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.

My mind and welcome to it

IN MY DREAM I was designing sublime new publishing and social platforms, incandescent with features no one had ever thought of, but everybody wanted.

One of my platforms generated pages that were like a strangely compelling cross between sophisticated magazine layouts and De Stijl paintings. Only, unlike De Stijl, with its kindergarten primary colors, my platform synthesized subtle color patterns that reminded you of sky and water. Anyone – a plumber, a fishmonger – could use the tool to immediately create pages that made love to your eyes. In the hands of a designer, the output was even richer. Nothing on the web had ever touched it.

Then the dream changed, and I was no longer the creator. I was a sap who’d been off sniffing my own armpits while the internet grew up without me. A woman I know was using the platform to create magazines about herself. These weren’t just web magazines, they were paper. And they weren’t just paper. In the middle of one of her magazines was a beautiful carpet sample. The platform had designed the carpet and woven it into the binding of the printed magazine. I marveled at her output and wished I had invented the platform that allowed her to do these things. Not only was I no longer the creator, I seemed to be the last sap on earth to even hear about all these dazzling new platforms.

Then I was wandering down an endless boardwalk, ocean on my right, a parade of dreary seaside apartment buildings on my left. Each building had its own fabulous content magazine. (“Here’s what’s happening at 2171 Oceanfront Walk.”) The magazines appeared on invisible kiosks which revealed themselves as you passed in front of each building. The content, created by landlords and realtors, was so indifferent as to be unreadable. But this did not matter a bit, because the pages so dazzled in their unholy beauty that you could not look away. Every fool in the world had a meaningless publication which nobody read, but which everyone oohed and ahed at as they passed. And I — I had nothing to do with any of it. I was merely a spectator, a chump on a tiresome promenade.

For Tim and Max. You are the future.

A Day Apart: Live Notes on Mobile Web Design with Luke Wroblewski

Luke Wroblewski, A Day Apart, Mobile Design

A FEW QUICK NOTES from the first hour of A Day Apart: Mobile Web Design, an all-day learning session led by Luke Wroblewski (aka Day III of An Event Apart Seattle), Bell Harbor Conference Center, Seattle, WA:

Audience questions for Luke

  1. How to take a website for desktop to mobile?
  2. Do we need to care about non-Webkit?
  3. Trade-offs between native and web
  4. How to navigate differences between different versions of Webkit?
  5. Mobile e-commerce: best practices
  6. Challenges with different cultures/languages
  7. Media queries
  8. If no budget, what can focus on web to make mobile ok?
  9. How to take a website for desktop to mobile?
  10. Mobile e-commerce best practices
  11. Multiple screen sizes and pixel densities
  12. Time for one project: go mobile or tablet (in e-commerce)
  13. CMSes and mobile—sigh
  14. Best practices for page load

WHY MOBILE? Convincing clients/bosses to care

  • Of the 50% of total mobile commerce in the US, 70% of it is coming from one iPhone application (eBay).
  • eBay: global mobile sales $2 billion in 2010, $600 million in 2009. Real commercial opportunities emerging on mobile.
  • Best Buy: mobile web users doubling every year: 30M (2010), 17M (2009), 6M (2008).
  • PayPal: mobile transactions increased six-fold in 2009: $25M to $141M.


  • Double-digit (28%) rise in social networking on mobile web.
  • Twitter: 40% of tweets sent via mobile, 16% of new users start on mobile.
  • Facebook: 200 million active mobile users.
  • Instagram: iPhone only app took three months to hit one million users. Six weeks later they hit two million users.
  • Mixi (Japan): 85% of page views on mobile vs. 14% 4.5 years ago.


  • Google: mobile searches grew 130% in Q3 2010
  • Pandora: 50% of total user base subscribes to the service on mobile
  • Email: 70% of smartphone users have accessed email on mobile device

“I don’t want to be the record executive clinging to CD sales.”


Yelp: every other second a consumer calls a local business and generates driving directions from a Yelp mobile app.]]27% of all Yelp searches come from their iPhone application, which had 1.4 million unique users in May 2010. Viewing active listings 45% more often from mobile devices (audience is primarily active buyers, on location or scoping out neighborhoods)

Facebook: People who use Facebook on their mobile devices (200M active) are twice as active on Facebook as non-mobile users.

Shift in Usage

Let’s look at Gmail:

  • Visitors to web-based emails sites declined 7%.
  • Visitors accessing email on mobile devices increased 36%.

But what about mobile web usage?

Twitter Usage

40% of tweets sent via mobile.

16% of new users start on mobile.

Mobile web usage

  • Mobile phones will overtake PCs as the most common web access devices worldwide by 2013.
  • 600% growth in traffic to mobile websites in 2010.
  • Facebook and Twitter access via mobile browser grows by triple digits in 2010.
  • Average smartphone user visits up to 24 websites per day.
  • Top 50 websites constitute only 40% of mobile visits.
  • Opera Mini traffic up 200% year/year.

For more…

Follow the live tweets at

Click My Lit Panel

In “New Publishing and Web Content,” a proposed panel for SXSW Interactive, I will lead book and new media publisher and entrepreneur Lisa Holton, designer, writer, and W.W. Norton creative director Mandy Brown, novelist, web geek, and Harper’s editor Paul Ford, and writer, editor, and content strategist Erin Kissane in an honest and freewheeling exploration of the creative, strategic, and marketing challenges of traditional and online publishing—and how content strategy and design can help.

Topics covered will include:

  1. What is content strategy?
  2. For magazines that are born digital, what opportunities and challenges does the internet offer editors and publishers?
  3. For traditional magazines, what opportunities and challenges does the internet offer editors and publishers?
  4. How can traditional book publishers harness the energy and talent of the online community?
  5. What new forms are made possible by the intersection of traditional publishing and social networking?
  6. How can design facilitate reading?
  7. How can design encourage readers to become writers and publishers?
  8. What is the future of magazines and newspapers?
  9. What is the future of books?
  10. How can editors and publishers survive and thrive in this new climate?

If this sounds like a panel you’d enjoy seeing, vote for New Publishing and Web Content via the SXSW Interactive Panel picker.


AEA Seattle after-report

Armed with nothing more than a keen eye, a good seat, a fine camera, and the ability to use it, An Event Apart Seattle attendee Warren Parsons captured the entire two-day show in crisp and loving detail. Presenting, for your viewing pleasure, An Event Apart Seattle 2009 – a set on Flickr.

When you’ve paged your way through those, have a gander at Think Brownstone’s extraordinary sketches of AEA Seattle.

Still can’t get enough of that AEA stuff? Check out the official AEA Seattle photo pool on Flickr.

Wonder what people said about the event? Check these Twitter streams: AEA and AEA09.

And here are Luke W’s notes on the show.

Our thanks to the photographers, sketchers, speakers, and all who attended.

[tags]aneventapart, aeaseattle09, AEA, AEA09, Seattle, webdesign, conference, Flickr, sets, Twitter, photos, illustrations, sketches,[/tags]

“Freelance to Agency” Podcast

PRESENTING the full audio recording of “From Freelance to Agency: Start Small, Stay Small”, a panel at SXSW Interactive 2009 featuring Roger Black (founder of agencies huge and small), Kristina Halvorson (freelancer turned agency head), and Whitney Hess (agency pro turned freelance), and moderated by yours truly.

The panel was about quitting your job (or coping with a layoff), working as a freelancer, collaborating with others, and what to do if your collaboration starts morphing into an agency. We sought to answer questions like these:

  • What business and personal skills are required to start a freelance business or a small agency? Is freelancing or starting a small agency a good fit for my talents and abilities?
  • Is freelancing or starting a small agency the right work solution for me in a scary and rapidly shrinking economy? Can the downsides of this economy work to my advantage as a freelancer or small agency head?
  • I’ve been downsized/laid off/I’m stuck in a dead-end job working longer hours for less money. Should I look for a new job or take the plunge and go freelance?
  • What can I expect in terms of income and financial security if I switch from a staff job to freelancing? What techniques can I use as a freelancer to protect myself from the inevitable ups and downs?
  • How do I attract clients? How much in-advance work do I need to line up before I can quit my job?
  • How do I manage clients? What client expectations that are normal for in-house or big agency work must I deliver on as a freelancer or the head of a small or virtual agency? Which expectations can I discard? How do I tell my client what to expect?
  • Do I need an office? What are the absolute minimum tools I need to start out as a one-person shop?
  • How big can my freelance business grow before I need to recast it as a small agency?
  • What models are out there for starting an agency besides the conventional Inc. model with all its overhead? Which model would work best for me?
  • Who do I know with whom I could start a small or virtual agency? What should I look for in my partners? What should I beware of?
  • If I’m lucky enough to be growing, how do I protect my creative product and my professional reputation while adding new people and taking on more assignments?
  • How big can my agency grow before it sucks? How I can grow a business that’s dedicated to staying small?

Whitney Hess has written a fine wrap-up of the panel, including a collection of tweets raving about it, some of Mike Rohde’s visual coverage, and links to other people’s posts about the panel.

LISTEN to “From Freelance to Agency: Start Small, Stay Small”.

[tags]design, webdesign, podcast, recording, SXSW, SXSWi, SXSWi09, panels, panel, freelance, agency, smallagency, transition, survival, economy[/tags]