One of my first professional jobs was at a tiny startup ad agency in Washington, DC. The owner was new to the business and made the mistake of hiring a college buddy as his creative director. This guy was not up to the job. He was not the slightest bit curious about our clients’ businesses, or what mattered to their customers. His day was one long lunch hour bookended by naps. He thought we couldn’t hear him snoring through the closed door of his office.
Once a day, he would call a “creative meeting” to discuss whichever project would soon fall due. He would not bring sketches, or notes, or a creative brief to these meetings. Instead, he would “lead a creative brainstorm,” which meant we had to listen to him spout whatever shallow, idiotic idea proposed itself to his limited mind at that moment. We were then supposed to leave the room and execute his so-called “concept.” It didn’t matter if the idea was derivative of someone else’s widely known better ad, or if it was superficially cute but meaningless, or wrong in tone, or more likely to hurt than help the client’s business. He had spoken, and that was that.
Needless to say, after a few weeks—and even though they were old friends—the agency owner realized he had to fire this creative director. After all, it was widely agreed, a quarter-page newspaper ad for a local Ford dealership was far too important to entrust to the whims of an imbecile.
INTERESTING. Medium will now pay writers. The revenue to pay writers will derive, not from advertising—Medium scorns it—but from member contributions.
How Medium will pay writers
Medium now publishes two kinds of content: public content, viewable by anyone; and private, members-only content. Medium members pay a small monthly fee; in return they get access to members-only content.
As in the past, writers who write public content will not be paid, but they will have access to a potentially large audience. Only writers who write members-only content will have the potential to earn.
Payments will be based on “claps,” a UI experiment Medium introduced seemingly only a few days ago; readers are supposed to indicate how much they like a story by how hard (or how long) they press on the clap widget. None of this is explained to readers in context, but it’s pretty easy to figure out. At least, it is easy to figure out that clapping indicates approval, and that the longer you lean on the clapper, the higher the numeric approval level you can share.
The “clap” widget also appears on public stories, where it has no effect on how much the author will get paid—since writers of public stories will not get paid. On public stories, it’s just there for fun, and/or the make the author feel good. You can’t clap for your own story, which helps prevent the most obvious types of system gaming.
Initially, the payment program will be open only to a select group of writers, but if it succeeds, more and more writers will be included.
Why it matters
As the publisher of A List Apart, which has relied on advertising revenue in the past but is about to stop doing that; as a writer, reader, and passionate devotee of web-delivered content; and as a blogger at zeldman.com since 1995, I will be watching this experiment and hoping for its success. I became a Medium member as soon as the publication offered it, even though I have no interest in reading “exclusive,” members-only content. I did it to support Medium, which I see as one web pioneer’s attempt to keep the web a vital content ecosystem.
It’s the same reason I cheered for the Readability app invented by my friend Rich Ziade and his team, back in the day. I even served on Readability’s advisory board, for which I was paid—and asked—nothing. I did it because I believed in Readability’s mission to find a way to pay for content. That particular experiment died, but in many ways its spirit lives on in Medium, whose readable visual layout Readability helped to inspire.
I will not apply to be a paid Medium writer since I have my own magazine’s content and finances to figure out, and since I choose to publish my content publicly. But I applaud what Ev and his teammates are doing, and I will be watching.
THIS year’s Poynter Digital Newspaper Design Challenge was an attempt by several designers and pundits, working and thinking in parallel, to save real news via design. In Part 1 of my report from Poynter, I discussed the questions driving the challenge, and talked about the design work done in response to it by my colleagues Kat Downs Mulder, Mike Swartz, Lucie Lacava, and Jared Cocken. Here in Part 2, I’ll discuss my own work and the approach we took at my studio. But we begin with a quick look back at the past designs that brought us to this point:
Experiment 1: The Deck
During the past decade and a half, as both a publication designer and a publisher, I watched in horror as our publications became reader-hostile minefields of intrusive ads, overlays, and popups. The first thing I tried to do about this (besides removing the web equivalent of chart junk from my magazine) was to offer an alternative approach to advertising via The Deck, an ad network I cofounded with Jim Coudal of coudal.com and Jason Fried of Basecamp (formerly 37signals). The Deck permitted only one appropriately targeted ad per each page of content viewed. As primary instigator Jim Coudal put it:
A buy in The Deck reaches the creative community on the web in an uncluttered, controlled environment, far more valuable than a standard banner or a single text ad among dozens of others.
Jim, Jason, and I hoped that our cost-per-influence model would replace the CPM race to the bottom, and that our quasi-religious use of whitespace would be widely imitated by the smartest publications online.
But that didn’t happen. Advertising just got more intrusive. The Deck succeeded as a small business supporting a network of interesting small publications, but not at all as a primary influencer on the direction taken by advertising that supports web content.
Experiment 2: Readability
Then about seven years ago, my friend Rich Ziade and his engineers created Readability, an app that sat between you and the ugly site you were trying to read, the way screen readers sit between visual websites and blind web users. Readability grabbed an article page’s primary content, removed the junk, and replaced the cluttered and illegible layout with a clean, readable page inspired by the clarity of iBooks and Kindle, which were just taking off at the time.
Rich released Readability 1.0 as open source; Apple immediately absorbed it into the Safari browser, where it continues to provide Safari’s built-in “reader” mode. (Safari’s “reader” mode was Apple’s first step in decluttering the web and returning it to the people who use it; “content blocking” would be the second step.)
Moreover, Readability 2.0, released by Rich’s then-company Arc90 the following year, added automatic payment for content creators slash publishers, as I explained at the time to anyone who would listen. Had Readability been allowed to continue the experiment, content monetization might have been less of a problem than it is today, and publication brands (the notion that it matters who publishes what we read) would be in exactly the same pickle they’re in anyway—except that readers would get their news in Readability’s attractive and customizable format, instead of from Apple News, Facebook, and the like.
I used to go around the world on lecture tours, warning my fellow designers that if we didn’t figure out how to declutter and compellingly brand sites, apps like Readability would do it for us. I still go around on lecture tours, but I’ve moved on to other issues. As for Readability, it was killed by a digital lynch mob after one powerful blogger, misunderstanding the motivation behind it, issued the digerati equivalent of a fatw?. But that’s another story.
Experiment 3: Big Type Revolution
In 2012, inspired by Readability and frustrated by the industry’s determination to make ever less legible, ever more cluttered sites full of tracking and popups and everything except what readers need, I bet big on large type:
This redesign is a response to ebooks, to web type, to mobile, and to wonderful applications like Instapaper and Readability that address the problem of most websites’ pointlessly cluttered interfaces and content-hostile text layouts by actually removing the designer from the equation. (That’s not all these apps do, but it’s one benefit of using them, and it indicates how pathetic much of our web design is when our visitors increasingly turn to third party applications simply to read our sites’ content. It also suggests that those who don’t design for readers might soon not be designing for anyone.)
Writing in Forbes, Anthony Wing Kosner saw the future in my initially crude experiment:
If you want to know where the web is going, one clue is to look at the personal sites of top-tier web designers. And one trend that just bubbled to the surface is large body type—the kind you don’t have to command-plus to read.
Not to brag (okay, too late), but he wasn’t wrong. It was the future.
(Also, I’m fairly sure I wasn’t the only designer at the time who reacted against tiny type and cluttered anti-user layouts by stripping pages down to only their most necessary elements, and boosting the type size to enforce a more relaxed reading posture. The idea was in the air.)
An uncluttered page focused on the reading experience (reminder: big type and plenty of whitespace) is now the default at several leading news publications. But many smaller publications, struggling just to survive, have not kept up. And so we have a perfect crisis:
Publications that do not encourage reading, loyalty, or repeat visits are struggling to survive at the very moment real news is under attack from an authoritarian president. What to do?
My response to the Poynter Design Challenge
There are many ways to respond to an existential crisis like the one facing most news publications. You can rethink the relationship between reader and publication. Rethink the job of the publication. Make news work more like a lifestyle app. Make it more immersive. My colleagues followed those paths out brilliantly (as described in Part 1).
But I went for the low-hanging fruit. The thing any publisher, no matter how cash-strapped, could do. The thing I had seen working since I started yelling about big type in 2012. I went for a clean, uncluttered, authoritative, branded page. Authoritative because this isn’t fake news. Branded because the source matters.
The easiest, fastest, most readily attainable path to clean, uncluttered, authoritative, branded design is through typography.
Any publication can be readable
Any newspaper, however poor, can afford better typography. Any newspaper with a designer on staff can attain it, if the paper stops treating design as a lackey of marketing or editorial or advertising, and sets designers free to create great reading experiences.
In my work, which is still underway (and will continue for some time), I focused on creating what I call “reader” layouts (and probably other designers call them that too; but I just don’t know). Layouts that are branded, authoritative, clean, uncluttered, and easy to read.
I played with type hierarchies and created simple style guides. Most of my little pages began as Typecast templates that I customized. And then Noël Jackson from my studio cleaned up the HTML and CSS to make it more portable. We put the stuff up on GitHub for whoever wants to play with it.
MESMERIZED as we have been by the spectacle of the flaming garbage scow of U.S. election news, it would have been easy to miss this other narrative. But in the past few days, just as Google, AT&T, and Time-Warner were poised to turn the phrase “online privacy” into a George Carlin punchline, in marched an unlikely hero to stop them: the American Federal Government. Who have just…
approved broad new privacy rules on Thursday that prevent companies like AT&T and Comcast from collecting and giving out digital information about individuals — such as the websites they visited and the apps they used — in a move that creates landmark protections for internet users.
Given the increasingly deep bonds between corporate overlords and elected officials, this strong assertion of citizens’ right to privacy comes as something of a surprise. It’s especially startling given the way things had been going.
On Friday, Oct. 21, shortly before a massive DDOS attack took out most U.S. websites (but that’s another story), ProPublica reported that Google had quietly demolished its longstanding wall between anonymous online ad tracking and user’s names. I quote ProPublica’s reporting at length because the details matter:
When Google bought the advertising network DoubleClick in 2007, Google founder Sergey Brin said that privacy would be the company’s “number one priority when we contemplate new kinds of advertising products.”
And, for nearly a decade, Google did in fact keep DoubleClick’s massive database of web-browsing records separate by default from the names and other personally identifiable information Google has collected from Gmail and its other login accounts.
The change is enabled by default for new Google accounts. Existing users were prompted to opt-in to the change this summer.
The practical result of the change is that the DoubleClick ads that follow people around on the web may now be customized to them based on your name and other information Google knows about you. It also means that Google could now, if it wished to, build a complete portrait of a user by name, based on everything they write in email, every website they visit and the searches they conduct.
The move is a sea change for Google and a further blow to the online ad industry’s longstanding contention that web tracking is mostly anonymous.
On privacy, certainly, Google had shown ethics and restraint. Which is why their apparent decision to say, “f–– it, everyone else is doing it, let’s stop anonymizing the data we share” came as such an unpleasant shock. And that sense of shock does not even take into account how many hundreds of millions of humans were slated to lose their privacy thanks to Google’s decision. Or just how momentous this change of heart is, given Google’s control and knowledge of our searches, our browsing history, and the contents and correspondents of our email.
Scant days after ProPublica broke the Google story, as a highlight of the proposed merger of AT&T and Time-Warner, came the delightful scenario of TV commercials customized just for you, based on combined knowledge of your web using and TV viewing habits. And while some humans might see it as creepy or even dangerous that the TV they’re watching with their family knows what they were up to on the internet last night, from an advertiser’s point of view the idea made $en$e:
Advertisers want … to combine the data intensity of internet advertising with the clear value and ability to change peoples’ perceptions that you get with a television ad. If you believe in a future where the very, very fine targeting of households or individuals with specific messaging makes economic sense to do at scale, what this merger does is enable that by making more audience available to target in that way.
Into this impending privacy hellscape marched the U.S. Government:
Federal officials approved broad new privacy rules on Thursday that prevent companies like AT&T and Comcast from collecting and giving out digital information about individuals — such as the websites they visited and the apps they used — in a move that creates landmark protections for internet users. …
The new rules require broadband providers to obtain permission from subscribers to gather and give out data on their web browsing, app use, location and financial information. Currently, broadband providers can track users unless those individuals tell them to stop.
The passage of the rules deal a blow to telecommunications and cable companies like AT&T and Comcast, which rely on such user data to serve sophisticated targeted advertising. The fallout may affect AT&T’s $85.4 billion bid for Time Warner, which was announced last week, because one of the stated ambitions of the blockbuster deal was to combine resources to move more forcefully into targeted advertising.
The consequences of these new rules—exactly how advertising will change and networks will comply, the effect on these businesses and those that depend on them (i.e. newspapers), how Google in particular will be effected, who will cheat, who will counter-sue the government, and so on—remain to be seen. But, for the moment, we’re about to have a bit more online privacy and anonymity, not less. At least, more online privacy from advertisers. The government, one assumes, will continue to monitor every little thing we do online.
2006 DOESN’T seem forever ago until I remember that we were tracking IE7 bugs, worrying about the RSS feed validator, and viewing Drupal as an accessibility-and-web-standards-positive platform, at the time. Pundits were claiming bad design was good for the web (just as some still do). Joe Clark was critiquing WCAG 2. “An Inconvenient Truth” was playing in theaters, and many folks were surprised to learn that climate change was a thing.
I was writing the second edition of Designing With Web Standards. My daughter, who is about to turn twelve, was about to turn two. My dad suffered a heart attack. (Relax! Ten years later, he is still around and healthy.) A List Apart had just added a job board. “The revolution will be salaried,” we trumpeted.
Preparing for An Event Apart Atlanta, An Event Apart NYC, and An Event Apart Chicago (sponsored by Jewelboxing! RIP) consumed much of my time and energy. Attendees told us these were good shows, and they were, but you would not recognize them as AEA events today—they were much more homespun. “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show!” we used to joke. “My mom will sew the costumes and my dad will build the sets.” (It’s a quotation from a 1940s Andy Hardy movie, not a reflection of our personal views about gender roles.)
Jim Coudal, Jason Fried and I had just launched The Deck, an experiment in unobtrusive, discreet web advertising. Over the next ten years, the ad industry pointedly ignored our experiment, in favor of user tracking, popups, and other anti-patterns. Not entirely coincidentally, my studio had just redesigned the website of Advertising Age, the leading journal of the advertising profession.
Other sites we designed that year included Dictionary.com and Gnu Foods. We also worked on Ma.gnolia, a social bookmarking tool with well-thought-out features like Saved Copies (so you never lost a web page, even if it moved or went offline), Bookmark Ratings, Bookmark Privacy, and Groups. We designed the product for our client and developed many of its features. Rest in peace.
In short, it was a year like any other on this wonderful web of ours—full of sound and fury, true, but also rife with innovation and delight.
As part of An Event Apart’s A Decade Apart celebration—commemorating our first ten years as a design and development conference—we asked people we know and love what they were doing professionally ten years ago, in 2006. If you missed parts one, two, three, or four, have a look back.
This new presentation examines the seemingly ever-deepening complexity of designing for our medium today—a complexity that has driven some longtime web designers I know to declare that web design has become “too hard,” or that “the fun has gone out of it”—and asks what our traditions of designing with web standards can teach us about crafting web experiences for a multi-device, mobile-first world.
Given that my original (unpublished) title for Designing With Web Standards was going to be Forward Compatibility—and given that Forward Compatibility is not so different in concept from today’s phrase, Future-Friendly—I’m guessing that structured, semantically marked-up content, progressive enhancement, and the separation of style from structure and behavior still have a huge role to play in today’s day-to-day web design work.
Oh, dear, I hope that wasn’t a spoiler.
I look forward to sharing these ideas with you in greater detail at An Event Apart. Now celebrating our tenth year of bringing great ideas to our community, and creating a space where the smartest folks in web design and development can meet, mingle, bond, network, and learn together. Follow @aneventapart for show announcements, links to useful web resources, and free giveaways on the 10th of every month in 2016. (This month’s giveaway, ten beautiful fleece comforters monogrammed with the A Decade Apart logo, went to ten lucky winners on February 10th. Keep watching the skies.)
THE WORLD has finally caught up with Been, Inc. Three years ago, this tiny start-up company shared my studio space in New York. Their product idea was remarkably original: instead of passively accepting the data collection and loss of privacy that comes with most ad networks on the web, what if people had a choice—to either block ads and third-party trackers entirely, or earn rewards for letting ads through?
The initial web-based product, playfully designed by Monkey Do, took the scariness and complexity out of tracking issues, and returned the decision making power to the consumer. Unfortunately, the mainstream web wasn’t ready for ad blocking, and consumers en masse either weren’t ready to think about privacy, or simply didn’t know the company’s value proposition because of its nonexistent marketing budget. (The only thing that kills products faster than no marketing is poor execution—although a handful of products have survived both.)
To stay afloat in the face of mass indifference, the company temporarily pivoted, using a portion of their technology to facilitate sharing of web content between consumers, much like the late lamented Ma.gnolia or Pocket’s new Recommended section. But where Ma.gnolia and Pocket were/are text-powered, the pivoted Been app was primarily visual, which helped it gain traction in the eduation market. Grade-school teachers and kids loved using the app for research projects—and their support helped the company stay in business long enough for the internet to catch up with their ideas.
Version 2.0 of their Choice app for iOS is the product of years of work on user privacy, data ownership, and control. iOS fans can download it at www.been.mobi/getv2edu.
The company’s site explains the push-button mechanics through which you can choose to block ads and third-party trackers in your apps and Safari, or earn rewards by letting ads through and sharing (strictly non-personal) information with Been. (Earn Mode is limited to US users for now.)
When I foolhardily put down my deposit on a New York studio that was larger and more costly than what I needed, my hope was that it would attract a like-minded community of designers and tech companies from whom I would learn and be inspired. That was certainly the case with my friends at Been! I wish them great success at helping to bring the changes our web needs.
YOUR site may soon be collateral damage in a war between Silicon Valley superpowers. By including ad blocking in iOS9, Apple isn’t trying to take down your site or mine—just like the drone program doesn’t deliberately target civilians and children. Apple is trying to hurt arch-rival Google while providing a more elegant (i.e. more Apple-like) web experience than user-hostile ad networks have previously allowed. This is a great example of acting in your own self-interest, yet smelling like a rose. Will independent sites that depend on advertising be hurt along with Google?
We have always been at war with Eastasia
We should be used to this war between digital super companies by now. iPhone and iPad users, consider your Amazon experience on the platform. Notice how you can’t buy books in your Kindle app in iOS? Apple supports Amazon to the extent of letting Amazon distribute Kindle software on the iOS platform. But if you want to buy a Kindle book for your phone, you have to go to a desktop browser (or open Safari on your phone and navigate to Amazon.com). Kind of encourages you to get your digital books in iBooks instead.
Same with Amazon’s video app on iOS. You can stream all the movies you want on your phone or iPad, but you can’t buy them in the Amazon Video app. You must use a desktop browser or navigate to amazon.com in the version of Safari that comes with iOS. Kind of encourages you to buy videos from iTunes instead.
You also can’t buy Kindle books or streaming Amazon videos in the Amazon shopping app for iOS, although you can use that app to shop for anything else.
See, Amazon doesn’t want to give Apple a cut of its media sales, so Apple won’t let Amazon sell products in its apps. In Apple’s reasoning, all other vendors pay Apple a cut; Amazon shouldn’t get a pass. And Amazon is serious about not sharing revenue, because Amazon is a ruthless competitor that has taken over nearly all online retail sales in the U.S. by innovating service and delivery, and giving consumers the lowest possible price—a price that leaves them no margin to share with Apple. It’s also a price that strangles the companies that provide the goods Amazon sells. Oh, well.
Because Amazon is serious about not sharing sales revenue with Apple, and Apple is serious about blocking sales by any vendor that refuses to share revenue, Apple denies Amazon the right to sell products via its iOS apps. Who suffers? You, the consumer, as you put down your phone and toddle over to a desktop—or just shrug and do without. (Not that it’s the worst suffering in this world. But it is anti-consumer, and makes both Amazon and Apple look bad.)
Still, we’re used to all this and don’t think about it.
Ad blocking is a different beast.
Certainly, at first, ad blocking seems like a different beast. After all, consumers may want to buy books in their Kindle app, but no consumer is clamoring for more ads. And media and advertising have only themselves to blame for the horrendous experience online advertising has become. We hate advertising so much, we’ve trained ourselves not to look at the top or right sidebar on most sites. In fact, it’s become a designer’s trick that if the client forces you to put the CEO’s pet link on the home page, you hide it in plain sight at the top of the sidebar, where no one but the CEO will see it. Popups and screen takeovers and every other kind of anti-user nightmare have made advertising a hated and largely ignored thing on the web.
There are tasteful ad networks, to be sure. The Deck, which Jim Coudal created with Jason Fried and me, serves one single, small, tasteful, well targeted ad per page. When we launched The Deck, I hoped other networks would take inspiration from it, and figure out how to increase engagement while minimizing clutter. I even tried to sell my studio’s media clients on the notion of fewer, better priced, better targeted ads. But of course the ad networks have done the opposite—constantly interrupting content to force misleading, low-interest ads on you.
Hip web consumers have long used third-party ad blockers to unfug the web experience, and great applications like Readability explored alternate content revenue models while boosting type size and removing ad clutter from web content. I served on the Readability advisory board. And I used to go around the world warning designers that if we didn’t figure out a way to create readable, clutter-free layouts for our clients’ sites, apps like Readability would do it for us—putting us out of work, and removing advertising as a revenue stream for media companies. As it happens, in the intervening years, many smart sites have found a way to put content first and emphasize not just legibility but readability in their layouts. The best of those sites—I’m thinking of The New York Times here—have found a way to integrate advertising tastefully in those large-type, content-focused, readability-oriented modern layouts. (Medium.com, of course, does an amazing job with big type and readability, but it doesn’t need to integrate advertising—at least not yet—as it floats on a sea of VC bucks.)
But advertisers don’t want to be ignored, and they are drunk on our data, which is what Google and other large networks are really selling. The ads are almost a by-product; what companies really want to know is what antiperspirant a woman of 25-34 is most likely to purchase after watching House of Cards. Which gets us into issues of privacy and spying and government intrusion and don’t ask.
And in this environment of sites so cluttered with misleading ads they are almost unnavigable, Apple looks heroic, riding to the consumer’s rescue by providing all the content from newspapers without the ads, and by blocking ugly advertising on websites. But if they succeed, will media companies and independent sites survive?
Consumer good vs. consumer good
What Apple’s doing wouldn’t matter as much if consumers were still sitting down at a desktop to get their news and cat gifs. But they’re not. Everyone does everything on mobile. Including browse the web.
Thus in The Verge today, Nilay Patel argues there’s a real risk that, in attacking Google’s revenue stream, Apple may hurt the web itself:
The collateral damage of that war — of Apple going after Google’s revenue platform — is going to include the web, and in particular any small publisher on the web that can’t invest in proprietary platform distribution, native advertising, and the type of media wining-and-dining it takes to secure favorable distribution deals on proprietary platforms. It is going to be a bloodbath of independent media. … Taking money and attention away from the web means that the pace of web innovation will slow to a crawl. —Welcome to hell: Apple vs. Google vs. Facebook and the slow death of the web
John Gruber thinks otherwise, at least for small indie sites like his:
Perhaps I am being smug. But I see the fact that Daring Fireball’s revenue streams should remain unaffected by Safari content-blocking as affirmation that my choices over the last decade have been correct: that I should put my readers’ interests first, and only publish the sort of ads and sponsorships that I myself would want to be served, even if that means leaving (significant) amounts of money on the table along the way. But I take no joy in the fact that a terrific publication like The Awl might be facing hard times. They’re smart; they will adapt.—Because of Apple
In Publishing Versus Performance, I looked at the conflict between advertising and content through the filter of performance. For those who didn’t read it (or don’t remember), I pointed out that most consumer interaction with the web happens on mobile, which means it happens on mobile networks, which, at times at least, may be severely bandwidth-constrained; so performance counts as it hasn’t in years. And while good designers and developers are working like never before to create performant websites, the junk ad networks spew interferes with their good work and slows websites to a crawl. This threatens the future of the web, as consumers will blame the web for poor performance, and stick to apps. But removing those ad networks isn’t an option, I pointed out, since, abhorrent or not, advertising dollars are the engine that drives digital media: no bucks, no content.
Well, now, Apple has decided for us. Removing those ad networks may not be an option, but it’s happening anyway. How will it affect your site?
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:
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.
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 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.”
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.
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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.
In the late 1980s, while making efforts to move to New York City, I came up with the winning ad campaign for Hebrew National Kosher Salami. Only I didn’t win.
Hebrew National held a contest to see if people outside Madison Avenue could come up with a great ad idea for their 83% fat free salami. The grand prize was $83,000.
Even in New York, $83,000 would have more than covered a moving van, broker’s fee, and first and last month’s rent.
But creating the winning ad carried a benefit even bigger than the cash for someone like me who was trying to break into New York advertising. I’d worked for a couple of years at Washington, DC-area ad agencies, one of them pretty good, but that and my portfolio bought me nothing in the competitive New York advertising job market of the late 1980s. There were kids coming out of school with better portfolios than mine.
Winning that contest, I believed at the time, would make a New York ad agency take me seriously.
My then-girlfriend Eva S and I submitted an ad built around the headline, “You should be so fat.”
Well, we never heard back after entering the contest, and months passed the way they do.
I continued to drive back and forth from DC to NYC looking for jobs and an apartment.
A couple of times I flew to New York for an interview in the middle of my work day. I told my DC-area-agency creative director I was seeing a doctor. I still feel bad about that lie.
One day I open a magazine, and there’s a picture of an athletic woman wearing a leotard, working out.
The headline reads, “You should be so lean.”
Lean. You should be so lean.
It was our concept made safe. “You should be so lean” was a faster read and a much less interesting idea.
Hebrew National had said in the contest rules that, in the event of duplicate ideas, they would pick the one that was best executed. I am certain today that several people submitted similar ideas and Hebrew National and its agency chose the best-looking comp, which was not mine. Quite probably the winner even wrote “You should be so lean.” All perfectly ethical.
But at the time I was sure that we had gotten ripped off.
So I confided in the president of the DC-area agency where I worked—like he needed another reason to fire me—and asked him if I should sue Hebrew National.
I sought this advice while buying a drink for the president of the agency when I should have been at my desk, working. I figured if the president of the agency was spending the afternoon in a bar, he wouldn’t mind his peon employee doing likewise.
I was thirsty and not very bright. A while later, for many reasons, the agency let me go, surprising absolutely no one but me.
But meantime I’m in the bar buying my boss a drink on his time.
He tells me something I’ll never forget: a big company has lawyers on retainer, and you don’t.