Thursday, August 13th, 2020
Sunday, August 9th, 2020
Fourteen years ago, I gave a talk at the Reboot conference in Copenhagen. It was called In Praise of the Hyperlink. For the most part, it was a gushing love letter to hypertext, but it also included this observation:
For a conspiracy theorist, there can be no better tool than a piece of technology that allows you to arbitrarily connect information. That tool now exists. It’s called the World Wide Web and it was invented by Sir Tim Berners-Lee.
You know those “crazy walls” that are such a common trope in TV shows and movies? The detectives enter the lair of the unhinged villain and discover an overwhelming wall that’s like looking at the inside of that person’s head. It’s not the stuff itself that’s unnerving; it’s the red thread that connects the stuff.
Red thread. Blue hyperlinks.
When I spoke about the World Wide Web, hypertext, apophenia, and conspiracy theorists back in 2006, conspiracy theories could still be considered mostly harmless. It was the domain of Dan Brown potboilers and UFO enthusiasts with posters on their walls declaring “I Want To Believe”. But even back then, 911 truthers were demonstrating a darker side to the fun and games.
There’s always been a gamification angle to conspiracy theories. Players are rewarded with the same dopamine hits for “doing the research” and connecting unrelated topics. Now that’s been weaponised into QAnon.
In his newsletter, Dan Hon wrote QAnon looks like an alternate reality game. You remember ARGs? The kind of designed experience where people had to cooperate in order to solve the puzzle.
Being a part of QAnon involves doing a lot of independent research. You can imagine the onboarding experience in terms of being exposed to some new phrases, Googling those phrases (which are specifically coded enough to lead to certain websites, and certain information). Finding something out, doing that independent research will give you a dopamine hit. You’ve discovered something, all by yourself. You’ve achieved something. You get to tell your friends about what you’ve discovered because now you know a secret that other people don’t. You’ve done something smart.
We saw this in the games we designed. Players love to be the first person to do something. They love even more to tell everyone else about it. It’s like Crossfit.
Dan’s brother Adrian also wrote about this connection: What ARGs Can Teach Us About QAnon:
There is a vast amount of information online, and sometimes it is possible to solve “mysteries”, which makes it hard to criticise people for trying, especially when it comes to stopping perceived injustices. But it’s the sheer volume of information online that makes it so easy and so tempting and so fun to draw spurious connections.
This is something that Molly Sauter has been studying for years now, like in her essay The Apophenic Machine:
Humans are storytellers, pattern-spotters, metaphor-makers. When these instincts run away with us, when we impose patterns or relationships on otherwise unrelated things, we call it apophenia. When we create these connections online, we call it the internet, the web circling back to itself again and again. The internet is an apophenic machine.
I remember interviewing Lauren Beukes back in 2012 about her forthcoming book about a time-travelling serial killer:
Me: And you’ve written a time-travel book that’s set entirely in the past.
Lauren: Yes. The book ends in 1993 and that’s because I did not want to have to deal with Kirby the heroine getting some access to CCTV cameras and uploading the footage to 4chan and having them solve the mystery in four minutes flat.
By the way, I noticed something interesting about the methodology behind conspiracy theories—particularly the open-ended never-ending miasma of something like QAnon. It’s no surprise that the methodology is basically an inversion of the scientific method. It’s the Texas sharpshooter fallacy writ large. Well, you know the way that I’m always going on about design principles and they way that good design principles should be reversible? Conspiracy theories take universal principles and invert them. Take Occam’s razor:
Do not multiply entities without necessity.
That’s what they want you to think! Wake up, sheeple! The success of something like QAnon—or a well-designed ARG—depends on a mindset that rigorously inverts Occam’s razor:
Multiply entities without necessity!
That’s always been the logic of conspiracy theories from faked moon landings to crop circles. I remember well when the circlemakers came clean and showed exactly how they had been making their beautiful art. Conspiracy theorists—just like cultists—don’t pack up and go home in the face of evidence. They double down. There was something almost pitiable about the way the crop circle UFO crowd were bending over backwards to reject proof and instead apply the inversion of Occam’s razor to come up with even more outlandish explanations to encompass the circlemakers’ confession.
I think the best way to fight QAnon, at its roots, is with a robust social safety net program. This not-a-game is being played out of fear, out of a lack of safety, and it’s meeting peoples’ needs in a collectively, societally destructive way.
I want to add one more red thread to this crazy wall. There’s a book about conspiracy theories that has become more and more relevant over time. It’s also wonderfully entertaining. Here’s my recommendation from that Reboot presentation in 2006:
For a real hot-tub of conspiracy theory pleasure, nothing beats Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco.
…luck rewarded us, because, wanting connections, we found connections — always, everywhere, and between everything. The world exploded into a whirling network of kinships, where everything pointed to everything else, everything explained everything else…
Friday, August 7th, 2020
I too am a member of The British Interplanetary Society and I too recommend it.
(Hey Matt, if you really want to go down the rabbit hole of solar sails, be sure to subscribe to the RSS feed of Centauri Dreams—Paul Gilster is big into solar sails!)
Friday, July 31st, 2020
Recreating Wildlife Photographer of the Year online – part 1 – Introduction and technical approach – Blogs from the Natural History Museum
Now here’s the story from the team that made the website. It’s a great walkthrough of thoughtfully evaluating technologies to figure out the best approach.
Sunday, July 19th, 2020
I spent far too long hitting refresh and then clicking on the names of some of the Irish bands down near the bottom of the line-up.
Saturday, July 18th, 2020
I’ve always been a fan of using the first few milliseconds of a user’s attention getting what I have to share with them — in front of them. Then worrying setting up the interaction layer while the user can start processing what they’re seeing.
Tuesday, July 14th, 2020
There’s a new project from Igalia called Open Prioritization:
An experiment in crowd-funding prioritization of new feature implementations for web browsers.
There is some precedent for this. There was a crowd-funding campaign for Yoav Weiss to implement responsive images in Blink a while back. The difference with the Open Prioritization initiative is that it’s also a kind of marketplace for which web standards will get the funding.
Examples include implementing the CSS
lab() colour function in Firefox or implementing the
:not() pseudo-class in Chrome. There are also some accessibility features like the
:focus-visible pseudo-class and the
inert HTML attribute.
I must admit, it makes me queasy to see accessibility features go head to head with other web standards. I don’t think a marketplace is the right arena for prioritising accessibility.
I get a similar feeling of discomfort when a presentation or article on accessibility spends a fair bit of time describing the money that can be made by ensuring your website is accessible. I mean, I get it: you’re literally leaving money on the table if you turn people away. But that’s not the reason to ensure your website is accessible. The reason to ensure that your website is accessible is that it’s the right thing to do.
I know that people are uncomfortable with moral arguments, but in this case, I believe it’s important that we keep sight of that.
I understand how it’s useful to have the stats and numbers to hand should you need to convince a sociopath in your organisation, but when numbers are used as the justification, you’re playing the numbers game from then on. You’ll probably have to field questions like “Well, how many screen reader users are visiting our site anyway?” (To which the correct answer is “I don’t know and I don’t care”—even if the number is 1, the website should still be accessible because it’s the right thing to do.)
It reminds of when I was having a discussion with a god-bothering friend of mine about the existence or not of a deity. They made the mistake of trying to argue the case for God based on logic and reason. Those arguments didn’t hold up. But had they made their case based on the real reason for their belief—which is faith—then their position would have been unassailable. I literally couldn’t argue against faith. But instead, by engaging in the rules of logic and reason, they were applying the wrong justification to their stance.
Okay, that’s a bit abstract. How about this…
In a similar vein to talks or articles about accessibility, talks or articles about diversity often begin by pointing out the monetary gain to be had. It’s true. The data shows that companies that are more diverse are also more profitable. But again, that’s not the reason for having a diverse group of people in your company. The reason for having a diverse group of people in your company is that it’s the right thing to do. If you tie the justification for diversity to data, then what happens should the data change? If a new study showed that diverse companies were less profitable, is that a reason to abandon diversity? Absolutely not! If your justification isn’t tied to numbers, then it hardly matters what the numbers say (though it does admitedly feel good to have your stance backed up).
By the way, this is also why I don’t think it’s a good idea to “sell” design systems on the basis of efficiency and cost-savings if the real reason you’re building one is to foster better collaboration and creativity. The fundamental purpose of a design system needs to be shared, not swapped out based on who’s doing the talking.
Anyway, back to accessibility…
A marketplace, to me, feels like exactly the wrong kind of place for accessibility to defend its existence. By its nature, accessibility isn’t a mainstream issue. I mean, think about it: it’s good that accessibility issues affect a minority of people. The fewer, the better. But even if the number of people affected by accessibility were to trend downwards and dwindle, the importance of accessibility should remain unchanged. Accessibility is important regardless of the numbers.
Look, if I make a website for a client, I don’t offer accessibility as a line item with a price tag attached. I build in accessibility by default because it’s the right thing to do. The only way to ensure that accessibility doesn’t get negotiated away is to make sure it’s not up for negotiation.
So that’s why I feel uncomfortable seeing accessibility features in a popularity contest.
I think that markets are great. I think competition is great. But I don’t think it works for everything (like, could you imagine applying marketplace economics to healthcare or prisons? Nightmare!). I concur with Iain M. Banks:
The market is a good example of evolution in action; the try-everything-and-see-what- -works approach. This might provide a perfectly morally satisfactory resource-management system so long as there was absolutely no question of any sentient creature ever being treated purely as one of those resources.
If Igalia or Mozilla or Google or Apple implement an accessibility feature because they believe that accessibility is important and deserves prioritisation, that’s good. If they implement the same feature just because it received a lot of votes …that doesn’t strike me as a good thing.
I guess it doesn’t matter what the reason is as long as the end result is the same, right? But I suspect that what we’ll see is that the accessibility features up for bidding on Open Prioritization won’t be the winners.
An experiment to crowdfund the implementation of web standards in browsers.
I’m not sure how I feel about this.
Monday, July 6th, 2020
Robin Hawkes has made a lovely website to go with his newsletter all about maps and spatial goodies.
Sunday, July 5th, 2020
Sunday, June 28th, 2020
I linked to the first of Ethan’s short videos on accessibility last week, but it’s well worth checking out all five:
Thursday, June 25th, 2020
I’m very selective about how I depend on other people’s work in my personal projects. Here are the factors I consider when evaluating dependencies.
- Complexity How complex is it, who absorbs the cost of that complexity, and is that acceptable?
- Comprehensibility Do I understand how it works, and if not, does that matter?
- Reliability How consistently and for how long can I expect it to work?
I really like Rob’s approach to choosing a particular kind of dependency when working on the web:
When I’m making things, that’s how I prefer to depend on others and have them depend on me: by sharing strong, simple ideas as a collective, and recombining them in novel ways with rigorous specificity as individuals.
A score of 100 in Lighthouse or 0 errors in axe doesn’t mean that you’re done, it means that you’re ready to start manual testing and testing with real users, if possible.
Friday, June 12th, 2020
A really great one-page guide to HTML from Bruce. I like his performance-focused intro:
If your site is based on good HTML, it will load fast. Browsers incrementally render HTML—that is, they will display a partially downloaded web page to the user while the browser awaits the remaining files from the server.
Wednesday, June 10th, 2020
Smart thinking from Sara to improve usability for keyboard users by using
aria-hidden="true" tabindex="-1" to skip duplicate links:
A good rule of thumb for similar cases is that if you have multiple consecutive links to the same page, there is probably a chance to improve keyboard navigation by skipping some of those links to reduce the number of tab stops to one. The less tab stops, the better, as long as it does not worsen or compromise on other aspects of usability.
I’ve cautiously implemented this pattern now over on The Session where snippets of comments had both a title link and a “more” link going to the same destination.
Tuesday, May 26th, 2020
It went unnamed by Doris Lessing and Cormac McCarthy. William Gibson called it The Jackpot:
On the one hand, naming the crisis allows one to apprehend it, grasp it, fight back against it. On the other hand, no word can fully encompass it, and any term is necessarily a reduction—the essence of “it” or “change” is not any singular instance but rather their constancy.
Memoirs Of A Survivor, The Peripheral, Parable Of The Sower, New York 2140, The Road, Children Of Men, Station Eleven, Severance, The Rapture, Ridley Walker:
Fiction can portray ecologies, timescales, catastrophes, and forms of violence that may be otherwise invisible, or more to the point, unnameable. We will never grasp the pandemic in its entirety, just like we will never see the microbe responsible for it with the naked eye. But we can try to articulate how it has changed us—is changing us.
2010 was quite a year:
Nothing’s been quite the same since.
I remember being at that An Event Apart in Seattle where Ethan first unveiled the phrase and marvelling at how well everything just clicked into place, perfectly capturing the zeitgeist. I was in. 100%.
Saturday, May 23rd, 2020
I must admit I’ve been wincing a little every time I see a graph with a logarithmic scale in a news article about COVID-19. It takes quite a bit of cognitive work to translate to a linear scale and get the real story.
Friday, May 15th, 2020
I think this one single feature is going to get me to switch to iA Writer:
For starters, we added Micropub support. This means you can publish to Micro.blog and other IndieWeb tools.
Friday, May 8th, 2020
Progressive disclosure interface patterns categorised and evaluated:
- mouseover popups (just say no!),
- new pages,
- scrolling sideways.
I really like the hypertext history invoked in this article.
The piece finishes with a great note on the MacNamara fallacy:
Everyone thinks metrics let us measure results. But, actually, they don’t. They measure only what they are measuring. Engagement, for example, is not something that can be measured, so we use an analogue for it. Time on page. Or clicks.
We often end up measuring what is quick, cheap, and easy to measure. Therefore, few organizations regularly conduct usability testing or customer-satisfaction surveys, but lots use analytics.
Even today, organizations often use clicks as a measure of engagement. So, all too often, they design user interfaces to generate clicks, so the system can measure them.