The maker makes: on design, community, and personal empowerment

THE FIRST THING I got about the web was its ability to empower the maker. The year was 1995, and I was tinkering at my first website. The medium was raw and ugly, like a forceps baby; yet even in its blind, howling state, it made me a writer, a designer, and a publisher — ambitions which had eluded me during more than a decade of underachieving desert wanderings.

I say “it made me” but I made it, too. You get the power by using it. Nobody confers it on you.

I also got that the power was not for me alone: it was conferred in equal measure on everyone with whom I worked, although not everyone would have the time or desire to use the power fully.

The luckiest makers

Empowerment and desire. It takes extraordinary commitment, luck, and talent to become a maker in, say, music or film, because the production and distribution costs and risks in these fields almost always demand rich outside investors and tightly controlling corporate structures. (Film has held up better than music under these conditions.)

Music and film fill my life, and, from afar, I love many artists involved in these enterprises. But they are mostly closed to you and me, where the web is wide open, and always has been. We all know gifted, hard working musicians who deserve wide acclaim but do not receive it, even after decades of toil. The web is far kinder to makers.

To care is to share

Not only does the web make publishers of those willing to put in the work, it also makes most of us free sharers of our hard-won trade, craft, and business secrets. The minute we grab hold of a new angle on design, interaction, code, or content, we share it with a friend — or with friends we haven’t met yet. This sharing started in news groups and message boards, and flowered on what came to be called blogs, but it can also slip the bounds of its containing medium, empowering makers to create books, meet-ups, magazines, conferences, products, you name it. It is tough to break into traditional book publishing the normal way but comparatively easy to do it from the web, provided you have put in the early work of community building.

The beauty is that the community building doesn’t feel like work; it feels like goofing off with your friends (because, mostly, it is). You don’t have to turn your readers into customers. Indeed, if you feel like you’re turning your readers into customers, you’re doing it wrong.

If you see a chance, take it

The corollary to all this empowerment is that it’s up to each of us to do something positive with it. I sometimes become impatient when members of our community spend their energy publicly lamenting that a website about cats isn’t about dogs. Their energy would be so much better spent starting bow-wow.com. The feeling that something is missing from a beloved online resource (or conference, or product) can be a wonderful motivator to start your own. I created A List Apart because I felt that webmonkey.com wasn’t enough about design and highfive.com was too much about it. If this porridge is too hot and that porridge is too cold, I better make some fresh, eh?

I apologize if I sometimes seem snippy with whiners. My goal is never to make anyone feel bad, especially not anyone in this community. My message to my peers since the days of “Ask Dr Web” has always been: “you can do this! Go do it.” That is still what I say to you all.

Big Web Show Episode No. 47: Foodspotting Founder Alexa Andrzejewski

FOODSPOTTING FOUNDER ALEXA ANDRZEJEWSKI (@ladylexy) is our guest in Episode No. 47 of The Big Web Show, to be recorded in front of a live internet audience on Thursday, April 28, at 3:00 PM Eastern via 5by5.tv/live.

Foodspotting, a visual local guide that makes finding and sharing food recommendations as easy as snapping a photo, has received attention from Techcrunch, Mashable, The Wall Street Journal, and CNN blogs, and was named one of Time Magazine’s 50 Best Websites of 2010.

Before launching Foodspotting in January 2010, Alexa was a user experience designer for Adaptive Path, where she helped both startups and established companies create great experiences that improve people’s lives. From redesigning MySpace to conducting the research that underlies the Palm Pre, Alexa has helped clients reimagine products from the ground up.

Through speaking, writing and teaching, Alexa strives to advance experience-minded thinking and methods to all who will listen. Recent appearances include An Event Apart Seattle, WebVisions, Big Omaha, SXSWi, the Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco and New York, UX Week, and LIFT in South Korea.

The Big Web Show (“Everything Web That Matters”) records live every Thursday at 3:00 PM Eastern. Edited episodes can be watched afterwards, often within hours of recording, via iTunes (audio feed | video feed) and the web. Subscribe and enjoy!

Readability 2.0 is disruptive two ways

RELEASED LAST WEEK, Arc90’s Readability 2.0 is a web application/browser extension that removes clutter from any web page, replacing the typical multi-column layout with a simple, elegant, book-style page view—a page view that can be user customized, and that “knows” when it is being viewed on a mobile device and reconfigures itself to create an platform-appropriate reading experience.

In so doing, Readability focuses the user’s attention on the content, creating an enhanced—and often much more accessible—reading experience. It also subverts the typical web browsing design paradigm, where each website offers a different visual experience. Instead, to the Readability user, all web content looks the same, once she has clicked a button to engage the Readability view.

If Readability did only this, it would represent a significant directional departure for the web and for site owners, in that, for the first time in the history of designed websites, branded look and feel is subordinated to a user-focused content experience that transcends the individual site.

Of course, this was always supposed to be possible in HTML, and it always was possible for users of some assistive devices and for CSS experts who felt like creating intricate personal style sheets, but those are edge cases, and Readability is for everyone.

Readability 1.0 was released as open source. Apple used its code for the “Reader” view in Safari. The creators of Flipboard used its code too. And the creators of the open-source Treesaver swapped code and rights with the makers of Readability to enhance both products. I’ve never seen a humble open-source project, created by a not-terribly-well-known shop get so quickly accepted and absorbed by companies like Apple and by the creators of cutting-edge web and hybrid apps.

That was Readability 1.0. What Readability 2.0 adds to the mix is automatic payment for content creators. How it works is simple: I pay a small fee each month to use Readability. Most of that money gets divided between the creators of the web pages I’ve viewed in Readability. This makes Readability 2.0 disruptive two ways:

  1. As mentioned earlier, for the first time, branded look and feel is secondary to the user’s desire to engage with written content in a visually comfortable environment. (That Readability 1.0 premiered around the same time as the iPad is not coincidental.)
  2. For the first time, content monetization is no longer the problem of content creators. Writers can stop being salespeople, and focus on what they do best: creating compelling content. The better the content, the more people who engage with it via Readability, the more money writers will make—with no bookkeeping, no ad sales, and no hassle. This is a huge subversion of the ad paradigm.

Many of us who watched Arc90 develop Readability worried that short-sighted publishers and site owners would misunderstand and reject the app, maybe even sic’ing their lawyers on it. But in the hectic two weeks just ending, publishers have had time to absorb what Readability 2.0 does and what it could mean to them—and according to Readability creator and Arc90 founder Rich Ziade, the reaction is positive.

Have publishers suddenly grasped the web? Perhaps not. But it’s a rare publisher who’d say no to extra money, risk-free. We are in a wait-and-see, try-it-and-see phase of publishing and the web—past the initial Web 2.0 euphoria and into the hard business of creating great stuff (and finding new ways to keep old great stuff, like great writing and reporting, alive). No one is quite sure what will work. And publishers risk nothing by participating in the Readability program. If the program succeeds, they make additional revenue for their content. If it fails, it’s no skin off their budget.

I’ve interviewed Rich Ziade on The Big Web Show and I’m an advisor on the project but it was only last night, when Rich was addressing my MFA Interaction Design class at School of Visual Arts, that I realized for the first time how profoundly disruptive—and powerful—Readability 2.0 really is. (Video of that class session is available.)

If you love reading and the web, I urge you to give Readability 2.0 a try.