Tags: pop

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Sunday, August 9th, 2020

Connections

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.

Anyway, I recommend reading what Dan and Adrian have written about the shared psychology of QAnon and Alternate Reality Games, not least because they also suggest some potential course corrections.

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…

Tuesday, May 19th, 2020

Measuring Performance behind consent popups – Simon Hearne

  • Opted out experiences are ~35% faster
  • Opting in downloads 2.5MB of additional JavaScript
  • Opted in repeat views are twice as slow as opted out

Friday, May 8th, 2020

Designing for Progressive Disclosure by Steven Hoober

Progressive disclosure interface patterns categorised and evaluated:

  • popups,
  • drawers,
  • mouseover popups (just say no!),
  • accordions,
  • tabs,
  • new pages,
  • scrolling,
  • 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.

The Fonts in Popular Things Identified Vol. 1 · Typewolf

I’d watch this game show:

Welcome to the first installment of a new series on Typewolf, where I’ll be identifying the fonts used in popular things. The focus here is on anything you might encounter in contemporary visual culture—movie posters, TV shows, book covers, etc.

Monday, March 18th, 2019

Hello, Goodbye - Browser Extension

A handy browser extension for Chrome and Firefox:

“Hello, Goodbye” blocks every chat or helpdesk pop up in your browser.

Friday, October 5th, 2018

Modalz Modalz Modalz

We use too many damn modals.

Amen! This site offers some alternatives, or—if you really must use a modal dialogue—some dos and dont’s.

And remember to always ask, kids: “Why does this have to be a modal?”

Thursday, September 13th, 2018

The map we need if we want to think about how global living conditions are changing - Our World in Data

While a geographical map is helpful if you want to find your way around the world, a population cartogram is the representation that we need if we want to know where our fellow humans are at home.

Tuesday, August 21st, 2018

Design Laws in Nature by Jordan Moore

A deep, deep dive into biomicry in digital design.

Nature is our outsourced research and development department. Observing problems solved by nature can help inform how we approach problems in digital design. Nature doesn’t like arbitrary features. It finds a way to shed unnecessary elements in advancing long-term goals over vast systems.

Tuesday, May 29th, 2018

We are all trapped in the “Feed” – Om on Tech

No matter where I go on the Internet, I feel like I am trapped in the “feed,” held down by algorithms that are like axes trying to make bespoke shirts out of silk. And no one illustrates it better than Facebook and Twitter, two more services that should know better, but they don’t. Fake news, unintelligent information and radically dumb statements are getting more attention than what matters. The likes, retweets, re-posts are nothing more than steroids for noise. Even when you are sarcastic in your retweets or re-shares, the system has the understanding of a one-year-old monkey baby: it is a vote on popularity.

Wednesday, May 16th, 2018

Avengers: Infinity War - Wizards vs. The Prophet

Jason Kottke had the same reaction I did to the new Avengers film:

Jeremy Keith noticed the same thing and I echo his amazement: “I was not expecting to be confronted with the wizards vs. prophets debate while watching Avengers: Infinity War”.

Monday, November 27th, 2017

SSL Issuer Popularity - NetTrack.info

This graph warms the cockles of my heart. It’s so nice to see a genuinely good project like Let’s Encrypt come in and upset the applecart of a sluggish monopolistic industry.

Wednesday, May 24th, 2017

The Apophenic Machine — Real Life

To navigate the web is to beat a path through a labyrinth of links left by others, and to thereby create associative links yourself, unspooling them like a guiding thread onto a floor already carpeted with such connections. Each thread of connection is unique, individualized: everyone draws their own map of the network as they navigate it.

Friday, February 17th, 2017

The average web page from top twenty Google results

Ever wondered what the most commonly used HTML elements are?

Wednesday, August 24th, 2016

Official Google Webmaster Central Blog: Helping users easily access content on mobile

Two pieces of good news from Google:

  1. 85% of websites qualify as mobile-friendly, so there’s no longer a need to explicitly label them as such in search results.
  2. Google will down-rank sites that have annoying pop-overs demanding you download an app or sign up to an email newsletter when you’re trying to read the damn page.

Why The Longplay Face | Collection

I giggled at quite of few of these mashups.

Monday, March 21st, 2016

Making things happen

I have lovely friends who are making lovely things. Surprisingly, lots of these lovely things aren’t digital (or at least aren’t only digital).

My friends Brian and Joschi want to put on an ambitious event called Material:

A small conference based in Reykjavik, Iceland, looking into the concept of the Web as a Material — 22nd July 2016, https://material.is

They’re funding it through Kickstarter. If you have any interest in this at all, I suggest you back it. Best bet is to pledge the amount that guarantees you a ticket to the conference. Go!

My friend Matt has a newsletter called 3 Books Weekly to match his Machine Supply website. Each edition features three book recommendations chosen by a different person each time.

Here’s the twist: there’s going to be a Machine Supply pop-up bookshop AKA a vending machine in Shoreditch. That’ll be rolling out very soon and I can’t wait to see it.

My friend Josh made a crazy website to tie in with an art project called Cosmic Surgery. My friend Emily made a limited edition run of 10 books for the project. Now there’s a Kickstarter project to fund another run of books which will feature a story by Piers Bizony.

An Icelandic conference, a vending machine for handpicked books, and a pop-up photo book …I have lovely friends who are making lovely things.

Monday, July 27th, 2015

On The Verge

Quite a few people have been linking to an article on The Verge with the inflammatory title The Mobile web sucks. In it, Nilay Patel heaps blame upon mobile browsers, Safari in particular:

But man, the web browsers on phones are terrible. They are an abomination of bad user experience, poor performance, and overall disdain for the open web that kicked off the modern tech revolution.

Les Orchard says what we’re all thinking in his detailed response The Verge’s web sucks:

Calling out browser makers for the performance of sites like his? That’s a bit much.

Nilay does acknowledge that the Verge could do better:

Now, I happen to work at a media company, and I happen to run a website that can be bloated and slow. Some of this is our fault: The Verge is ultra-complicated, we have huge images, and we serve ads from our own direct sales and a variety of programmatic networks.

But still, it sounds like the buck is being passed along. The performance issues are being treated as Somebody Else’s Problem …ad networks, trackers, etc.

The developers at Vox Media take a different, and in my opinion, more correct view. They’re declaring performance bankruptcy:

I mean, let’s cut to the chase here… our sites are friggin’ slow, okay!

But I worry about how they can possibly reconcile their desire for a faster website with a culture that accepts enormously bloated ads and trackers as the inevitable price of doing business on the web:

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. Here’s another false dichotomy:

If the message coming down from above is that performance concerns and business concerns are fundamentally at odds, then I just don’t know how the developers are ever going to create a culture of performance (which is a real shame, because they sound like a great bunch). It’s a particularly bizarre false dichotomy to be foisting when you consider that all the evidence points to performance as being a key differentiator when it comes to making moolah.

It’s funny, but I take almost the opposite view that Nilay puts forth in his original article. Instead of thinking “Oh, why won’t these awful browsers improve to be better at delivering our websites?”, I tend to think “Oh, why won’t these awful websites improve to be better at taking advantage of our browsers?” After all, it doesn’t seem like that long ago that web browsers on mobile really were awful; incapable of rendering the “real” web, instead only able to deal with WAP.

As Maciej says in his magnificent presentation Web Design: The First 100 Years:

As soon as a system shows signs of performance, developers will add enough abstraction to make it borderline unusable. Software forever remains at the limits of what people will put up with. Developers and designers together create overweight systems in hopes that the hardware will catch up in time and cover their mistakes.

We complained for years that browsers couldn’t do layout and javascript consistently. As soon as that got fixed, we got busy writing libraries that reimplemented the browser within itself, only slower.

I fear that if Nilay got his wish and mobile browsers made a quantum leap in performance tomorrow, the result would be even more bloated JavaScript for even more ads and trackers on websites like The Verge.

If anything, browser makers might have to take more drastic steps to route around the damage of bloated websites with invasive tracking.

We’ve been here before. When JavaScript first landed in web browsers, it was quickly adopted for three primary use cases:

  1. swapping out images when the user moused over a link,
  2. doing really bad client-side form validation, and
  3. spawning pop-up windows.

The first use case was so popular, it was moved from a procedural language (JavaScript) to a declarative language (CSS). The second use case is still with us today. The third use case was solved by browsers. They added a preference to block unwanted pop-ups.

Tracking and advertising scripts are today’s equivalent of pop-up windows. There are already plenty of tools out there to route around their damage: Ghostery, Adblock Plus, etc., along with tools like Instapaper, Readability, and Pocket.

I’m sure that business owners felt the same way about pop-up ads back in the late ’90s. Just the price of doing business. Shrug shoulders. Just the way things are. Nothing we can do to change that.

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.

Every bloated advertising and tracking script on a website was added by a person. What if that person refused? I guess that person would be fired and another person would be told to add the script. What if that person refused? What if we had a web developer picket line that we collectively refused to cross?

That’s an unrealistic, drastic suggestion. But the way that the web is being destroyed by our collective culpability calls for drastic measures.

By the way, the pop-up ad was first created by Ethan Zuckerman. He has since apologised. What will you be apologising for in decades to come?

Thursday, June 18th, 2015

100 words 088

Tomorrow is the big day—Responsive Day Out 3: The Final Breakpoint.

All the speakers are in town, safely ensconced in their hotel. To welcome them to Brighton and to get them relaxed for tomorrow, we all went out for a magnificent meal this evening. I hired out the pop-up restaurant Isaac At. What better way to welcome people to Sussex than to sample local seasonal food (and drinks) prepared by an immensely talented team. It was really great—great food, great company; just right.

Now I will attempt to get a night’s sleep before tomorrow’s overload of responsive brilliance.

Tuesday, June 9th, 2015

100 words 079

Today was dogtastic at Clearleft. I knew in advance that Daphne the dachshund was going to be coming by—Kate had given us all the heads-up. But when I arrived in the office, who should greet me but …Poppy the beagle!

I hadn’t seen Poppy in years. But she remembered me. See, when Poppy was just a young dog, we’d play together. I’d get the dog all worked up into a frenzy and then say goodbye, leaving Richard to deal with a hyperactive puppy. That’s why, even now, Poppy’s reaction to me is to howl in a “let’s play!” way.

Tuesday, May 19th, 2015

Pizza.

Pizza.