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.

Big Web Show № 132: Modern Layouts with Jen Simmons

Jen Simmons

THE BIG WEB SHOW is back from its break. My guest this week is Jen Simmons (@jensimmons) of The Web Ahead. We discuss moving beyond cookie-cutter layouts on the web; the ins and outs of podcasting; tradeoffs when designing a website; learning from your users; Jen’s journey from theater to technology; and more. Sponsored by Dreamhost. Enjoy The Big Web Show № 132.

URLS

http://thewebahead.net/81 (great links in the show notes!)
https://twitter.com/jensimmons
http://labs.thewebahead.net/thelayoutsahead/
https://github.com/jensimmons/thelayoutsahead
http://alistapart.com/article/css-shapes-101
https://css-tricks.com/examples/ShapesOfCSS/
http://sarasoueidan.com/blog/css-shapes/index.html
http://thewebahead.net/80
http://www.w3.org/TR/css3-grid-layout/
http://thewebahead.net/49
http://next.zengrids.com
http://www.jensimmons.com/about/
http://www.pagetutor.com/common/bgcolors216.html

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.

Progressive Enhancement FTW with Aaron Gustafson

IN EPISODE № 130 of The Big Web Show (“Everything Web That Matters”), I interview long-time web standards evangelist Aaron Gustafson, author of Adaptive Web Design, on web design then and now; why Flipboard’s 60fps web launch is anti-web and anti-user; design versus art; and the 2nd Edition of Aaron’s book, coming from New Riders this year.

Enjoy Episode № 130 of The Big Web Show.

Show Links

A Bit About Aaron Gustafson
Adaptive Web Design: Crafting Rich Experiences with Progressive Enhancement
Responsive Issues Community Group
Easy Designs – Web Design, Development & Consulting
Web Standards Sherpa
Code & Creativity
WebStandardsProject (@wasp) | Twitter
A List Apart: For People Who Make Websites
Genesis – Land Of Confusion [Official Music Video] – YouTube

Big Web Show № 109: Bring Me The Head of Tim Berners-Lee

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IN BIG WEB SHOW № 109, Robin Berjon and I enjoy a calm, rational conversation about EME, DRM, the MPAA, and the W3C. Enjoy.


The episode was sponsored by Squarespace. Links mentioned:

It’s 2014. Is Web Design Dead?

IN A RECENT article on his website, Web Standards Killed the HTML Star, designer Jeff Croft laments the passing of the “HTML and CSS ‘guru’” as a viable long-term professional position and urges his fellow web design generalists to “diversify or die.”

The reason the Web Standards Movement mattered was that the browsers sucked. The stated goal of the Movement was to get browser makers on board with web standards such that all of our jobs as developers would be easier.

What we may not have realized is that once the browsers don’t suck, being an HTML and CSS “guru” isn’t really a very marketable skillset. 80% of what made us useful was the way we knew all the quirks and intracries of the browsers. Guess what? Those are all gone. And if they’re not, they will be in the very near future. Then what?

From my perspective, the web standards struggle consisted of two phases of persuasion: first we convinced browser makers that it was in their interest to support current HTML, CSS, and JavaScript specifications completely and accurately; then we evangelized the accessibility, findability, and portability benefits of lean semantic markup and progressive enhancement to our colleagues who made websites and their clients.

Evangelizing true compliance, not mastering workarounds for compliance failures, was always the point. Evangelizing was key. Browsers weren’t going to stay standards compliant if nobody made use of that compliance; likewise, W3C specifications weren’t going to advance unless designers seized hold of technologies like CSS to push type and layout on the web as far as they could go—and then complain that they didn’t go far enough.

It took a village of passionate browser engineers, designers, front-end developers, and generalists to bring us to the web we have today. Does the movement’s success mean that many of those who led it will become jobless, like Bolsheviks after the Russian Revolution?

Jeff Croft is correct when he says “the goal of the Web Standards Movement was for it to not have to exist.” But we should take this a step further. The goal of the web standards movement was to remove needless complexity and absurdity from the process of creating websites so we could focus our attention where it should be: on design, content, and experience. Evangelizing standards to browser makers and our fellow designers was not a career path, and was never intended to be—any more than aiding a wounded buddy turns a soldier into a physician.

Interestingly, once web standards made the web safe for design, content, and experience, the web’s capabilities—and, thus, the work required to create certain kinds of websites—started becoming more and more complex. To help cut down on that complexity, some front-end developers began sharing chunks of code (from Eric Meyer’s CSS Reset to Mark Otto’s Bootstrap) which paradoxically set in motion another level of complexity: as Jeff Croft points out, familiarity with these and dozens of other tools is now expected of job applicants who could once get hired on nothing more than a solid understanding of HTML and CSS plus a little JavaScript.

HTML “gurudom” was never a career path for anyone, aside, maybe, from a couple of talented authors. Same thing with CSS trickery. Doing black magic with CSS3 can get you a slot on a web design conference stage, but it’s not a career path or proper goal for most web designers.

Fascinatingly, to me, anyway, while many of us prefer to concentrate on design, content, and experience, it continues to be necessary to remind our work comrades (or inform younguns) about web standards, accessibility, and progressive enhancement. When a site like Facebook stops functioning when a script forgets to load, that is a failure of education and understanding on the part of those who created the site; all of us have a stake in reaching out to our fellow developers to make sure that, in addition to the new fancy tricks they’ve mastered, they also learn the basics of web standards, without which our whole shared system implodes.

This doesn’t mean “go be an HTML guru.” It does mean cherish the lessons of the recent past, and share them with those who missed them (or missed the point). Wisdom is not a job, but it is always an asset.

Never fear, web design generalists: many companies and organizations require your services and always will—from universities still seeking “webmasters,” to startups seeking seasoned folks with multiple areas of understanding to direct and coordinate the activities of younger specialists. But if jack-of-all web work is feeling stale, now may be the time to up your game as a graphic designer, or experience designer, or front end developer. “Diversify or die” may be overstating things a bit. But “follow the path you love” will always be good advice.

Chicago, Chicago

An Event Apart Chicago—a photo set on Flickr. Photos of the city and the conference for people who make websites.

AN EVENT APART Chicago—a photo set on Flickr. Pictures of the city and the conference for people who make websites.

Notes from An Event Apart Chicago 2013—Luke Wroblewski’s note-taking is legendary. Here are his notes on seven of the ten presentations at this year’s An Event Apart Chicago.

#aeachi—conference comments on Twitter.

Chicago (Foursquare)—some of my favorite places in the city.

An Event Apart Chicago—sessions, schedule, and speaker bios for the conference that just ended.

AEA Chicago 2013 on Lanyrd—three days of design, code, and content on the social sharing platform for conferences.


THE NEXT AEA event takes place in Austin and is already sold out (although a few spaces are still available for the full-day workshop on multi-device design).

A handful of seats are available for the final event of the year, An Event Apart San Francisco at the Palace Hotel, December 9–11, 2013. Be there or be square.


Big Web Show 79: Eric Meyer

Eric Meyer

IN EPISODE No. 79 of The Big Web Show (“everything web that matters”), I interview CSS guru, Microformats co-founder, O’Reilly and New Riders author, and An Event Apart co-founder Eric A. Meyer (@meyerweb) about upcoming CSS modules including grid layout, flexbox, and regions; his career trajectory from college graduate webmaster to world-renowned author, consultant, and lecturer; founding and running a virtual community (CSS-Discuss); becoming an O’Reilly writer; the early days of the Mosaic Browser and The Web Standards Project’s CSS Samurai; “The Web Behind” variation of The Web Ahead podcast, and more.

Listen to the episode.

About Eric

Eric A. Meyer has been working with the web since late 1993 and is an internationally recognized expert on the subjects of HTML and CSS. He is the principal consultant for Complex Spiral Consulting and lives in Cleveland, Ohio, which is a much nicer city than you’ve been led to believe. Author of “Eric Meyer on CSS” (New Riders), “Cascading Style Sheets: The Definitive Guide” (O’Reilly & Associates), “CSS2.0 Programmer’s Reference” (Osborne/McGraw-Hill), and the CSS Browser Compatibility Charts, Eric co-founded and co-directs An Event Apart, the design conference “for people who make websites,” and speaks at a variety of conferences on the subject of standards, CSS use, and web design.

URLs


Photo: Chris Jennings