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.

Cameron Diaz and Me

THE FIRST PART has long been known:

Saw Cameron Diaz on her way to the gym. I was wearing the shirt I’d slept in, walking my dog, holding a bag of shit.

Now, here’s the rest of the story:

My dog, a mangy old rescue Shih Tzu named Emile, had finished his business and was investigating a sidewalk gum wad. He loved sniffing filthy things on the street, and Midtown Manhattan was always happy to oblige. As was my routine, I monitored his activities closely, partly out of horrified fascination, and mainly to make sure he didn’t choke or poison himself.

Typically this activity required my full attention, or at least that part of my attention that wasn’t lost contemplating family and business anxieties, petty resentments, and the recollected snippets of imagery, music, and dialogue that pass for thought. But today, for some reason, I looked away as Emile tackled an apparently sumptuous abandoned cigarette filter. As if spellbound, my eyes crossed two streets to hone in on a couple that was briskly heading my way.

The man in the couple wore gym clothes, and seemed to be speaking quickly, with huge animated arm gestures. But it wasn’t the man who had made me look up from my dog’s debauchery.

At least a head taller than her companion, wearing skimpy gym clothes, the woman appeared athletic and radiant, even from this distance—too far away to see faces. Instead of moving on to discourage Emile from his sidewalk shenanigans, I stood rooted to the spot, waiting as the couple came closer and closer. A fancy gym was nearby, I knew—not from going there myself, but because a friend did, and it was a magnet for activity on this block.

As the couple came closer, the woman lost none of her allure, and I became self-conscious about staring. Not because I felt fat, old, dirty, and tired—a middle-aged man holding a bag of shit, walking an ailing Shih Tzu with a penchant for street turds and candy wrappers—but because it’s rude to stare. It’s rude to stare at the unfortunate: their hand-me-downs, their hopeless haunted eyes. It’s also rude to stare at the genetically blessed, the gorgeous, the toned, the fertile, famous, and wealthy. I still had not recognized Cameron Diaz, but she radiated fabulousness.

So I did what any eldest son raised by my late mother would do: as the couple came closer and closer, I focused my attention on the man. So as not to make the lady uncomfortable, you see. (From this fragment of mental DNA, you should be able to reconstruct me completely.)

So here they were, now on my block, now halfway up the block to me, now almost within arm’s reach.

And there I was, with my dog and my shit bag and my eyes firmly trained on the male half of the couple.

Who was either a gym buddy or personal trainer but definitely not a boyfriend, I gathered from their body language with respect to each other, and especially from his smiling quick speech and big sweeping arm gestures, which vibed “consultant meeting an important client” and perhaps Italian-American and maybe also gay. If I was right about that last bit, my staring at him for the past five minutes didn’t worry me, but it might be freaking him out. At any rate, that was my cover story to myself for what I did next.

For the couple was now an arm’s length away, about to pass out of my sight forever. And while I had been working hard to respect the lady by not telegraphing waves of hopeless lust, if I didn’t steal one more glance right now, I would never see her again, never even know what she really looked like up close.

My eyes slid toward her of their own accord, and as they landed, I saw that her smiling, knowing, superior but also playfully flirtatious eyes were locked on mine. She had been watching me studiously avoid looking at her, waiting for the inevitable collapse of my will, the moment when I could no longer resist. “Busted,” her eyes said. “You didn’t fool me for one minute. Yes, it’s me. Nice meeting you. Bye.”

And then, with a taunting but also pleasing smirk, she was gone. And two things hit me:

  1. That was Cameron Diaz.
  2. And she can read minds.

We Didn’t Stop The Fire.

OUR LIBRARY IS BURNING. Copyright extension has banished millions of books to the scrapheap. Digital permanence is a tragically laughable ideal to anyone who remembers the VHS format wars or tries to view Joshua Davis’s 1990s masterpieces on a modern computer. Digital archiving is only as permanent as the next budget cycle—as when libraries switched from microfilm to digital subscriptions and then were forced to cancel the subscriptions during the pre-recession recession. And of course, my digital work vanishes the moment I die or lose the ability to keep hosting it. If you really want to protect your family photos, take them off Flickr and your hard drive, get them on paper, and store them in an airtight box.

Though bits are forever, our medium is mortal, as all but the most naive among us know. And we accept that some of what we hold digitally dear will perish before our eyes. But it irks most especially when people or companies with more money than judgement purchase a thriving online community only to trash it when they can’t figure out how to squeeze a buck out of it. Corporate black thumb is not new to our medium: MGM watered down the Marx Bros; the Saatchis sucked the creative life and half the billings out of the ad agencies they acquired during the 1980s and beyond. But outside the digital world, some corporate purchases and marriages have worked out (think: Disney/Pixar). And with the possible exception of Flickr (better now than the day Yahoo bought it), I can’t think of any online community or publication that has improved as a result of being purchased. Whereas we can all instantly call to mind dozens of wonderful web properties that died or crawled up their own asses as a direct result of new corporate ownership.

My colleague Mandy Brown has written a moving call to arms which, knowingly or unknowingly, invokes the LOCKSS method (“Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe”) of preserving digital content by making copies of it; she encourages us all to become archivists. Even a disorganized ground-level effort such as Mandy proposes will be beneficial—indeed, the less organized, the better. And this is certainly part of the answer. (It’s also what drives my friend Tantek’s own your data efforts; my beef with T is mainly aesthetic.) So, yes, we the people can do our part to help undo the harm uncaring companies cause to our e-ecosystem.

But there is another piece of this which no one is discussing and which I now address specifically to my colleagues who create great digital content and communities:

Stop selling your stuff to corporate jerks. It never works. They always wreck what you’ve spent years making.

Don’t go for the quick payoff. You can make money maintaining your content and serving your community. It won’t be a fat fistful of cash, but that’s okay. You can keep living, keep growing your community, and, over the years, you will earn enough to be safe and comfortable. Besides, most people who get a big payoff blow the money within two years (because it’s not real to them, and because there are always professionals ready to help the rich squander their money). By contrast, if you retain ownership of your community and keep plugging away, you’ll have financial stability and manageable success, and you’ll be able to turn the content over to your juniors when the time comes to retire.

Our library is burning. We didn’t start the fire but we sure don’t have to help fan the flames. You can’t sell out if you don’t sell. Owning your content starts with you.

Big Web Show Roundup

The Big Web Show

The Big Web Show is a weekly video podcast on Everything Web That Matters, co-hosted by 5×5 network founder Dan Benjamin and yours truly. Here’s a roundup of recent shows:

  • In Episode 2: HTML5, Dan and I talk with Jeremy Keith, designer, writer, featured An Event Apart speaker, and author of HTML5 for Web Designers. We discuss the goals and inspiration behind the book, as well as what HTML5 means for both web creators and those who consume the web, covering topics that range from structure to accessibility and implementation.
  • Melissa Pierce’s new film, “Life in Perpetual Beta,” asks the question, “is the planned life worth living?” and sketches an answer via interviews with the likes of Baratunde Thuston, Irina Slutsky, and Twitter’s Biz Stone. In Episode 3: Re-invent Yourself, Dan and I interview Melissa about the unplanned life, Facebook privacy, and using the internet to re-invent yourself.
  • In Episode 4: Content Strategy, Dan and I get down to cases with Kristina Halvorson, CEO, Brain Traffic and author, Content Strategy for the Web (New Riders, 2010), and Erin Kissane, content strategist with Happy Cog, and author of Incisive.nu.
  • In Episode 5: Web Education, we talk with special guest Liz Danzico, author of Bobulate, and chairperson of the MFA in Interaction Design program at New York’s School of Visual Arts. They discuss web and interaction design education, user experience design, how to structure a program and teach a class, acquiring and editing content, and much more.
  • In Episode 6: Mobile First, Dan and I chat with leading interaction designer Luke Wroblewski about designing for the mobile space, and learn why the mobile experience for a web application or site should be designed before the PC version.
  • In Episode 7: Usability Testing, we schmooze larger-than-life user experience design guru Jared Spool about usability testing in the real world. Jared is the founder of User Interface Engineering, the largest usability research organization of its kind in the world, and has been working in the field of usability and design since 1978, before the term “usability” was ever associated with computers.
  • Most recently, in Episode 8: User Experience Design, Dan and I talk with Happy Cog’s senior UX designer Whitney Hess about social networking, getting clients, and user experience design—from research to wireframes to testing and beyond.

Sleep never sleeps

Dreamed my parents were getting divorced. I’d be asking my momma why, and she would turn into my wife.

The conscious mind deals with what is in front of you, the unconscious processes what has yet to be behind you.