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Standing In Opposition

Though I certainly do not support SOPA or the PROTECT IP Act (the complete, rather contrived acronym of PIPA), I will not be blacking out meyerweb.  This is largely because the vast majority of my readers already know about these bills, and very likely oppose them; as for anyone who visits but does not know about these bills, I feel I’ll do better to speak out than to black out.  (Which is not a criticism of those who do black out.  We all fight in our own ways.)

Instead, I will reproduce here the letter I attempted to send via contact form to my state Senator this morning, and which I will print out and send by regular postal service later today.

Senator Brown:

I grew up in Lexington, Ohio.  I moved to Cleveland in pursuit of a career, and found success.  Through a combination of good luck and hard work, I have (rather to my surprise) become a widely recognized name in my field, which is web design and development.  Along the way, I co-founded a web design conference with an even more widely respected colleague that has become one of the most respected and successful web design events in the world.  This business is headquartered in Ohio—I live in Cleveland Heights with my family, and I intend to stay here until I either retire to Florida or die.  Politically I’m best described as a moderate independent, though I do tend to lean a bit to the left.

As you can imagine, given my line of work, I have an opinion regarding the PROTECT IP Act which you have co-sponsored.  The aims of PROTECT IP are understandable, but the methods are unacceptable.  Put another way, if you wish to combat piracy and intellectual property theft, there are far better ways to go about it.

As someone with twenty years of technical experience with the Internet and nearly as many with the web—I started creating web pages in late 1993—please believe me when I say the enforcement mechanisms of the bill are deeply flawed and attack the very features of the Web that make it what it is.  They are akin to making a criminal of anyone who gives directions to a park where drug trafficking takes place, regardless of whether they knew about the drug trafficking.  You don’t have to be in favor of drug trafficking to oppose that.

This is not a case where tweaking a clause or two will fix it; correction in this case would mean starting from scratch.  Again, the objection is not with the general intent of the bill.  It is with how the bill goes about achieving those aims.

If you would like to discuss this with me further, I would be delighted to do whatever I can to help, but in any event I strongly urge you to reconsider your co-sponsorship of the PROTECT IP Act.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Eric A. Meyer (

Partner and co-founder, An Event Apart (

If you agree that the PROTECT IP Act is poorly conceived, find out if your senator supports PIPA.  If they do, get in touch and let them know about your opposition.  If they oppose the bill, get in touch and thank them for their opposition.  If their support or opposition isn’t known, get in touch and ask them to please speak out in opposition to the bill.

As others have said, postal letters are better than phone calls, which are in turn better than e-mail, which is in turn better than signing petitions.  Do what you can, please.  The web site you save might be your own.

Memetic Epidemiology

I had planned to spend yesterday goofing off, as is my tradition for the day after I return from a conference and don’t have anything immediately pressing on my plate.  Instead I watched and documented, as best I could, a case of memetic epidemiology happen in realtime.

The meme was the Cooks Source story, which I stumbled across relatively early in the day.  I won’t recap the story here, as the original LiveJournal post by Monica Gaudio and Edward Champion’s very well-researched article do a much better job of that.  The latter piece is particularly commendable if you’re new to the story, as it not only explains the genesis of the incident but also lays bare a number of other things that were discovered as the story went ballistic.

I’m not sure exactly where I first came across the story—probably a retweet of Adam Banks by a friend of mine—but at the time the meme was really just getting started.  At that point there were quite a few people posting on the Cooks Source Facebook Wall to chastise the editor, and the rate of posting was accelerating.  I threw in my own tweet on the topic and kept watching the Wall to see if there would be a response, if the Facebook page would be deleted, or something else.  At the same time, I was seeing more and more tweets and retweets of the story, and based on just what I could see, it seemed primed to go crazy.  I was rewteeted by swissmiss, who has four times as many followers as me (and way more influential followers than me), and it was hitting the feeds of more and more people I follow.

When it showed up on John Scalzi’s tweet stream, I actually got a little dizzy.  This was the moment where I felt like the scientist at the beginning of a viral-apocalypse movie, staring at a monitor showing the sites of reported infection in red.  Then, in a burst of tense, ominous music, the dots show up in New York City and around JFK.  Game over.

I got that feeling because I knew that not only is Mr. Scalzi followed by both Neil Gaiman (1.5 million followers) and Wil Wheaton (1.7 million followers), but he is respected and therefore paid attention to by both.  Furthermore, both, as net-savvy content creators like Mr. Scalzi, are exquisitely sensitive to such stories.  It was only a matter of time before one of them passed the story on to their followers.  And sure enough, within minutes, Neil Gaiman did so.

At that point, it seemed only a matter of time before traditional media channels took interest, and though it took a little while, many did.  It literally became an international news story.

Throughout the day, I tracked the situation and tweeted about it as new developments happened.  I almost couldn’t help myself; I was completely captivated by watching a meme unfold and spread in realtime.  Eventually I hit on a crude measurement of the story’s reach, which I dubbed the Speed of Chastisement (SoC).  This was measured by loading the Cooks Source Wall and then scrolling to the bottom of the page, down to the “Older posts” button.  The time elapsed since the last of the Wall posts was the SoC.  When I started looking at it, it was measurable in minutes, but as the day went on the interval dropped.  At one point, it was as low as 34 seconds, and may well have dropped lower when I wasn’t looking.

I wish I could’ve automatically captured that number, say, every minute, because the timeline graph I could make with that data would be fascinating—especially if mapped against various developments, like Neil Gaiman’s retweet of John Scalzi or the time of various article publications.

One of the things I found most fascinating was how the outraged mob used Cooks Source’s own digital presence against it.  I don’t actually mean all the Wall posts, which served as an emotional outlet but otherwise only indicated the story’s memetic velocity (the SoC I mentioned earlier).  What people did was start new threads in the Discussions tab of Cooks Source’s own Facebook page to document the original sources of Cooks Source articles and to compile the contact information for all of the advertisers in Cooks Source.  The speed at which the crowd operated was awesome in the older sense of that word as inspiring of awe, which is itself defined as power to inspire fear or reverence.  As I told a friend, I was fascinated in the same way I’d be fascinated watching, from a distance, a predator hunting down its prey.  Awe-struck.  It was almost frightening to watch how fast people tracked down the various text and image sources, uncovering more and more evidence of bad behavior at full-bore, redlined Internet speed.

On a related point, I was very impressed by the quality of reporting in Edward Champion’s article about the story.  Alone of all the articles I’ve seen (beyond the first couple of LJ posts), his laid out specific examples of repurposed content, and furthermore he had talked to people involved and gotten their perspective and to people at some of the sites and companies whose material had been re-used.  Read the article, if you didn’t already follow one of the links.  It is investigative journalism done far better than any reporter has yet done for any traditional, or even “new media”, news outlet.

I could write about all this for much longer, but I’m going to hold off.  My day wasn’t all just observation and tweets, though.  A few questions kept hovering in the back of my mind.

  • What if the mob had been wrong?

    Imagine with me for a moment that a small crocheting magazine is accused of copyright violation by an author.  The editor, knowing this to be false, sends a dismissive or even sarcastic letter (we’ve all done it).  The author posts their side of the story and excerpts of the letter to their blog, people notice, and suddenly the Flash Mob of Righteousness is back in business.

    What then?  Is it possible, once the rope is out and being tied into a noose, to put it away again?

  • Did Cooks Source actually win?

    As I write this, about 24 hours after the story really blew up, the Cooks Source Facebook page has gone from 110 people who “Like This” to almost 3,400.  Most of those are because in order to comment on the Wall, you have to Like the page, and a whole lot of people hit “Like”, commented, and then hit “Unlike”.  Some of them are still listed because they’re still posting.  Still, assume that by the time it’s all over, between people who want to keep harassing Cooks Source and people who just forgot to hit “Unlike”, they’ll have well over a thousand people listed.  That’s a full order of magnitude jump in claimed like.

    Is that a measure of success?  Will it, in fact, end up a net positive for Cooks Source as it tries to entice advertisers for future issues?  Of course, that assumes the magazine survives the attention of lawyers from Disney, Paula Deen Enterprises, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, the Food Network, Sunset, National Public Radio, and so on and so on.

  • What about Gene Simmons?

    A few weeks back, Gene Simmons (of KISS fame) said that anyone who illegally shares files should be “sued off the face of the earth” and that bands should be litigious about people copying their music.  In response, his web site was cracked and a good deal of derision was directed his way.

    Interesting.  In one case, a content creator who calls for vigorous defense of copyright is attacked for it.  In another, a violator of copyright is attacked.  How many of the people who Wall-bombed Cooks Source’s Facebook page were also cheering the anonymous crackers who harassed Gene Simmons?  Why the disconnect?

    There are many reasons we could cite, and I think the most likely factor is that in both cases, the targets of attack were publicly arrogant and uncompromising about their positions.  That, however, is absolutely no excuse.  If you were outraged by Cooks Source, shouldn’t you cheer Gene Simmons’ stance?  If you rolled your eyes Gene Simmons, shouldn’t you be on the side of Cooks Source?

    I imagine there are people who did one or the other of those things.  But not many.  The contrast says something about how we collectively view intellectual property, and it may not be something we want to face.

This isn’t the first time someone will set off an outrage swarm, and it won’t be the last.  There is much to think about here, about both ourselves and the medium we inhabit.

A Matter of Conscience

So Louisiana Justice of the Peace Keith Bardwell has gained national notoriety for refusing to issue a marriage license to an interracial couple, referring them instead to another justice to have the marriage performed.  His action has, of course, provoked a great deal of condemnation.  Pretty much every elected Louisiana official above Mr. Bardwell (and plenty of them to either side) in the administrative hierarchy has called for his removal from his position.  That goes all the way up to Republican Governor Bobby Jindal, who said:

“This is a clear violation of constitutional rights and federal and state law. Mr. Bardwell’s actions should be fully reviewed by the Judiciary Commission and disciplinary action should be taken immediately – including the revoking of his license.”

As for Mr. Bardwell himself, he has claimed not to be racist, but instead concerned for the biracial children that result from mixed-race marriage.  Of all that he’s said, though, I was particularly interested by the following:

“I didn’t tell this couple they couldn’t get married. I just told them I wouldn’t do it.”

It interested me because it’s exactly the kind of reasoning that underlies “conscience protection” laws that exempt medical professionals who wish to refuse participation in abortion, or dispensation of contraception.

So now I’m very curious to know whether what pro-life groups have to say about what this man has done and how he’s done it.  Or, for that matter, what Governor Jindal himself now thinks of the bill he recently signed into law.

Findings of the A List Apart Survey 2008

At last—at long, long last!—the results of the A List Apart Survey 2008 are available, along with the anonymized raw data we collected.

There are a great many reasons why it took so long to get this out the door.  A big part is that it’s almost entirely a volunteer effort, which means it happens in our “free time” (and there the word “free” has a couple of meanings).  I say it’s almost entirely a volunteer effort because the detailed analysis is actually done by a pair of professional statisticians, who are paid for their time and expertise.  They did a great job once more, and did it in a reasonable time frame.  It just took us a while to get them the data to analyze, and then a while longer to take their report and findings and process them into report form.

The biggest change this year is that we’re publishing the results as HTML+CSS instead of a PDF.  This greatly increased the challenge, because it was important to me that the data be presented using styled tables, not images.  That’s easy like cake if all you’re doing is putting them up as visual tables, and we certainly do that for some of the figures.  In the other cases, where we have bar charts of varying kinds, things got difficult.  I managed to devise solutions that are 99.9% effective, and I’m both proud of and frustrated by those solutions.  Proud, of course, because I managed to wring three-stack bars out of table markup; frustrated because of the markup I had to construct to make them possible.  I think this report represents more than half my lifetime usage of the style attribute, but unfortunately there’s no way (using just CSS) to say {width: content;}.

So why not use JavaScript to do that, or to just replace the tables with canvas-drawn charts?  I did consider both, but decided that I would push as far as I could with plain HTML+CSS. 

A few implementation notes:

  • I used HTML 5 in order to step around some previously unrealized limitations of HTML 4—did you know tfoot has to come before tbody in HTML 4?  I didn’t.  I did not use elements like header and footer due to known problems in Firefox 2 and related browsers, which mangle pages containing those elements.  Instead, I took the same path Jon Tan recommends, and classed divs using those names for later, easier conversion.

  • The tables which underlie the charts do not have summary attributes.  If a group of civic-minded individuals would like to write useful summaries, please let me know in the comments and I’ll let you know how best to submit them.  Similarly, I did my very best to make sure all the table headers had accurate scope values, but if I botched any, let me know.

  • I’m aware that Opera shows horizontal scrollbars on most chapters of the report.  This is due to its refusal to apply overflow to table boxes, which according to my recent reading of the CSS 2.1 specification is the correct thing to (not) do.  Every other browser I tested does apply overflow to table boxes, though, which I found most useful.  I tried applying overflow: hidden to a few other boxes, and that got rid of Opera’s horizontal scrollbars, but it also cut off actual content in some other browsers.  I chose a cosmetic problem in one browser over loss of content in others.  The best fix I’ve devised is to wrap the tables in divs and apply overflow: hidden to those divs, but I didn’t want to rush the fix and botch it, so it didn’t make it in time for first publication.  I expect to get it in shortly after publication.

  • In a like vein, there are a few combo charts where a bar goes shooting off the right side of the chart in IE7.  This appears to be due to some kind of width-doubling problem that’s only invoked on elements with a style attribute when the row header goes to two lines instead of being just one.  Googling for an explanation yielded no joy, and a lengthy series of attempts to hack around the problem came to nothing.  If anyone knows how to counteract that problem other than preventing the header text from going past a single line, I’d love to hear it.  (Update: I’ve implemented the “fix” of preventing line-wrapping in the report, so there aren’t any off-the-page bars right now, but you can see an example of the problem on this test page.)

  • Surprisingly, the charts mostly work in IE6.  The exception is some of the triple-stack charts, where data points overlap when the rightmost sub-bars get too small, and also the double-width bars mentioned in the previous point.  I don’t really have a fix for this short of upgrading the browser, but if somebody finds one, I’d be happy to test it out.

On that last point, if there are questions or suggestions surrounding the implementation of the report, we can certainly discuss them here.  With regard to the survey and report itself, though—that is, the questions asked and the results we’re publishing—please direct those thoughts to the comments section of the ALA article announcing the report.  I’m hoping that we’ll have the 2009 survey up within a few months, so comments on what we asked and how we asked it, what we didn’t ask but should have, and that sort of thing could well have a direct impact on the next survey.  But please put those on the ALA site, where more people are likely to see them.

It’s done, it’s out, it’s yours—both the report and the data, about which I’ll soon write a little bit more.  Read the report, or produce your own report using the data.  Just always know that when we publish these reports, we do not mean for them to be the final word.  No, what we always mean is for them to be the first words, a starting point, a place from which to grow.  What comes next is as much up to you as anyone else, and I can’t wait to see what you do.

Shock and Awe

I almost feel like the Presidential election didn’t happen.

You see, for the entire second half of Election Day, from almost noon until after midnight, Eastern time, I was aboard a Continental flight to Tokyo.  We had video-on-demand systems but not live satellite television, so as we arced over Canada, Alaska, and the northern reaches of the Pacific Ocean, we flew in ignorance.  As Jeremy Keith put it regarding his own flight to Japan, we were aboard Schrödinger‘s Airplane.

For me, the wave collapsed as we began the initial descent toward Narita.  One of the flight attendants, having announced that they were starting the initial-descent procedures and would like us to check around our seats for any personal items we might like to start stowing, added:  “And for those of you interested in the results of the election, we have a new President: Barack Obama.”

There was a burst of applause from the economy section of the plane.  In business class, there was silence.

Well, not quite.  I was myself sitting in business class, thanks to a great big pile of reward miles and some lucky timing in calling the airline.  As I heard her say Obama’s name, I let out an involuntary “Wow“.  Because until that moment, deep down I had believed, truly believed, that Mr. Obama would not win the Presidency.  That was not the outcome I desired, but it was the outcome I expected.

I am in many ways ashamed of my doubts and fears, because I had thought less of my fellow Americans than they deserved.

Since then, from here in Tokyo, I’ve felt weirdly disconnected from what’s happened.  In time zone terms, I’m fourteen hours in my home’s future, half a day ahead of everyone back home.  But because I received word after it was all over and soon after slept through America’s Wednesday daylight hours, I feel like I’m a day behind.  Time and distance combine to create a feeling of disconnectedness from the end result, as though I’m getting word of election results in Germany or India or Australia: interesting, but something seen at a remove.

It’s odd.  I’m used to being an observer, but this is something else entirely.  I think it’s pure astonishment.

People and Places

I don’t know about you, but I find the results of the People magazine cover Ericsperiment (thanks for the term, Bob!) to be quite interesting.  The boiled-down version of the results is: just about everyone saw what I did, but nearly everyone drew the wrong conclusions about what I was saying.  (What?  I’ll explain.)

First, I want to address a couple of objections that were raised.  The first was: “It’s just a family photograph”.  No, it’s not.  It’s a magazine cover shoot.  Those things are planned, directed, and executed down to the tiniest detail.  If you think it’s just a family portrait, you’re either being willfully obdurate or else completely ignoring the context.  That’s a mistake, because context is everything.  I’ve been involved in a few portrait sessions of no public reach whatsoever, and the photographer is always telling people where to stand or sit, adjusting the angle of people’s arms, getting them to fractionally tilt heads one way or the other, shifting people an inch or two, and so on.  “Just a family photo” is when the magazine gets a real family photo, taken by an amateur using a consumer-grade camera during a vacation, and puts it on the cover in a white Polaroid-esque frame at a 15-degree angle.

The second was that the image is a Photoshop job, created either by assembling individual shots or altering a group photo.  Maybe, maybe not; either way, Photoshopping or a lack thereof is completely irrelevant to my point.  If it wasn’t Photoshopped, then the photographer is responsible for the arrangement of the shot; if it was, then it’s the Photoshopper who bears responsibility.  Either way, someone arranged the shot, and did so very badly.

So here’s what I saw: “large group” and “outsider”.  That was the immediate message.  Look at the cover again, paying attention to where the faces are.  There’s a blob of faces above the headline text, which is the group.  Then there’s a face to the left of the headline text, which is the outsider.

This is completely independent of the race, color, gender, creed, etc. of the people in the photo.  The visual message is “here’s a bunch of people, plus a hanger-on”.  Not because of color, which is what most people assumed I was talking about (and more on that in a minute).  Because of placement.

Though I think this unlikely, you may not quite be seeing it.  In that case, imagine a cover image with nine faces in the same places, only they’re of religious deities.  Or pop stars.  Or CEOs.  Or heads of state.  Or conference speakers.  Or browser-team leads; heck, even browser logos.  Whichever it is, imagine your favorite of each group is in the lower-left position, with all the others up above.  Feel good about that?  Even neutral?  Still think there’s no message being conveyed by that placement?

(And if you still aren’t seeing it, maybe a comparative example, courtesy George Butler, will provide some insight.)

Now, given that one of the people has been placed as an outsider, the natural next step is to wonder why they’ve been so placed.  And here, there are obvious visual differences that jump right out:  like being female, having darker skin, and being younger.  Already primed to ask “Why is this person an outsider?” we can find apparent reasons, and in this case they’re touchy ones.  If you know the background story of the family, then there’s a non-visual one as well: that she’s adopted.

But remember, I’m not saying Bridget (the young lady in that position) has been excluded for any of those reasons.  I’m saying that having been given a visual cue that she is excluded, we look for reasons to explain that exclusion.  That’s exactly what most of the people who responded to my post about the cover did.  All those people saw it, consciously or otherwise, and responded to the message… and then took that next step, trying to find reasons to explain the message.  Then, as per each individual’s feelings and experiences, they reacted, either accepting or rejecting what they thought I was saying.  Interesting, though, that so many people came to the same conclusion about what they thought I was saying.  That’s evidence of a strong message, whether or not said message was intended.

And that is the failure that occurred, one which I lay squarely at the doorstep of the magazine.  I might also toss in a head-slap to the campaign, if they saw the image and gave approval to use it—such pre-approval is sometimes, but not always, an option.  The problem with that composition should have been obvious from the outset, and avoided.  That it wasn’t makes me wonder a number of things about the magazine.  Taking a teenaged girl and putting her in the outsider spot?  Seriously?  How callous do you have to be to do that?

Oh, and special postscript to all the people who took the time to share their pitying sorrow over how “you Americans” are so race-aware:  I know it’s a tragedy, but remember, we’re still a young country and have not had the same lengthy maturation time you’ve enjoyed.  So please, try to remain patient with us while segregation, anti-immigrant violence, race riots, tribal warfare, and ethnic cleansing uniquely wrack our poor, blighted country, and continue to hope that one day we’ll join the rest of the world in the tranquil harmony that so characterizes your enlightened societies.


I was in line to buy a few groceries and spotted the latest issue of People magazine in the point-of-sale magazine rack, the one with the McCain family on the cover.  Something about the cover just seemed a little bit… off.  Do you see it, too?

There’s a metaphor there, but I’m having trouble deciding exactly what it is, or perhaps more accurately to whom it applies.

Seriously, I’m not generally one to read messages into things—in fact, I probably lean too far the other direction—but on this?  Somebody needs to be fired for gross negligence, because there’s a message being sent here, intentionally or otherwise.  In fact, it’s worse if it’s unintentional.  The question is who was negligent.  The photographer for not seeing what the placement communicated?  The editor for approving use of the image on their cover?  The McCain campaign for approving the image in the first place?

Maybe all of the above.

I’ll be very interested in people’s responses on this one… and even more in People‘s response, should anyone ask them about it.

Crafting Ourselves

My referrers lit up recently due to Jonathan Snook’s article about CSS resets and how he doesn’t use them.  To Jonathan and all the doubters and nay-sayers out there, I have only one thing to say:

Good for you.

Seriously; no sarcasm or passive-aggressiveness intended.  If I thought my reset styles, or really anything I’ve ever published or advocated, was a be-all end-all ultimate solution for every designer and design that’s ever been and could ever be, I’d be long past due for six rounds on the receiving end of a clue-by-four.

Reset styles clearly work for a lot of people, whether as-is or in a modified form.  As I say on the reset page, those styles aren’t supposed to be left alone by anyone.  They’re a starting point.  If a thousand people took them and created a thousand different personalized style sheets, that would be right on the money.  But there’s also nothing wrong with taking them and writing your own overrides.  If that works for you, then awesome.

For others, reset styles are more of an impediment.  That’s only to be expected; we all work in different ways.  The key here, and the reason I made the approving comment above, is that you evaluate various tools by thinking about how they relate to the ways you do what you do—and then choose what tools to use, and how, and when.  That’s the mark of someone who thinks seriously about their craft and strives to do it better.

I’m not saying that craftsmen/craftswomen are those people who reject the use of common tools, of course.  I’m saying that they use the tools that fit them best and modify (or create) tools to best fit them, applying their skills and knowledge of their craft to make those decisions.  It’s much the same in the world of programming.  You can’t identify a code craftsman by whether or not they use this framework or that language.  You can identify them by how they decide which framework or language to use, or not use, in a given situation.

Craftsmanship is something I’ve been thinking about quite a bit recently, as has Joshua Porter.  I delivered a keynote address on that very topic just a few days ago in Minneapolis, and my thinking infuses both of the talks I’m giving next week at An Event Apart New Orleans.  I’ve started looking harder for evidence of it, both in myself and in what I see online, and I believe striving toward being a craftsman/craftswoman is an important process for anyone who chooses to work in this field.

Because this isn’t a field of straightforward answers and universal solutions.  We are often faced with problems that have multiple solutions, none of them perfect.  To understand what makes each solution imperfect and to know which of them is the best choice in the situation—that’s knowing your craft.  That’s being a craftsman/craftswoman.  It’s a never-ending process that is all the more critical precisely because it is never-ending.

So it’s no surprise that we, as a community, keep building and sharing solutions to problems we encounter.  Discussions about the merits of those solutions in various situations are also no surprise.  Indeed, they’re exactly the opposite: the surest and, to me, most hopeful sign that web design/development continues to mature as a profession, a discipline, and a craft.  It’s evidence that we continue to challenge ourselves and each other to advance our skills, to keep learning better and better how better to do what we love so much.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

November 2015