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.

This Week In The Death of Publishing & The Web

FAST COMPANY writes:

Apple, like Facebook, has entered into a standoff with the publishing industry and the open, if for-profit, web. And it’s being done under the aegis of design: choose a better reading experience on our curated platform, they offer, or let us clean up that pesky advertising on the open web.

Source: Apple Saves Publishing… For Itself

N.B. This is not the first time this conversation has arisen, nor will it be the last. Off the top of my head, see also:

⇛ Is the web under threat? Will Facebook or Apple kill or save journalism? Share your thoughts or your favorite links on the subject. Bonus points for older articles.

The Nation, America’s oldest weekly news magazine, launches responsive, large-type redesign.

ON ITS 150th anniversary, The Nation (“a magazine of ideas and values”) relaunches its website, created in partnership with Blue State Digital and Diaspark. As one would expect of an editorially focused web entity in 2015, the new site is responsive, and uses big type and clean layouts designed for readability. It also incorporates social media innovations first seen in Medium, such as the ability to tweet or email any brief passage of text you select.

Executive Editor Richard Kim’s mini-article introducing the new site explains how the editorial process has changed—and how it has stayed the same—since the launch of the magazine’s first site in 1997:

Back then, writing for the magazine was a comparatively monastic experience. You’d work for weeks on an article, defend its arguments against vigorous but loving critiques from the editors, and gratefully accept changes from fact-checkers and copy editors. Finally, the issue would ship to the printer. And then: the vast silence. If you were lucky, a few weeks later, someone might approach you at a party and say how much they liked (or hated) your piece. Some letters from impassioned subscribers would eventually come in via the Postal Service, but encounters with actual readers were rare and cherished events.

We continue to publish the print magazine under these rigorous standards, and it will remain an essential part of our identity, offering readers a considered and curated take on matters of critical interest. The digital revolution, however, has allowed us to connect to vastly more people, and to get to know them better. Today, The Nation publishes about 70 articles a week online, which go out to more than 420,000 Twitter followers, almost 290,000 Facebook fans, and 200,000 e-mail subscribers. And believe me, we always hear back from you….

There’s also a multi-tiered approach to reading and commenting:

For the next few months, there’s no paywall: All of our articles will be free to everyone—our gift to you in The Nation’s 150th-anniversary year. Later, we’ll introduce a metered system that continues to put The Nation in front of new readers, but also asks our regular visitors to contribute to the cost of independent journalism. Finally, only subscribers will be able to leave comments—and they’ll be asked to identify themselves with a first and last name. We realize this will be controversial to some, but keeping the comments free of trolls and bots has taken an increasing amount of effort. We think it’s only fair that commenters stand by what they write, and give something to the community in return.

Daybreak in Myanmar: Photos by Geoffrey Hiller

Book cover, Daybreak in MyanmarMyanmar in Southeast Asia is one of the least known places in the world, due to the military dictatorship that has isolated the country for the past sixty years. Now that the government is making the transition to democracy, the veil is slowly lifting, as are travel and economic sanctions. In Daybreak in Myanmar these images of a place once frozen in time are unique and timely.

Photographer Geoffrey Hiller has been documenting the people of Burma since 1987 and has returned several times since the historic opening in 2011 to capture evidence of change, not only images of rallies for Aung San Suu Kyi, but the anticipation, hope and concerns of a nation forgotten by the world. Following his award-winning web documentary from 2000, Burma: Grace Under Pressure, Hiller is publishing this selection of 170 color photographs.

Source: DAYBREAK IN MYANMAR : Geoffrey Hiller :: Documentary Photographer in Portland, Oregon

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.

Eight Days in April

I’VE BEEN BUSY this week:

And stay tuned for today’s Big Web Show episode, taping live at 2:00 pm Eastern.

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.

1,000 nerds

THE MODERN SOCIAL WEB is a miracle of progress but also a status-driven guilt-spewing shit volcano. Back in the 1990s—this will sound insane—we paid a lot of money for our tilde accounts, like $30 or $40 a month or sometimes much more. We paid to reach strangers with our weird ideas. Whereas now, as everyone understands, brands pay to know users.

via Tilde.Club: I had a couple drinks and woke up with 1,000 nerds — The Message — Medium.

Netdiver returns

Image from Netdiver Magazine

PIONEERING design ‘zine Netdiver is back, baby!

Founded by my friend and colleague Carole Guevin in 1998, Netdiver was one of the first web ‘zines to seriously explore and promote design and design culture on the web. In its pages, you would discover pretty much everything exciting that was happening in web and digital design, photography, industrial design, and digital filmmaking.

Sites as fine (and as different) as Swissmiss and The Great Discontent can trace more than a strand of their DNA back to Netdiver and its creator.

Like many of the great zines and blogs from the first and second waves of indy web publishing, Netdiver has been quiet over the past few years. It’s a thrill to see it come roaring back to life. Maybe it’s a sign. Maybe a long overdue re-flowering of blogs and independent websites is imminent. A boy can dream.

Evolving Responsive Web Design

In What We Mean When We Say “responsive” and Defining Responsiveness, Lyza Danger Gardner and Jason Grigsby cut to the heart of a disagreement I had three years ago with Ethan Marcotte, the creator of Responsive Web Design and author of Responsive Web Design, a book I published in 2011.

Ethan told the world that Responsive Web Design required, and was defined by, fluid layouts, flexible images, and media queries. All three elements had to be present. If they weren’t using all three, you might be doing something interesting, but you were most definitely not doing Responsive Web Design.

Ethan invented all of this. Without him, we would likely be arguing whether it was time to consider 1280 pixels the new default fixed width for all desktop websites, and sending anything that wasn’t a desktop browser to a function- and content-limited “mobile site” whose URL began with the letter m. Ethan is a brilliant, multi-talented innovator; I am but the shadow of a hack. And yet, before he began creating his book, midway through the writing, and even a year after I published it, I continued to urge Ethan to rethink #RWD as “a bigger idea”—a concept rather than a single set of techniques.

I’m no genius. What I meant by “bigger idea” was limited to the notion that we’d one day be able to create responsive layouts with different techniques—so let’s not restrict the concept to a particular execution. I wasn’t thinking about other meanings of responsive, wasn’t considering problems of responsive content, and so on. I’m not that forward-thinking and it was three freaking years ago, come on.

I lost my gentle argument with Ethan, so the industry is having it now. And that’s just as it should be. Everything worked out for the best. Here’s why:

If Ethan hadn’t included three simple executional requirements as part of his definition, the concept might have quickly fallen by the wayside, as previous insights into the fluid nature of the web have done. The simplicity, elegance, and completeness of the package—here’s why, and here’s how—sold the idea to thousands of designers and developers, whose work and advocacy in turn sold it to hundreds of thousands more. This wouldn’t have happened if Ethan had promoted a more amorphous notion. Our world wouldn’t have changed overnight if developers had had too much to think about. Cutting to the heart of things and keeping it simple was as powerful a creative act on Ethan’s part as the “discovery” of #RWD itself.

We’ve only become ready to think about things like “responsible” responsive design, adaptive content, and a standard approach to responsive images now that we have built our share of first-generation responsive sites, and encountered the problems that led to the additional pondering. Baby steps. Brilliant baby steps.

Some commenters want to use initial-capped Responsive Web Design to mean responsive design as Ethan first defined it, and lowercase responsive design to mean an amorphous matrix of exciting and evolving design thinking. Lyza says soon we’ll stop saying Responsive altogether, a conclusion Andy Clarke reached three years ago.

Me, I like that Ethan stuck to his guns, and that the classical definition will always be out there, regardless of how web design evolves thanks to it. Kind of like there’s HTML 5, a defined and scoped W3C specification, and HTML living standard, an evolving activity. Our industry needs roots and wings, and, lucky us, we’ve got ’em both.