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Sunday, January 2nd, 2022

Metaphors We Web By: Paper and Place

Out of all of these metaphors, the two most enduring are paper and physical space.

Friday, December 10th, 2021

Linking Manifesto – Manifesto for Ubiquitous Linking

We invite software developers to do their part, by

  1. ensuring their users can conveniently obtain a link to the currently open or selected resource via a user interface; and
  2. providing an application programming interface (API) to obtain or construct a link to that resource (i.e., to get its address and name).

Monday, November 29th, 2021

Google, Facebook hiding behind skirts of small business

While the dream of “personalized” ads has turned out to be mostly a nightmare, adtech has built some of the wealthiest companies in the world based on tracking us. It’s no surprise to me that as Members of the European Parliament contemplate tackling these many harms, Big Tech is throwing millions of Euros behind a “necessary evil” PR defense for its business model.

But tracking is an unnecessary evil.

Yes! This!

Even in today’s tracking-obsessed digital ecosystem it’s perfectly possible to target ads successfully without placing people under surveillance. In fact right now, some of the most effective and highly valued online advertising is contextual — based on search terms, other non-tracking based data, and the context of websites rather than intrusive, dangerous surveillance.

Let’s be clear. Advertising is essential for small and medium size businesses, but tracking is not.

Rather than creating advertising that is more relevant, more timely and more likable we are creating advertising that is more annoying, more disliked, and more avoided.

I promise you, the minute tracking is outlawed, Facebook, Google and the rest of the adtech giants will claim that their new targeting mechanisms (whatever they turn out to be) are superior to tracking.

UK ICO: surveillance advertising is dead

Behavioral ads are only more profitable than context ads if all the costs of surveillance – the emotional burden of being watched; the risk of breach, identity-theft and fraud; the potential for government seizure of surveillance data – is pushed onto internet users. If companies have to bear those costs, behavioral ads are a total failure, because no one in the history of the human race would actually grant consent to all the things that gets done with our data.

Sunday, November 28th, 2021

My Custom CSS Reset

This CSS reset is pleasantly minimalist and a lot of thought has gone into each step. The bit about calculating line height is very intriguing!

Monday, November 15th, 2021

Who is web3 for? • Robin Rendle

Thoughts from Robin, prompted by the Web History podcast I’m narrating and the other Robin’s notes on web3 that I linked to:

Who is the web for? Everyone, everywhere, and not only the few with a financial stake in it. It’s still this enormously beautiful thing that has so much potential.

But web3? That’s just not it, man.

Exactly! The blinkered web3 viewpoint is a classic example of this fallacious logic (also, as Robin points out, exemplified by AMP):

  1. Something must be done!
  2. This (terrible idea) is something.
  3. Something has been done.

Wednesday, November 3rd, 2021

1990: Programming the World Wide Web – Web Development History

Ah, this brings back memories of hacking on the WorldWideWeb project at CERN!

(Not the original one. I’m not that old. I mean the recreation.)

Wednesday, September 29th, 2021

Get Lost on the Web – Dan Q

Internet users use fewer different websites today than they did 20 years ago, and spend most of their “Web” time in app versions of websites (which often provide a better experience only because site owners strategically make it so to increase their lock-in and data harvesting potential). Truly exploring the Web now requires extra effort, like exercising an underused muscle. And if you begin and end your Web experience on just one to three services, that just feels kind of… sad, to me. Wasted potential.

Thursday, September 16th, 2021

Notes on synthetic speech - Tink - Léonie Watson

This is a fascinating deep dive by Léonie on the inner workings of speech synthesis. She has quite a conundrum: she wants fast playback, but she also wants a voice that doesn’t sound robotic. Unfortunately it’s the robotic-sounding voices that work best at speed.

If you’re interested in this topic, I highly recommend listening to (or reading) the accessibility episode of the Clearleft podcast which featured Léonie as a guest giving demos and explanations.

Tuesday, August 31st, 2021

Why are hyperlinks blue?

A wonderful bit of spelunking into the annals of software interfaces by Elise Blanchard.

Wednesday, May 12th, 2021

The Linear Oppression of Note-taking Apps

I think this explains why Kinopio resonates with me.

Saturday, April 24th, 2021

things are a little crazy rn

Adversarial chatbots engaged in an endless back-and-forth:

This piece simulates scheduling hell by generating infinite & unique combinations of meeting conflicts between two friends.

Wednesday, April 21st, 2021

PlymouthPress – A Letterpress Image Font

An experimental image font made using the University of Plymouth’s unique letterpress workshop.

Grungy!

The font is intended for display purposes only, and not is suitable for body text.

Thursday, March 11th, 2021

A Short History of Bi-Directional Links

A wonderful look at the kind of links we didn’t get on the World Wide Web.

From the memex and Xanadu right up to web mentions, this ticks all my boxes!

(And can I just say, it’s so much fun to explore all of Maggie Appleton’s site …or should I say web garden.)

Friday, February 19th, 2021

Yax.com · Blog · Out of the Matrix: Early Days of the Web (1991)

Thirty years later, it is easy to overlook the web’s origins as a tool for sharing knowledge. Key to Tim Berners-Lee’s vision were open standards that reflected his belief in the Rule of Least Power, a principle that choosing the simplest and least powerful language for a given purpose allows you to do more with the data stored in that language (thus, HTML is easier for humans or machines to interpret and analyze than PostScript). Along with open standards and the Rule of Least Power, Tim Berners-Lee wanted to make it easy for anyone to publish information in the form of web pages. His first web browser, named Nexus, was both a browser and editor.

Thursday, February 18th, 2021

A History of the Web in 100 Pages - Web Directions

I’m excited by this documentary project from John! The first video installment features three historic “pages”:

  • As We May Think,
  • Information Management: A Proposal, and
  • the first web page.

Friday, February 12th, 2021

Prediction

Arthur C. Clarke once said:

Trying to predict the future is a discouraging and hazardous occupation becaue the profit invariably falls into two stools. If his predictions sounded at all reasonable, you can be quite sure that in 20 or most 50 years, the progress of science and technology has made him seem ridiculously conservative. On the other hand, if by some miracle a prophet could describe the future exactly as it was going to take place, his predictions would sound so absurd, so far-fetched, that everybody would laugh him to scorn.

But I couldn’t resist responding to a recent request for augery. Eric asked An Event Apart speakers for their predictions for the coming year. The responses have been gathered together and published, although it’s in the form of a PDF for some reason.

Here’s what I wrote:

This is probably more of a hope than a prediction, but 2021 could be the year that the ponzi scheme of online tracking and surveillance begins to crumble. People are beginning to realize that it’s far too intrusive, that it just doesn’t work most of the time, and that good ol’-fashioned contextual advertising would be better. Right now, it feels similar to the moment before the sub-prime mortgage bubble collapsed (a comparison made in Tim Hwang’s recent book, Subprime Attention Crisis). Back then people thought “Well, these big banks must know what they’re doing,” just as people have thought, “Well, Facebook and Google must know what they’re doing”…but that confidence is crumbling, exposing the shaky stack of cards that props up behavioral advertising. This doesn’t mean that online advertising is coming to an end—far from it. I think we might see a golden age of relevant, content-driven advertising. Laws like Europe’s GDPR will play a part. Apple’s recent changes to highlight privacy-violating apps will play a part. Most of all, I think that people will play a part. They will be increasingly aware that there’s nothing inevitable about tracking and surveillance and that the web works better when it respects people’s right to privacy. The sea change might not happen in 2021 but it feels like the water is beginning to swell.

Still, predicting the future is a mug’s game with as much scientific rigour as astrology, reading tea leaves, or haruspicy.

Much like behavioural advertising.

Thursday, February 11th, 2021

WorldBrain’s Memex

A browser extension for bookmarking and annotation.

I like the name.

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2021

Authentication

Two-factor authentication is generally considered A Good Thing™️ when you’re logging in to some online service.

The word “factor” here basically means “kind” so you’re doing two kinds of authentication. Typical factors are:

  • Something you know (like a password),
  • Something you have (like a phone or a USB key),
  • Something you are (biometric Black Mirror shit).

Asking for a password and an email address isn’t two-factor authentication. They’re two pieces of identification, but they’re the same kind (something you know). Same goes for supplying your fingerprint and your face: two pieces of information, but of the same kind (something you are).

None of these kinds of authentication are foolproof. All of them can change. All of them can be spoofed. But when you combine factors, it gets a lot harder for an attacker to breach both kinds of authentication.

The most common kind of authentication on the web is password-based (something you know). When a second factor is added, it’s often connected to your phone (something you have).

Every security bod I’ve talked to recommends using an authenticator app for this if that option is available. Otherwise there’s SMS—short message service, or text message to most folks—but SMS has a weakness. Because it’s tied to a phone number, technically you’re only proving that you have access to a SIM (subscriber identity module), not a specific phone. In the US in particular, it’s all too easy for an attacker to use social engineering to get a number transferred to a different SIM card.

Still, authenticating with SMS is an option as a second factor of authentication. When you first sign up to a service, as well as providing the first-factor details (a password and a username or email address), you also verify your phone number. Then when you subsequently attempt to log in, you input your password and on the next screen you’re told to input a string that’s been sent by text message to your phone number (I say “string” but it’s usually a string of numbers).

There’s an inevitable friction for the user here. But then, there’s a fundamental tension between security and user experience.

In the world of security, vigilance is the watchword. Users need to be aware of their surroundings. Is this web page being served from the right domain? Is this email coming from the right address? Friction is an ally.

But in the world of user experience, the opposite is true. “Don’t make me think” is the rallying cry. Friction is an enemy.

With SMS authentication, the user has to manually copy the numbers from the text message (received in a messaging app) into a form on a website (in a different app—a web browser). But if the messaging app and the browser are on the same device, it’s possible to improve the user experience without sacrificing security.

If you’re building a form that accepts a passcode sent via SMS, you can use the autocomplete attribute with a value of “one-time-code”. For a six-digit passcode, your input element might look something like this:

<input type="text" maxlength="6" inputmode="numeric" autocomplete="one-time-code">

With one small addition to one HTML element, you’ve saved users some tedious drudgery.

There’s one more thing you can do to improve security, but it’s not something you add to the HTML. It’s something you add to the text message itself.

Let’s say your website is example.com and the text message you send reads:

Your one-time passcode is 123456.

Add this to the end of the text message:

@example.com #123456

So the full message reads:

Your one-time passcode is 123456.

@example.com #123456

The first line is for humans. The second line is for machines. Using the @ symbol, you’re telling the device to only pre-fill the passcode for URLs on the domain example.com. Using the # symbol, you’re telling the device the value of the passcode. Combine this with autocomplete="one-time-code" in your form and the user shouldn’t have to lift a finger.

I’m fascinated by these kind of emergent conventions in text messages. Remember that the @ symbol and # symbol in Twitter messages weren’t ideas from Twitter—they were conventions that users started and the service then adopted.

It’s a bit different with the one-time code convention as there is a specification brewing from representatives of both Google and Apple.

Tess is leading from the Apple side and she’s got another iron in the fire to make security and user experience play nicely together using the convention of the /.well-known directory on web servers.

You can add a URL for /.well-known/change-password which redirects to the form a user would use to update their password. Browsers and password managers can then use this information if they need to prompt a user to update their password after a breach. I’ve added this to The Session.

Oh, and on that page where users can update their password, the autocomplete attribute is your friend again:

<input type="password" autocomplete="new-password">

If you want them to enter their current password first, use this:

<input type="password" autocomplete="current-password">

All of the things I’ve mentioned—the autocomplete attribute, origin-bound one-time codes in text messages, and a well-known URL for changing passwords—have good browser support. But even if they were only supported in one browser, they’d still be worth adding. These additions do absolutely no harm to browsers that don’t yet support them. That’s progressive enhancement.

Tuesday, January 5th, 2021

Contextual ads | Dave Smyth

If behavioural ads aren’t more effective than contextual ads, what is all of that data collected for?

If websites opted for a context ads and privacy-focused analytics approach, cookie banners could become obsolete…