to build a standards-compliant, open web across all content and application sectors.


IN THE PROCESS of helping to lead this sea change, Douglas Bowman became famous, and anybody who was anybody in web design began passionately reading his blog. And yet.

And yet, when Doug had a really big idea to share with our community, he published it on A List Apart, the magazine “for people who make websites.”

Did he do so because blogging was dead? Because the open web was in trouble? Of course not. He did it because publishing on A List Apart in 2003 allowed Doug to share his innovative design technique with the widest possible audience of his peers.


PUBLISHING in multiple venues is not new. Charles Dickens, the literary colossus of Victorian England, did it. (He also pioneered serial cross-cutting, the serial narrative, and the incorporation of audience feedback into his narrative—techniques that anticipated the suspense film, serial television narratives like Mad Men, and the modification of TV content in response to viewer feedback over the internet. But those are other, possibly more interesting, stories.)

Nobody said the open web was dead when Doug Bowman published “Sliding Doors of CSS” on A List Apart.

Nobody said the blog was dead when RSS readers made it easier to check the latest content from your favorite self-publishing authors without bothering to type their personal sites’ URLs into your browser’s address bar.

Forward thinkers at The New York Times did not complain when Mike Davidson’s Newsvine began republishing New York Times content; the paper brokered the deal. They were afraid to add comments to their articles on their own turf, and saw Newsvine as a perfect place to test how live reader feedback could fit into a New York Times world.

When Cameron Koczon noticed and named the new way we interact with online content (“a future in which content is no longer entrenched in websites, but floats in orbit around users”), smart writers, publishers, and content producers rejoiced at the idea of their words reaching more people more ways. Sure, it meant rethinking monetization; but content monetization on the web was mostly a broken race to the bottom, anyway, so who mourned the hastening demise of the “web user manually visits your site’s front page daily in hopes of finding new content” model? Not many of us.

By the time Cameron wrote “Orbital Content” in April of 2011, almost all visits to A List Apart and zeldman.com were triggered by tweets and other third-party posts. Folks were bookmarking Google and Twitter, not yourhomepage.com. And that was just fine. If you wrote good content and structured it correctly, people would find it. Instead of navigating a front-page menu hierarchy that was obsolete before you finished installing the templates, folks in search of exactly your content would go directly to that content. And it was good.

So just why are we afraid of Medium? Aside from not soliciting or editing most of its content, and not paying most of its authors, how does it differ from all previous web publications, from Slate to The Verge? Why does publishing content on Medium (in addition to your personal site and other publications) herald, not just the final-final-final death of blogging (“Death of Blogging III: This Time It’s Personal”), but, even more alarmingly, the death of the open web?

You may think I exaggerate, but I’ve heard more than one respected colleague opine that publishing in Medium invalidates everything we independent content producers care about and represent; that it destroys all our good works with but one stroke of the Enter button.

I’ve even had that thought myself.

But isn’t the arrival of a new-model web publication like Medium proof that the web is alive and healthy, and spawning new forms of creativity and success?

And when the publisher of a personal site writes for Medium, is she really giving up on her own site? Couldn’t she be simply hoping to reach new readers?

(If she succeeds, some of those new readers might even visit her site, occasionally.)



Thanks to Bastian Allgeier for inspiring this post.

This piece was also published on Medium.

This article has been translated into Chinese.

Big Web Show № 125: “You’re My Favorite Client” with Mike Monteiro

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Monteiro and I talk design:

Designers Mike Monteiro (author, “You’re My Favorite Client”) and Jeffrey Zeldman discuss why humility is expensive, how to reassure the client at every moment that you know what you’re doing, and how to design websites that look as good on Day 400 as they do on Day 1. Plus old age, unsung heroines of the early web, and a book for designers to give to their clients.

5by5 | The Big Web Show № 125: “You’re My Favorite Client,” with Mike Monteiro.

No Ken Do (Musketeer Barbie Saves the Prince)

I WATCHED dozens of Barbie videos hundreds of times when my daughter was three and four years old. I can’t praise their animation, dialog, or other cinematic and literary qualities, but this I can say in their favor: every Barbie video we watched was feminist and empowering in its messaging.

This was not the Barbie my girl cousin grew up with, wondering which outfit she should wear to please Ken. This Barbie kicked ass.

In one video, set in 18th Century France, Barbie and her roommates overcame sexism to become Musketeers. They exposed a conspiracy, beat male villains at swordplay, and more than once saved the life of the kingdom’s rather ineffectual prince. (The downside of the Barbie videos’ crude but seemingly heartfelt feminism was that they tended to portray men as wimps or scumbags. Women are strong in the Barbie videos; good men are not.)

In another video, Barbie was an actor who became a film director when the director of the picture in which she was starring tried to patronize her. In Fairytopia, the first and worst animated of the videos, Barbie went on a Lord-of-the-Rings-style quest and saved an entire kingdom from ruin. In A Fashion Fairytale, she saved her aunt’s business from bankruptcy by an evil (woman) competitor, and then helped that competitor turn from the dark side to the light. In other words, she kicked ass but also nurtured and forgave. Assertive and supportive. A fighter and a hugger.

I watched these videos over and over, because children aged three to four thrive on repetition. I got familiar enough that I could quote the dialog as easily as I quote from Rushmore or North By Northwest. I was relieved when my daughter outgrew Barbie, because my mind craved something a little more grown-up in the film narrative department. But I never once worried that the videos were telling my daughter she could be anything but awesome. I never watched a single Barbie video that told girls life was about finding and pleasing anyone besides yourself.

This was also the time in my daughter’s development when we bought Barbie reading books and Barbie dolls. When I was three, Barbie had a thousand ways to look beautiful. When my daughter was three, Barbie had a thousand ways to earn a living.

You can find fault with Barbie. For one thing, she still promotes a vision of the world in which caucasian features set the beauty standard—a world in which, even if there are variously ethnic friends in the mix, the main character is always white. Then there are her unrealistic physical dimensions, which have been tied to self-loathing and eating disorders in girls and women. (Not that Barbie’s is the only unrealistic physique girls contend with—they’re bombarded with the stuff from birth.) The Barbie stories never question the established social order. They inspire girls to achieve, but obviously they don’t address male/female pay discrepancy or other serious social issues.

Musketeer Barbie saves the prince; she doesn’t ask why do we need a prince? Shouldn’t we invent representative democracy? And how about letting a woman run things?

Barbie won’t save us. But she’s not as bad as all that.

For young girls who have just begun seeing the world through the filter of gender, today’s Barbie does some good. Barbie videos were some of the only stories we watched back then that didn’t require me to immediately explain, apologize for, and caution against believing, one or more horrifying biases. Viewed a classic Disney film lately?

The internet feeds on outrage and cat gifs. And the recent outing of a Barbie story that appears to conform to 1950s-Barbie-thinking made perfect fodder. But it might simply be a book that teaches children how different professionals work together to create the digital games they enjoy playing. A designer is part of the mix; so are developers and other professionals, whose complementary skills support each other. That’s how it works when I design stuff. In my work, almost every day, there are things that go wrong that oblige me to call someone else to fix them. I notice a problem on a server; I reach out to a sysadmin. It isn’t because I’m a boy and boys are dumb. It’s because designers aren’t sysadmins.

All right. Fair enough. It was a terrible error for the illustrator to make all the technical people male. That sends an awful message—one lots of us have been working to fight. It’s disturbing that nobody at the publishing house realized the inferences that could be drawn from this mistake. And if this were my only exposure to Barbie in the past ten years, I’d be drawing those inferences and storming the barricades (i.e. retweeting) with the rest of my peeps.

But honestly? I spent two long years with the Barbie franchise. I think the women running it today are serious about girl power. Maybe the unfortunately timed illustration error reveals a deep sexist conspiracy. Or maybe it’s just one of those things nobody thought about while rushing a cheap book to print.

This is a Website

LAST NIGHT at dinner, my friend Tantek Çelik (and if you don’t know who he is, learn the history of your craft) lamented that there was no longer any innovation in blogging—and hadn’t been for years. I replied by asking if anyone was still blogging.

Me, I regret the day I started calling what I do here “blogging.” When I launched this website in 1995, I thought of what I was doing as “writing and publishing,” which is the case. But in the early 2000s, after Rebecca Blood’s book came out, I succumbed to peer pressure. Not from Rebecca: Rebecca is awesome, and still going strong. The peer pressure came from the zeitgeist.

Nobody in the mainstream had noticed a decade of independent content producers, but they woke up when someone started calling it “blogging.” By the way, what an appalling word that is. Blogging. Yecch. I held my nose at the time. But I also held my tongue. If calling your activity blogging was the price of recognition and attention, so be it, my younger self said to itself.

Did Twitter and Facebook kill blogging? Was it withdrawal of the mainstream spotlight? Did people stop independently writing and publishing on the web because it was too much work for too little attention and gain? Or did they discover that, after all, they mostly had nothing to say?

Blogging may have been a fad, a semi-comic emblem of a time, like CB Radio and disco dancing, but independent writing and publishing is not. Sharing ideas and passions on the only free medium the world has known is not a fad or joke.

We were struggling, whether we knew it or not, to found a more fluid society. A place where everyone, not just appointed apologists for the status quo, could be heard. That dream need not die. It matters more now than ever.

Yes, recycling other people’s recycling of other people’s recycling of cat gifs is fun and easy on Tumblr. Yes, rubbing out a good bon mot on Twitter can satisfy one’s ego and rekindle a wistful remembrance of meaning. Yes, these things are still fine to do. But they are not all we can do on this web. This is our web. Let us not surrender it so easily to new corporate masters.

Keep blogging in the free world.

Insites: The Book Honors Web Design, Designers

“INSITES: THE BOOK is a beautiful, limited edition, 256-page book presented in a numbered, foil-blocked presentation box. This very special publication features no code snippets and no design tips; instead, 20 deeply personal conversations with the biggest names in the web community.

“Over the course of six months, we travelled the US and the UK to meet with Tina Roth Eisenberg, Jason Santa Maria, Cameron Moll, Ethan Marcotte, Alex Hunter, Brendan Dawes, Simon Collison, Dan Rubin, Andy McGloughlin, Kevin Rose and Daniel Burka, Josh Brewer, Ron Richards, Trent Walton, Ian Coyle, Mandy Brown, Sarah Parmenter, Jim Coudal, Jeffrey Zeldman, Tim Van Damme, and Jon Hicks.

“We delved into their personal journeys, big wins, and lessons learned, along with the kind of tales you’ll never hear on a conference stage. Each and every person we spoke to has an amazing story to tell — a story we can all relate to, because even the biggest successes have the smallest, most humble of beginnings.” — Insites: The Book


I am honored to be among those interviewed in this beautiful publication.


Insites: The Book is published by Viewport Industries in association with MailChimp.

Product Management for the Web; Beyond Usability Testing

IN ISSUE NO. 357 of A List Apart for people who make websites:

Beyond Usability Testing

by DEVAN GOLDSTEIN

To be sure we’re designing the right experience for the right audience, there’s no substitute for research conducted with actual users. Like any research method, though, usability testing has its drawbacks. Most importantly, it isn’t cheap. Fortunately, there are other usability research methods at our disposal. The standouts, expert review and heuristic evaluation, are easy to add to a design and development process almost regardless of budget or resource concerns. Explore these techniques, learn their advantages and disadvantages, and get the low-down on how to include them in your projects.

Product Management for the Web

by KRISTOFER LAYON

Whether we prototype, write, design, develop, or test as part of building the web, we’re creating something hundreds, thousands, or maybe even millions of people will use. But how do we know that we’re creating the right enhancements for the web, at the right time, and for the right customers? Because our client or boss asked us to? And how do they know? Enter product management for the web—bridging the gap between leadership and customers on one side, and the user experience, content strategy, design, and development team on the other. Learn to set priorities that gradually but steadily make your product (and the web) better.


SINCE 1998, A List Apart has explored the design, development, and meaning of web content, with a special focus on web standards and best practices.

Illustration by Kevin Cornell for A List Apart Magazine.

Publication Standards

ENJOY A LIST APART’S SPECIAL two-part issue on digital publication standards.

Publication Standards Part 1:
The Fragmented Present

by NICK DISABATO

ebooks are a new frontier, but they look a lot like the old web frontier, with HTML, CSS, and XML underpinning the main ebook standard, ePub. Yet there are key distinctions between ebook publishing’s current problems and what the web standards movement faced. The web was founded without an intent to disrupt any particular industry; it had no precedent, no analogy. E-reading antagonizes a large, powerful industry that’s scared of what this new way of reading brings—and they’re either actively fighting open standards or simply ignoring them. In part one of a two-part series in this issue, Nick Disabato examines the explosion in reading, explores how content is freeing itself from context, and mines the broken ebook landscape in search of business logic and a way out of the present mess.

Publication Standards Part 2:
A Standard Future

by NICK DISABATO

The internet is disrupting many content-focused industries, and the publishing landscape is beginning its own transformation in response. Tools haven’t yet been developed to properly, semantically export long-form writing. Most books are encumbered by Digital Rights Management (DRM), a piracy-encouraging practice long since abandoned by the music industry. In the second article of a two-part series in this issue, Nick Disabato discusses the ramifications of these practices for various publishers and proposes a way forward, so we can all continue sharing information openly, in a way that benefits publishers, writers, and readers alike.


Illustration by Kevin Cornell for A List Apart.

Readlists: behind the scenes

FROM THE HOME PAGE of today’s newly announced, totally disruptive, completely free product powered by Readability: “What’s a Readlist? A group of web pages—articles, recipes, course materials, anything—bundled into an e-book you can send to your Kindle, iPad, or iPhone.”

For some time now, people who miss the point have seen Readability as an app that competes in the read-it-later space. That’s like viewing Andy Warhol as a failed advertising art director. Readability is a platform that radically rethinks how we consume, and who pays for, web content. It monetizes content for authors and its technology is available to all via the API. It scares designers, angers some advertisers. Its transformative potential is huge. Readlists are the latest free product to manifest some of that potential.

With Readlist, anyone can create ebooks out of existing web content. It’s easy. Sign in with your Readability account or sign up for one, and start making books of your favorite web articles.

There are still some bugs being worked out, but hey.

I was honored to beta test the product and create one of the first Readlists, along with Erin Kissane, Anil Dash, Aaron Lammer, David Sleight, and Chris Dary.

Disclaimer: I am on the advisory board of Readability and cofounded The Deck advertising network with Jim Coudal and Jason Fried. Readability removes clutter (including ads) from the reading experience; The Deck sells ads. Conflict of interest? Here’s another: I design content websites so as to make Readability unnecessary (because I design for readers); yet I strongly support Readability as a platform and above all as a web idea that is at least 15 years overdue. Either designers will design for their end-users, or third-party apps will remove designers from the transaction. As a designer, I’m not afraid of that. Rather, it inspires me.

Enjoy Readlists.

Mike Monteiro’s “Design Is A Job” is finally available to buy or preview.

CO-FOUNDER of Mule Design and raconteur Mike Monteiro wants to help you do your job better. From contracts to selling design, from working with clients to working with each other, his brief book Design Is A Job is packed with knowledge you need to know. This is one of the most in-demand titles we at A Book Apart have yet published, and the long, long wait for its release (and yours) is finally over!

— Enjoy an exclusive Preview of Design Is A Job in Issue No. 348 of A List Apart, for people who make websites.

Buy Design Is A Job directly from the makers at A Book Apart.

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