Zeldman on Web and Interaction Design

Since 1995. Formerly “The Daily Report.”

The gift of a three-month sabbatical 28 May 2024, 10:22 pm

It was late winter when my sabbatical began, and it’s late spring as it comes to an end. Next week I return to my post after three months’ paid leave, courtesy of Automattic’s sabbatical benefit. Three months. A season. With full pay, and zero work responsibilities. In a job full of rewards, this is perhaps the greatest perk. Here’s why:

You work for so much of your life that your time passes in a blur. You don’t even notice it hastening by until someone or something calls your attention to a past milestone. 

And then suddenly, into this rushing blur, comes an uncanny gift: back-to-back days that are yours, to do with as you choose. For a long enough period of time that your work brain quiets. For the first time in years, you have a chance to reflect on who you are, and where you are right now. To see where you’re going, and consider whether it’s still the right destination for the person you’re becoming. To think about who’s traveling with you.

During my sabbatical, I was able to renovate my apartment and rid it of books, furniture, and clothing I no longer need. Without three months to call my own, I would never have had the insight to seek these changes, let alone the time and energy to implement them correctly. 

And because I had time, loads of it, three big swollen months of it, I was able to make these moves calmly and judiciously, instead of rushing anxiously, bungling things because I had to make snap decisions, and regretting the mistakes for years. 

The gift of time also let me and the people I care most about look at ourselves, rejoice in all the good, and sand down a few rough edges.

Thanks to the sabbatical, I also tripled my daily steps. Admittedly, I started from a low step count because I am still recovering from Long COVID, and because I am slightly arthritic (age, old injuries), and because I tend to sit in my chair for huge swaths of physically inert hours, speed typing and mousing and forgetting to get up and get out. My father was always working, and so have I been. And I’ve let my anxiety (always a problem, but worse after COVID) turn me into a chair-bound workaholic, even though I know better. 

I do not blame my job for the way I’d let myself run down. The job encourages us to have balance in our lives. I ignored that advice. But when I return to work, I will follow it. Because of this time in which I have luxuriated as if it were a warm bath, I have built new health habits that I will carry forward into my return to work.

I’ve even made some mature (and long overdue) decisions about what and how much I share online. Again, it’s all thanks to the amazing gift of this sabbatical. (Forgive me if following some of the older links here or on my disparate social feeds leads you to dead ends.)

I plan to use my next sabbatical for traveling, but I’m thrilled with how I spent this one, and I will always be grateful for this wonderful gift of time.

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Ah yes, the famous “intern did it” syndrome 22 May 2024, 3:40 pm

Soon after we launched A List Apart Magazine, we began to notice other websites reusing our content (including illustrations) without permission, and often without so much as a credit. As that violated our author’s copyrights and ours, we’d invariably reach out to the makers of those websites with brief, politely worded takedown requests. 

Not every content poacher was contactable, but those we did reach almost always quickly complied with our requests. They also nearly always claimed that an “intern” or “freelancer” had grabbed the content without their knowledge or permission. Some, perhaps fearing that we might be litigious, even went so far as to tell us that they’d “fired” the imaginary intern/freelancer the instant we informed them of the issue.

We always pretended to believe them.

Why? Because letting embarrassed people save face is kind. It also helps the whole interaction go more smoothly. Besides, the amateur pillager claiming “the intern did it” today may be your colleague or friend tomorrow.

I recalled this common awkwardness yesterday after a former US president who’s running for reelection blamed Nazi language in his social media post on a “staffer.” It would seem the buck stops anywhere but here.

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Indigenous 7 May 2024, 3:27 pm

The definition of “Zionist” that I’ve always used is a person who believes the Jews deserve a state where they can be safe. That is something I believe. I also believe the Palestinians deserve a state where they can be safe, the Israeli occupation has been a disaster and Benjamin Netanyahu needs to be replaced.

As for the suggestion that Jews, or more precisely Ashkenazi Jewish Israelis — those of European heritage — should book a one-way ticket to Warsaw, I realize it’s not a point of view representative of the whole of the protesters on U.S. campuses. Yet it is undeniably a reflection of the “settler colonialist” position on Israel, a narrative that has gained traction despite more than half of Israeli Jews being Mizrahi — that is, from the Middle East. Palestinians and Israelis are two Indigenous peoples occupying the land that is being fought over.

Have we learned nothing? by Seth Greenland, Los Angeles Times

Also available from Apple News

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Suckage begins here: why search engines now prioritize advertising over good UX 24 Apr 2024, 2:30 pm

This kind of virtuous rising tide rent, which benefits everyone, doesn’t last. Once the growth of the new market slows, the now-powerful innovators can no longer rely on new user adoption and collective innovation from a vibrant ecosystem to maintain their extraordinary level of profit. In the dying stages of the old cycle, the companies on top of the heap turn to extractive techniques, using their market power to try to maintain their now-customary level of profits in the face of macroeconomic factors and competition that ought to be eating them away. They start to collect robber baron rents. That’s exactly what Google, Amazon, and Meta are doing today.

Tim O’Reilly, Rising Tide Rents and Robber Baron Rents: The Replacement of Organic Search with Advertising by Google and Amazon and What That Might Mean for the Future of AI

See also:

The Man Who Killed Google Search by EDWARD ZITRONThis is the story of how Google Search died, and the people responsible for killing it. (Hat tip: mORA.)

Search Party (2009): Triple Issue No. 292 of A List Apart, for people who make websites, is all about search. By JOHN FERRARA, AVINASH KAUSHIK, and LOU ROSENFELD.

Illustration: Kevin Cornell

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This Web of Ours, Revisited 19 Apr 2024, 6:57 pm

ONE MONTH and 24 years ago, in “Where Have All the Designers Gone?” (my HTMHell design column for Adobe of March 20, 2000), I discussed the deepening rift between aesthetically focused web designers and those primarily concerned with creating good experiences online:

More and more web designers seem less and less interested in web design.

Over the past 18 months or so, many of the best practitioners in the industry seem to have given up on the notion that a low-bandwidth, less than cutting-edge site is worth making. Much of the stuff they’ve been making instead has been beautiful and inspiring. But if top designers wash their hands of the rest of the Web, whose hands will build it, and whose minds will guide it? The possibilities are frightening.

An Imperfect Medium for Perfectionists

Why were many of the leading graphic designers and studios at the time uninterested in web design? For one thing, designers trained to strive for visual perfection found the web’s unpredictability depressing. The article provided clues to the frustrations of the time:

Good designers spend hours tweaking typography in Illustrator and Photoshop. Then visitors with slow connections turn off images.

Of course, where professionals trained in graphic design saw a distressing lack of control, others glimpsed in the infant technology a tremendous potential to help people, pixel-perfection be damned. To reduce the conflict to a cartoon, you might characterize it as David Carson versus Jakob Nielsen—though doing so would trivialize the concerns of both men. Designers already charged with creating websites found themselves somewhere in the middle—barking themselves hoarse reminding clients and managers that pixel-perfect rendering was not a thing on the web, while arguing with developers who told designers the exact same thing.

Visually inspiring websites like K10k showed that the web could, if approached carefully and joyfully, provide aesthetic delight. But many designers (along with organizations like AIGA) were unaware of those sites at the time.

Us and Them

Another source of tension in the medium in 2000 sprang from the discrepancy between the privileged access designers enjoyed—fast connections, up-to-date browsers and operating systems, high-res monitors (at least for the time) offering thousands of colors—versus the slow modems, aging and underpowered computers, outdated browsers, and limited-color monitors through which most people at the time experienced the web.

Which was the real design? The widescreen, multicolor, grid-based experience? Or the 216-color job with pixelated Windows type, a shallow “fold,” and pictures of headline text that took forever to be seen?

To view your masterpiece the way most users experienced it, and at the syrup-slow speed with which they experienced it, was to have an awakening or a nightmare—depending on your empathy quotient. Some designers began to take usability, accessibility, and performance seriously as part of their jobs; others fled for the predictability of more settled media (such as print).

A New (Old) Hope

My March, 2000 article ended on an upbeat note—and a gentle call to action:

For content sites to attain the credibility and usefulness of print magazines; for entertainment sites to truly entertain; for commerce sites and Web-based applications to function aesthetically as well as technically, the gifts of talented people are needed. We hope to see you among them.

That was my hope in 2000, and, all these years later, it remains my vision for this web of ours. For though the browsers, connections, and hardware have changed substantially over the past 24 years, and though the medium and its practitioners have, to a significant extent, grown the Hell up, beneath the surface, in 2024, many of these same attitudes and conflicts persist. We can do better.

Minus the framesets that formerly contained it, you may read the original text (complete with archaic instructions about 4.0 browsers and JavaScript that broke my heart, but which Adobe’s editors and producers insisted on posting) courtesy of the Wayback Machine.

☞  Hat tip to Andrey Taritsyn for digging up the article, which I had long forgotten.

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Don’t bring venture capital to a knife fight 18 Apr 2024, 2:34 pm

Contrary to what Imran, Ken, and I’m sure many others at Humane believe, the iPhone didn’t begin with their work in the 2000’s on Project Purple. It began in 1976 with the Apple computer, and the decades of goodwill it built up in consumers. The project was spearheaded by a guy ready to waste billions in iPod revenue if it helped achieve his vision, and he answered to nobody. It came together at the perfect point in time, when everyone knew the power of the Internet, but there wasn’t a way to carry the whole experience in your pocket. You can’t replicate all these factors in a few years, no matter how much money a VC throws at you.

Benjamin Sandofsky, Oh, the Humanity: Why You Can’t Build Apple With Venture Capital

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Both Sides, No 17 Apr 2024, 11:44 pm

There’s no situation so awful our news media can’t make it worse. In a cowardly, doomed, and deeply misguided effort to appear “balanced” during an emergency that requires plain speaking, our news editors tie headlines into fantastic pretzels of spurious equivalence. In today’s edition of her subscriber-only newsletter, Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin tears into an especially egregious atrocity by the copy wizards of The New York Times:

Journalism 101

People on social media and other critics justifiably mocked, derided and denounced the New York Times for the headline, “Two Imperfect Messengers Take On Abortion.” The sub-headline was nearly as bad: “Neither side of the abortion divide would probably design the exact candidate they have in 2024.” This could be the crown jewel of “both-sidesism,” accomplishing that feat in multiple ways.

For starters, it blurs the distinction between Biden’s clear and unwavering position (to write Roe v. Wade into a federal statute) with Trump’s well-documented inconsistenciesdeflections and contradictions. These two men simply are not equally deficient communicators. That imbalance in clarity and sincerity actually might determine the campaign’s outcome.

In addition to mischaracterizing the candidates’ relative abilities, this quintessential “process story” diminishes the issue’s moral gravity. You could not imagine a 1942 headline: “Two imperfect messengers take on world war.” Awarding style points, as the story does, trivializes the abortion issue.

Finally, the Times headline amounts to a self-parody of gamified political coverage: “Neither side of the abortion divide would probably design the exact candidate they have in 2024.” (Well, neither team in the World Series would design the exact lineup they have.) In essence, the Times tells us, “No one’s perfect!” — an empty platitude. Journalists owe readers an accurate depiction of the candidates’ vast differences in consistency, clarity and moral seriousness on abortion. Alas, such precision would demand truth-telling in lieu of feigned “balance.”

Washington Post subscribers can view the complete text of today’s newsletter on the paper’s website. You may also sign up to get it in your inbox free of charge.

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For love of pixels 13 Apr 2024, 4:19 pm

Sure, watches that tell you when you’re walking unsteadily and pocket computer phones that show you the closest pizzeria are swell, but were you around for ResEdit? That humble yet supremely capable Macintosh resource editing tool is what we used to design pixel art back in the day. (And what day was that? Come August, it will be 30 years since the final release of ResEdit 2.1.3.) Stroll with us down memory lane as we celebrate the pearl anniversary of pixel art creation’s primary progenitor, and some of the many artists and design languages it inspired. Extra credit: When you finish your stroll, consider posting a Comment sharing your appreciation for this nearly forgotten art form and/or sharing links to additional pixel art icon treasures missing from our list below.

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Akismet means never having to say you’re sorry 9 Apr 2024, 4:11 pm

The wizards behind AI have been busy lately providing meaningful employment for digital nonpersons.

One of the hottest jobs for non-humans is crafting and deploying website guestbook spam. This market’s on fire!

If you thought the guestbook spam of yore was impressive, you ain’t seen nothing yet. The new, AI-assisted comment spam has improved keyword stuffing, fewer grammatical mistakes, and, best of all, there’s tons more of it. Your Comment section was never so useless!

And we’re not just talking quantity, here; we’re talking quality.

Compared to the spammers of yore, the new signal depressors have a bold confidence that proclaims, “Hello, world! I’m here to waste your time and extinguish what’s left of your hard-won reader community. Watch me work!”

Yes, the bots who shit in your sandbox are bigger, brassier, and better than ever at wasting your readers’ time and abusing your content to score points on the Google big board.

What’s that you say? You’re not a comment spam enthusiast?

In that case, do as I do: use Akismet to keep cruft where it belongs: off your website. Akismet was strong enough for the comment, form, and text spam of the past, and it’s strong enough for the new junk, too.

(Full disclosure: I work at Automattic, makers of Akismet, but I penned this post this morning purely as an Akismet customer, after happily reviewing the blocked comment spam on this here WordPress site of mine. Thanks, Akismet!)

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The More Things Change… (or: What’s in a Job Title?) 3 Apr 2024, 11:48 am

I’m not a “[full-stack] developer,” regardless of what my last job title says.

I’m not even a front-end developer, thanks to the JavaScript–industrial complex.

I’m a front-of-the-front-end developer, but that’s too long.

So, I’m a web designer. And I also specialise in accessibility, design systems, and design.

…Why do I think that this is the best title? Here’s why.

I’m designing for the web. The infinitely flexible web. The web that doesn’t have one screen size, one browser, one operating system, or one device. The web that can be used by anyone, anywhere, on any internet connection, on any device, on any operating system, on any browser, with any screen size. I’m designing with the web. Using the web platform (HTML, CSS, JS, ARIA, etc.), not a bloated harmful abstraction. I have a deep understanding of HTML and its semantics. I love CSS, I know how and when to utilise its many features, and I keep up-to-date as more are added. I have a strong understanding of modern JavaScript and most importantly I know when not to use it.

Front-end development’s identity crisis by Elly Loel

See also:

The Wax and the Wane of the Web (2024): Forget death and taxes. The only certainty on the web is change. Ste Grainer takes a brief look at the history of the web and how it has been constantly reinvented. Then he explores where we are now, and how we can shape the future of the web for the better. – A List Apart

The Cult of the Complex (2018): If we wish to get back to the business of quietly improving people’s lives, one thoughtful interaction at a time, we must rid ourselves of the cult of the complex. Admitting the problem is the first step in solving it. – A List Apart

Dear AIGA, where are the web designers? (2007): For all the brand directors, creative directors, Jungian analysts, and print designers, one rather significant specimen of the profession is missing. – zeldman.com

Standardization and the Open Web (2015): How do web standards become, well, standard? Although they’re often formalized through official standards-making organizations, they can also emerge through popular practice among the developer community. If both sides don’t work together, we risk delaying implementation, stifling creativity, and losing ground to politics and paralysis. Jory Burson sheds light on the historical underpinnings of web standardization processes—and what that means for the future of the open web. – A List Apart

The profession that dare not speak its name (2007): “No one has tried to measure web design because web design has been a hidden profession.” – zeldman.com

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Our Lady of Perpetual Profit 1 Apr 2024, 6:13 pm

Corporations that take investors make an impossible promise to increase profits forever. Accordingly, they hire MBAs whose role is to juggle numbers to create ongoing, short-term profit. This juggling is frequently labeled “leadership.”

The juggling methods—abusing data, diminishing the primacy of the customer relationship, repeating what worked last year as if the demand for it will never end, and perpetually cutting costs—invariably remove value from the company. This, of course, results in more staff and cost cutting.

People who understand the customer and the product are ignored in favor of the number jugglers; research is disparaged in favor of a dogmatic relationship to data. 

The people who wreck the company get the big paychecks. Eventually a bigger company buys the first company, further destroying its value. The wreckers exit with more money, 1980s-corporate-raider-style. Skilled workers are laid off, quality plummets, and the cycle begins again. 

This picture of a business world with deeply misguided priorities—exemplified by horror stories from the worlds of tech, gaming, and entertainment—is brought to you by Doc Burford, whose discursive post, “the biggest threat facing your team, whether you’re a game developer or a tech founder or a CEO, is not what you think,” takes a while to get through, but is nonetheless worth reading.

It is not a picture of every company, to be sure. But it applies to many, and accounts for much of the worker unhappiness plus customer frustration that characterize this time and contribute to our political unrest.

I wrote this post so you’d know to check that one. Do it.

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The Valley of Hidden Sorrows 25 Mar 2024, 9:38 pm

I have this friend. A mountain of unexpected medical debt buried his family at the start of last year. At the same time, the closing of his business stuck him with six figures of personal debt. Liquidating a retirement account and maxing out credit cards bought him short-term breathing room. Mostly, though, it added interest charges and tax penalties to what he already owed. 

A year on, the debts still crush him, and the poor fellow only just manages to keep his family housed, fed, and safe. I should add that he’s a professional who enjoys a great job with a generous salary and terrific benefits. One of the lucky people. Privileged, even. Somebody you’d expect to be quite comfortable. But he wakes in fear each morning.

To all who struggle in these times, be kind to others and gentle with yourself.

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AI Roundup: The Bad, the Ugly, and the Pretty Cool 24 Mar 2024, 3:24 pm

Ay, ay, AI! Hype, fear, and strongly voiced opinions—the traditional currency of internet conversation—are unequal to this moment, where the Fate of Everything™ dangles from a single gossamer thread. So here are four useful links to pieces of the web that make differing and complementary sense of the threat and promise of AI.

Of course AI is a bubble. It has all the hallmarks of a classic tech bubble. Pick up a rental car at SFO and drive in either direction on the 101—north to San Francisco, south to Palo Alto—and every single billboard is advertising some kind of AI company. Every business plan has the word “AI” in it, even if the business itself has no AI in it…

Tech bubbles come in two varieties: The ones that leave something behind, and the ones that leave nothing behind. Sometimes, it can be hard to guess what kind of bubble you’re living through until it pops and you find out the hard way…

Cory Doctorow: What Kind of Bubble is AI?

de Vries calculates that by 2027 the AI sector could consume between 85 to 134 terawatt hours each year. That’s about the same as the annual energy demand of de Vries’ home country, the Netherlands. 

The Verge: How much electricity does AI consume?

The Elements of AI is a series of free online courses created by MinnaLearn and the University of Helsinki. We want to encourage as broad a group of people as possible to learn what AI is, what can (and can’t) be done with AI, and how to start creating AI methods. The courses combine theory with practical exercises and can be completed at your own pace.

Elements of AI

We define AI literacy as a set of competencies that enables individuals to critically evaluate AI technologies; communicate and collaborate effectively with AI; and use AI as a tool online, at home, and in the workplace. We conducted an extensive review of literature (see paper) and distilled a set of key AI literacy competencies and considerations for designing AI literacy learning interventions, which can be used to guide future educational initiatives as well as foster discussion and debate in the AI education field. This page lists and describes the competencies and design considerations that we have outlined.

AI Unplugged

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CAPTCHA excludes disabled web users 22 Mar 2024, 12:33 pm

What’s widely used, no longer particularly effective, and makes web content inaccessible to many people with disabilities? It’s our old friend CAPTCHA! In a group note dated 16 December 2021, the W3C explains how CAPTCHA excludes disabled users, and suggests alternatives which may be kinder and more reliable:

Various approaches have been employed over many years to distinguish human users of web sites from robots. The traditional CAPTCHA approach asking users to identify obscured text in an image remains common, but other approaches have emerged. All interactive approaches require users to perform a task believed to be relatively easy for humans but difficult for robots. Unfortunately the very nature of the interactive task inherently excludes many people with disabilities, resulting in a denial of service to these users. Research findings also indicate that many popular CAPTCHA techniques are no longer particularly effective or secure, further complicating the challenge of providing services secured from robotic intrusion yet accessible to people with disabilities. This document examines a number of approaches that allow systems to test for human users and the extent to which these approaches adequately accommodate people with disabilities, including recent non-interactive and tokenized approaches. We have grouped these approaches by two category classifications: Stand-Alone Approaches that can be deployed on a web host without engaging the services of unrelated third parties and Multi-Party Approaches that engage the services of an unrelated third party.

W3C: Inaccessibility of CAPTCHA: Alternatives to Visual Turing Tests on the Web

We can do better!

Tell your friends. Tell your boss. Tell your clients.

Tip o’ the blue beanie to Adrian Roselli.

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Heal an ailing web 16 Mar 2024, 4:01 pm

On the occasion of the web’s 35th anniversary, its inventor had this to say:

5 years ago, when the web turned 30, I called out some of the dysfunction caused by the web being dominated by the self-interest of several corporations that have eroded the web’s values and led to breakdown and harm. Now, 5 years on as we arrive at the Web’s 35th Birthday, the rapid advancement of AI has exacerbated these concerns, proving that issues on the web are not isolated but rather deeply intertwined with emerging technologies. 

There are two clear, connected issues to address. The first is the extent of power concentration, which contradicts the decentralised spirit I originally envisioned. This has segmented the web, with a fight to keep users hooked on one platform to optimise profit through the passive observation of content. This exploitative business model is particularly grave in this year of elections that could unravel political turmoil. Compounding this issue is the second, the personal data market that has exploited people’s time and data with the creation of deep profiles that allow for targeted advertising and ultimately control over the information people are fed.

How has this happened? Leadership, hindered by a lack of diversity, has steered away from a tool for public good and one that is instead subject to capitalist forces resulting in monopolisation. Governance, which should correct for this, has failed to do so, with regulatory measures being outstripped by the rapid development of innovation, leading to a widening gap between technological advancements and effective oversight.

The future hinges on our ability to both reform the current system and create a new one that genuinely serves the best interests of humanity. 

Marking the Web’s 35th Birthday: An Open Letter from Tim Berners-Lee

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Death of a father 14 Mar 2024, 3:35 pm

187” is a gorgeously lensed, strongly acted Samuel L. Jackson thriller, notable for its sun-dazzled Los Angeles setting, complex morality, and breakthrough trip-hop soundtrack. It would likely have been widely discussed at the time of its release, and might still be remembered, like the not thematically dissimilar “Falling Down”—filmed in the same city and released by the same studio a few years prior—if not for a horrible and tragic event.

187 is the story of a high-minded, humanistic public high school teacher (Jackson) who, after surviving a brutal assault by one of his students (Method Man, in one of his first film appearances!), fights back.

Vigilantism was hardly a fresh plot driver in 1997, but 187’s writer, director, and cast took it to unexpected and rewarding places. 187 challenged expectations. It deserved an audience.

Unfortunately for the film, 187’s release was overshadowed by a horrific real-life event. That year, Jonathan Levin, a public high school teacher, was murdered by one of his former students.

It was the kind of murder—tragic, senseless—that might have gone unnoticed by the press if not for one thing: Jonathan was the son of newly appointed Time Warner CEO Gerald M. Levin.

In the aftermath of the new Warner CEO’s son’s murder, there was no way that Warner Bros could promote a film about a high school teacher who kills his students. Warner buried the film by giving it a limited release with zero promotion.

I remember seeing 187 in a semi-private screening room before interviewing its star for Warner Bros, whose Executive Vice President of Marketing was my client at the time. The film’s moody music and cinematography transported me. I felt deeply engaged by the story, and riveted by Jackson’s performance. And, needless to say, I was also horrified to learn of Jonathan Levin’s murder.

Today’s death notice of Gerald M. Levin brought it all back in a Proustian rush. 

Deadline-driven topic-sentence journalists will remember Gerald Levin as the architect of the ill-fated, oh-so-90s Time Warner AOL merger. But I will always think of him as a grieving father.

Rest in peace.

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Open-source moderation 13 Mar 2024, 1:43 pm

Bluesky introduces open-source, collaborative moderation for federated social media websites:

Bluesky was created to put users and communities in control of their social spaces online. The first generation of social media platforms connected the world, but ended up consolidating power in the hands of a few corporations and their leaders. Our online experience doesn’t have to depend on billionaires unilaterally making decisions over what we see. On an open social network like Bluesky, you can shape your experience for yourself.

Today, we’re excited to announce that we’re open-sourcing Ozone, our collaborative moderation tool.

Bluesky’s Stackable Approach to Moderation

💡  Might it also work for Mastodon and Threads?


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New music from the beyond 5 Mar 2024, 2:54 pm

Happy heavenly birthday to my dear, deceased, devil brother Pete Zeldman. Today, 5 March 2024, to celebrate Pete’s life…

Lost in Sound Records is releasing an album of solo drums, Enigma, which will keep rhythmic enthusiasts and scholars busy for…well, forever. And ALSO 2.5D, his crazy interesting NYC rock band… [has released] its first single.

Cindy Shapiro

Hear that single, written by Pete, performed with fire by 2.5D, and released roughly 30 years after the fact:

Wish Pete a happy birthday on Facebook. You never know; whatever plane Pete now inhabits, he just might hear you.

Related:

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“Where the people are” 2 Mar 2024, 3:05 pm

It’s nearly twenty years ago, now, children. Facebook had only recently burst the bounds of Harvard Yard. Twitter had just slipped the bonds of the digital underground. But web geeks like me still saw “social media” as a continuation of the older digital networks, protocols, listservs, and discussion forums we’d come up using, and not as the profound disruption that, partnered with smartphones and faster cellular networks, they would soon turn out to be. 

So when world-renowned CSS genius Eric Meyer and I, his plodding Dr Watson, envisioned adding a digital discussion component to our live front-end web design conference events, our first thought had been to create a bespoke one. We had already worked with a partner to adapt a framework he’d built for another client, and were considering whether to continue along that path or forge a new one.

And then, one day, I was talking to Louis Rosenfeld—the Prometheus of information architecture and founder of Rosenfeld Media. I told Lou about the quest Eric and I were on, to enhance An Event Apart with a private social network, and shared a roadblock we’d hit. And Lou said something brilliant that day. Something that would never have occurred to me. He said: “Why not use Facebook? It already exists, and that’s where the people are.”

The habit of building

Reader, in all my previous years as a web designer, I had always built from scratch or worked with partners who did so. Perhaps, because I ran a small design agency and my mental framework was client services, the habit of building was ingrained. 

After all, a chief reason clients came to us was because they needed something we could create and they could not. I had a preference for bespoke because it was designed to solve specific problems, which was (and is) the design business model as well as the justification for the profession. 

Our community web design conference had a brand that tied into the brand of our community web design magazine (and soon-to-emerge community web design book publishing house). All my assumptions and biases were primed for discovery, design, development, and endless ongoing experiments and improvements.

Use something that was already out there? And not just something, but a clunky walled garden with an embarrassing origin story as a hot-or-not variant cobbled together by an angry, virginal undergraduate? The very idea set off all my self-protective alarms.

A lesson in humility

Fortunately, on that day, I allowed a strong, simple idea to penetrate my big, beautiful wall of assumptions.

Fortunately, I listened to Lou. And brought the idea to Eric, who agreed.

The story is a bit more complicated than what I’ve just shared. More voices and inputs contributed to the thinking; some development work was done, and a prototype bespoke community was rolled out for our attendees’ pleasure. But ultimately, we followed Lou’s advice, creating a Facebook group because that’s where the people were. 

We also used Twitter, during its glory days (which coincided with our conference’s). And Flickr. Because those places are where the people were. 

And when you think about it, if people already know how to use one platform, and have demonstrated a preference for doing so, it can be wasteful of their time (not to mention arrogant) to expect them to learn another platform, simply because that one bears your logo.

Intersecting planes of simple yet powerful ideas

Of course, there are valid reasons not to use corporate social networks. Just as there are valid reasons to only use open source or free software. Or to not eat animals. But those real issues are not the drivers of this particular story. 

This particular story is about a smart friend slicing through a Gordian Knot (aka my convoluted mental model, constructed as a result of, and justification for, how I earned a living), and providing me with a life lesson whose wisdom I continue to hold close.

It’s a lesson that intersects with other moments of enlightenment, such as “Don’t tell people who they are or how they should feel; listen and believe when they tell you.” Meet people where they are. It’s a fundamental principle of good UX design. Like pave the cowpaths. Which is really the same thing. We take these ideas for granted, now.

But once, and not so long ago, there was a time. Not one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot. But a time when media was no longer one-to-many, and not yet many-to-many. A time when it was still possible for designers like me to think we knew best. 

I’m glad a friend knew better.

Afterword

I started telling this story to explain why I find myself posting, sometimes redundantly, to multiple social networks—including one that feels increasingly like Mordor. 

I go to them—even the one that breaks my heart—because, in this moment, they are where the people are. 

Of course, as often happens, when I begin to tell a story that I think is about one thing, I discover that it’s about something else entirely.

The post “Where the people are” appeared first on Zeldman on Web and Interaction Design.

R.I.Pete 29 Feb 2024, 2:31 pm

It’s a year and one day since you died. At times, I feel your presence. I listen to your music every day. I miss you.

The post R.I.Pete appeared first on Zeldman on Web and Interaction Design.

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