On an individual and small collective basis, the IndieWeb already works. But does an IndieWeb approach scale to the general public? If it doesn’t scale yet, can we, who envision and design and build, create a new generation of tools that will help give birth to a flourishing, independent web? One that is as accessible to ordinary internet users as Twitter and Facebook and Instagram?
Thursday, April 11th, 2019
Last week I wrote a post called Dev perception:
I have a suspicion that there’s a silent majority of developers who are working with “boring” technologies on “boring” products in “boring” industries …you know, healthcare, government, education, and other facets of everyday life that any other industry would value more highly than Uber for dogs.
The sentiment I expressed resonated with a lot of people. Like, a lot of people.
I was talking specifically about web development and technology choices, but I think the broader point applies to other disciplines too.
Last month I had the great pleasure of moderating two panels on design leadership at an event in London (I love moderating panels, and I think I’m pretty darn good at it too). I noticed that the panels comprised representatives from two different kinds of companies.
There were the digital-first companies like Spotify, Deliveroo, and Bulb—companies forged in the fires of start-up culture. Then there were the older companies that had to make the move to digital (transform, if you will). I decided to get a show of hands from the audience to see which kind of company most people were from. The overwhelming majority of attendees were from more old-school companies.
Just as most of the ink spilled in the web development world goes towards the newest frameworks and toolchains, I feel like the majority of coverage in the design world is spent on the latest outputs from digital-first companies like AirBnB, Uber, Slack, etc.
The end result is the same. A typical developer or designer is left feeling that they—and their company—are behind the curve. It’s like they’re only seeing the Instagram version of their industry, all airbrushed and filtered, and they’re comparing that to their day-to-day work. That can’t be healthy.
Personally, I’d love to hear stories from the trenches of more representative, traditional companies. I also think that would help get an important message to people working in similar companies:
You are not alone!
Tuesday, January 1st, 2019
A profile of Brighton, featuring Clearleft’s own Chris How.
Friday, October 26th, 2018
Terrible title; nice article. Rich speaks his brains about Clearleft and what we like about being in Brighton.
Monday, October 22nd, 2018
For once, Betteridge’s law of headlines is refuted.
This is a fascinating insight into the heady days of 2005 when Yahoo was the cool company snapping up all the best products like Flickr, Upcoming, and Del.icio.us. It all goes downhill from there.
There’s no mention of the surprising coda.
Tuesday, October 3rd, 2017
Newsvine has closed. Mike reflects on what he built, with a particular eye to the current online news situation.
When we look at how the average person’s news and media diet has changed over the last decade or so, we can trace it directly back to the way these and other modern organizations have begun feeding us our news. Up until 10 or 15 years ago, we essentially drank a protein shake full of news. A good amount of fruits and vegetables, some grains, some dairy, some tofu, and then a little bit of sugar, all blended together. Maybe it wasn’t the tastiest thing in the world but it kept us healthy and reasonably informed. Then, with cable news we created a fruit-only shake for half the population and a vegetable-only shake for the other half. Then with internet news, we deconstructed the shake entirely and let you pick your ingredients, often to your own detriment. And finally, with peer-reinforced, social news networks, we’ve given you the illusion of a balanced diet, but it’s often packed with sugar, carcinogens, and other harmful substances without you ever knowing. And it all tastes great!
There’s also this interesting litmus test for budding entrepreneurs:
We didn’t know for sure if it was going to work, but the day we decided we’d be happy to have tried it even if it failed was the day we ended up quitting our jobs (incidentally, if you are thinking about leaving your job for a new risky thing, this is the acid test I recommend).
Thursday, February 2nd, 2017
It strikes me that Garrett’s site has become a valuable record of the human condition with its mix of two personal stories—one relating to his business and the other relating to his health—both of them communicated clearly through great writing.
Have a read back through the archive and I think you’ll share my admiration.
Thursday, July 28th, 2016
Sixteen years on, this still rings true.
I realized there are dot-com people and there are web people. Dot-com people work for start-ups injected with large Silicon Valley coin, they have options, they talk options, they dream options. They have IPOs. They’re richer after four months of “web” work than many web people who’ve been doing it since the beginning. They don’t have personal sites. They don’t want personal sites. They don’t get personal sites. They don’t get personal. Web people can tell you the first site they ever saw, they can tell you the moment they knew: This, This Is It, I Will Do This. And they pour themselves into the web, with stories, with designs, with pictures.
Friday, April 8th, 2016
I think the move away from side projects toward doing a startup day one is not all good. There was something great about the ability to experiment with an idea before committing to it and before sucking other people’s money into it.
Sunday, December 13th, 2015
Paul takes a look back at a time in his life one decade ago. This is a great piece of personal writing.
Sunday, May 31st, 2015
Tuesday, October 7th, 2014
The Android vs. iOS debate is one hinges around whether you think it makes more sense to target a (perceived) larger market, or target one that the technorati favor. But why choose? Building a good responsive web app has a series of benefits, the primary one being that you target users on every platform with one app. Every user. Every platform. All the time. Release whenever you want. A/B test with ease. Go, go go.
Tuesday, May 27th, 2014
When I’ve been banging on at conferences about digital preservation, personal publishing and the indie web, I’ve been at pains to point out that there are huge opportunities here for startups looking to build valet services to help people publish on their own domain.
Ben and Erin at Known are doing just that, with some backing from KQED, PRX and the Knight Foundation instead of the usual short-sighted Silicon Valley venture capitalism.
One of the jobs of a startup is to look at where the world is going, extrapolating from current trends and domain knowledge, and meet a future need with a product at exactly the right time. We think the time is right for an independent web that is owned by content creators and readers alike.
Saturday, March 29th, 2014
If your startup gets acquired and shut down by a larger company, this is the way to announce it—no “we’re excited to announce”; no “incredible journey”. Instead there’s an apology and regret (which is exactly what your users will be feeling).
Monday, June 17th, 2013
Battle for the planet of the APIs
Back in 2006, I gave a talk at dConstruct called The Joy Of API. It basically involved me geeking out for 45 minutes about how much fun you could have with APIs. This was the era of the mashup—taking data from different sources and scrunching them together to make something new and interesting. It was a good time to be a geek.
Anil Dash did an excellent job of describing that time period in his post The Web We Lost. It’s well worth a read—and his talk at The Berkman Istitute is well worth a listen. He described what the situation was like with APIs:
Five years ago, if you wanted to show content from one site or app on your own site or app, you could use a simple, documented format to do so, without requiring a business-development deal or contractual agreement between the sites. Thus, user experiences weren’t subject to the vagaries of the political battles between different companies, but instead were consistently based on the extensible architecture of the web itself.
Times have changed. These days, instead of seeing themselves as part of a wider web, online services see themselves as standalone entities.
So what happened?
I don’t mean that Facebook is the root of all evil. If anything, Facebook—a service that started out being based on exclusivity—has become more open over time. That’s the cause of many of its scandals; the mismatch in mental models that Facebook users have built up about how their data will be used versus Facebook’s plans to make that data more available.
No, I’m talking about Facebook as a role model; the template upon which new startups shape themselves.
In the web’s early days, AOL offered an alternative. “You don’t need that wild, chaotic lawless web”, it proclaimed. “We’ve got everything you need right here within our walled garden.”
Of course it didn’t work out for AOL. That proposition just didn’t scale, just like Yahoo’s initial model of maintaining a directory of websites just didn’t scale. The web grew so fast (and was so damn interesting) that no single company could possibly hope to compete with it. So companies stopped trying to compete with it. Instead they, quite rightly, saw themselves as being part of the web. That meant that they didn’t try to do everything. Instead, you built a service that did one thing really well—sharing photos, managing links, blogging—and if you needed to provide your users with some extra functionality, you used the best service available for that, usually through someone else’s API …just as you provided your API to them.
Then Facebook began to grow and grow. I remember the first time someone was showing me Facebook—it was Tantek of all people—I remember asking “But what is it for?” After all, Flickr was for photos, Delicious was for links, Dopplr was for travel. Facebook was for …everything …and nothing.
I just didn’t get it. It seemed crazy that a social network could grow so big just by offering …well, a big social network.
But it did grow. And grow. And grow. And suddenly the AOL business model didn’t seem so crazy anymore. It seemed ahead of its time.
Once Facebook had proven that it was possible to be the one-stop-shop for your user’s every need, that became the model to emulate. Startups stopped seeing themselves as just one part of a bigger web. Now they wanted to be the only service that their users would ever need …just like Facebook.
Seen from that perspective, the open flow of information via APIs—allowing data to flow porously between services—no longer seemed like such a good idea.
Not only have APIs been shut down—see, for example, Google’s shutdown of their Social Graph API—but even the simplest forms of representing structured data have been slashed and burned.
Twitter and Flickr used to markup their user profile pages with microformats. Your profile page would be marked up with hCard and if you had a link back to your own site, it include a
rel=”me” attribute. Not any more.
Then there’s RSS.
During the Q&A of that 2006 dConstruct talk, somebody asked me about where they should start with providing an API; what’s the baseline? I pointed out that if they were already providing RSS feeds, they already had a kind of simple, read-only API.
Because there’s a standardised format—a list of items, each with a timestamp, a title, a description (maybe), and a link—once you can parse one RSS feed, you can parse them all. It’s kind of remarkable how many mashups can be created simply by using RSS. I remember at the first London Hackday, one of my favourite mashups simply took an RSS feed of the weather forecast for London and combined it with the RSS feed of upcoming ISS flypasts. The result: a Twitter bot that only tweeted when the International Space Station was overhead and the sky was clear. Brilliant!
Back then, anywhere you found a web page that listed a series of items, you’d expect to find a corresponding RSS feed: blog posts, uploaded photos, status updates, anything really.
That has changed.
Jo’s feelings about Twitter’s anti-RSS policy mirror my own:
I feel a pang of disappointment at the fact that it was really quite easy to use if you knew little about coding, and now it might be a bit harder to do what you easily did before.
That’s the thing. It’s not like RSS is a great format—it isn’t. But it’s just good enough and just versatile enough to enable non-programmers to make something cool. In that respect, it’s kind of like HTML.
The official line from Twitter is that RSS is “infrequently used today.” That’s the same justification that Google has given for shutting down Google Reader. It reminds of the joke about the shopkeeper responding to a request for something with “Oh, we don’t stock that—there’s no call for it. It’s funny though, you’re the fifth person to ask today.”
RSS is used a lot …but much of the usage is invisible:
RSS is plumbing. It’s used all over the place but you don’t notice it.
That’s from Brent Simmons, who penned a love letter to RSS:
If you subscribe to any podcasts, you use RSS. Flipboard and Twitter are RSS readers, even if it’s not obvious and they do other things besides.
He points out the many strengths of RSS, including its decentralisation:
It’s anti-monopolist. By design it creates a level playing field.
How foolish of us, therefore, that we ended up using Google Reader exclusively to power all our RSS consumption. We took something that was inherently decentralised and we locked it up into one provider. And now that provider is going to screw us over.
I hope we won’t make that mistake again. Because, believe me, RSS is far from dead just because Google and Twitter are threatened by it.
In a post called The True Web, Robin Sloan reiterates the strength of RSS:
It will dip and diminish, but will RSS ever go away? Nah. One of RSS’s weaknesses in its early days—its chaotic decentralized weirdness—has become, in its dotage, a surprising strength. RSS doesn’t route through a single leviathan’s servers. It lacks a kill switch.
I can understand why that power could be seen as a threat if what you are trying to do is force your users to consume their own data only the way that you see fit (and all in the name of “user experience”, I’m sure).
Returning to Anil’s description of the web we lost:
We get a generation of entrepreneurs encouraged to make more narrow-minded, web-hostile products like these because it continues to make a small number of wealthy people even more wealthy, instead of letting lots of people build innovative new opportunities for themselves on top of the web itself.
I think that the presence or absence of an RSS feed (whether I actually use it or not) is a good litmus test for how a service treats my data.
- Instagram doesn’t provide an RSS feed of my uploaded photos.
- Twitter doesn’t provide an RSS feed of my tweets.
- Facebook doesn’t provide an RSS feed of my band’s updates
It might be that RSS is the canary in the coal mine for my data on the web.
If those services don’t trust me enough to give me an RSS feed, why should I trust them with my data?
Friday, June 7th, 2013
A well-written piece on the nature of work and value on the web, particularly in the start-up economy.
Thursday, March 28th, 2013
It’s a big ask, but if you can action these ten tips from Anil, your startup will crush it.
A collection of those appalling doublespeek announcements that sites and services give when they get acquired. You know the ones: they begin with “We’re excited to announce…” and end with people’s data being flushed down the toilet.
Tuesday, March 5th, 2013
Biting satire that hits its mark superbly. Ouch! Be careful — this is sharp …and funny.
Monday, February 11th, 2013
A collaborative writing tool built by a dream team. I’ve been using it for a while now and it’s very nice indeed.