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Set Preferences

In his inaugural “Dork Talk” column for The Guardian, Stephen Fry talked about something I’ve been mulling over for the last little while:

Very little is as mutually exclusive as we seem to find it convenient to imagine. In our culture we are becoming more and more fixated with an “it’s one thing or the other” mentality. You like Thai food? But what’s wrong with Italian? Woah, there… calm down. I like both. Yes. It can be done.

It’s always tempting to make jokes about how computer folks are binary thinkers (har de har har), but the sad joke is that most people think that way, computers notwithstanding.  I don’t think we can blame the digital age for “you’re either with me or against me” thought patterns.  And those who don’t generally think that way, whether naturally or with effort, get treated with some degree of suspicion.

This is something I run into professionally, not incredibly often but still enough to notice, and it’s frustrating when I do.  The only slightly exaggerated version is:

“Hey, do you use Dreamweaver?”


“Why?  What do you have against Dreamweaver?”

If that seems outré, replace “use Dreamweaver” with something else, like “run Linux” or “watch Fox News” or “drive a Chevrolet”.

I wish I could write in 500-foot flaming letters across the skies of every country of the world in localized translations: An expression of preference does not equate criticism of differing preferences.  It’s really that simple.  My lack of using or doing or watching or liking X does not mean I think people who use or do or watch or like X are subhuman air-wasters, let alone that I claim such a position.

If more people really understood that statement and used it as a principle of daily interaction, I think we’d all be a lot less tense.

Director’s Commentary

In this latest resurgence of the “are blog comments distilled joy or pure evil?” conversation, I got tagged by Alastair Campbell as someone whose site has good comments.  This would be a great time for an abashedly mumbled “aw, shucks, it ’tweren’t nuthin'”, except saying so would be a complete lie.

Want to know how I get good comments?  I work for them.  Part of that is striving to write good posts that will get good comments.  Another part is leading by example.  And a third part is a willingness to filter the comments I get, and saying as much up front.

The first part is in many ways the hardest, because what I think is a good post may be judged otherwise by my readers.  I could spend days and days and days on a post that merits a collective “meh”.  From that, I learn.  If this were solely a “me shouting whatever comes to mind” site, then I wouldn’t care so much, but this is a conversation site.  The goal here is not for me to pronounce my views from on high and thus change the world.  The goal here is to share information, with the sharing going in both directions, and thus change ourselves.

The second part is a lot easier for me, but seems to be harder for some.  It’s very, very rare that I will post confrontationally or abusively.  The few times I’ve done so, I’ve gotten some strong pushback, and no wonder.  The vast majority of the time, the posts conform to the site’s overall Airbag Blog Advisory System warning level of Guarded (“Someone might disagree with you, but only after apologizing for it first”).  Unsurprisingly, the non-spam comments that come in are respectful, helpful, and civil about 99% of the time.  Whether the tone of the site only draws people who are naturally that way or it shepherds all kinds of people in that direction is unknown, and to me wholly irrelevant.

It’s also the case that when the comments and the post match in tone, it’s much more likely that subsequent comments will keep to the same tone; that is, that the commenters help me in setting the tone for the site.  And I always, always appreciate that they do so.  (So thank you!)

The third part can be taken one of three ways.  You can say that I’m like a curator who lovingly tends a growing collection of thoughts and contributions, only excising those that would damage the overall whole; or that I’m a tiny fascist who only lets through comments that meet my personal standards of acceptability.  The thing is, both are true (which is the third way you can take it).

Y’see, this here blog is to me an extension of my home.  In my house, some things are acceptable and others are not.  Nobody is allowed to smoke in my house, for example.  In terms of speech, I’m pretty tolerant of what others have to say, but there are lines and I will enforce them.  Have enforced them, in fact, usually gently—although I once very nearly ejected an out-of-town friend who was staying with us from my house for something that was said.  And no, I won’t tell you who or why.

So as I say, you can take that as abrogation of my visitors’ freedom of speech and an exercise of my right to make my home the kind of place I want it to be.  It really is both.  I don’t see that as a problem.

I treat css-discuss the same way, actually.  It is, and always has been, a benevolent dictatorship, with policies that are enforced.  When people go off-topic, the moderators say so and end the threads.  When people get abusive, they’re warned to stop it, and can and will be ejected from the list.  In fact, I’ve done so twice in the list’s five-year history.  The moderators and I work actively to shape the list, and it has paid off.  The community now mostly polices itself, and the need for moderator intervention is becoming more rare.  Over time, it’s become a very helpful community with a very high signal-to-noise ratio.  Others have observed that it’s spawned one of the few truly useful group-run wikis in the world.  None of that just magically happened.  It required years of effort by me, and then by the moderation team.

(And before someone says that a small mailing list is different than a globally available blog, remember that css-d has over 8,300 subscribers from all over the world.)

The other person who got mentioned in Alastair’s post as having a good-comment home was Roger Johansson, who recently contributed his own thoughts on the topic.  In that post, he hits a lot of the pros and cons of allowing comments: the feedback, the spam, the community, the abuse.  One of the most subtle effects of comments is that it does make you think harder about what you post:

I realized that as I was writing I had started to subconsciously think about what kind of comments a post would trigger. I found it harder and harder to write freely, and to express myself the way I really want to.

It’s the same for me.  The few times I’ve posted things I knew were going to contentious, it was after a lot of thought and consideration.  In fact, almost everything I post goes through some degree of pre-approval based on what kinds of comments I think it will trigger.

Where I would seem to part ways with Roger is that I don’t think that’s a bad thing.  One of the things those opposed to blog comments cite is John Gabriel’s Greater Internet F—wad Theory (warning: contains strong language)—as if it only applied to commenters.  The basic anonymity of the Internet isn’t a case of not knowing names: it springs from the very, very low chance that we’ll ever meet in person.  It applies just as much to those who write blog posts as those who comment on said posts.

Still, that sounds like I’m allowing the community to impose some constraints on me.  Actually, it doesn’t sound like that: it is that.  But I choose to do that, and frankly, I don’t think anything is lost in the bargain.  Quite the contrary.  I think more than a little is gained.

So weirdly enough, I find myself in disagreement with Joel Spolsky when he says:

The important thing to notice here is that Dave [Winer] does not see blog comments as productive to the free exchange of ideas. They are a part of the problem, not the solution. You don’t have a right to post your thoughts at the bottom of someone else’s thoughts. That’s not freedom of expression, that’s an infringement on their freedom of expression.

It’s the last sentence where I disagree, not the rest of it, which is provided for context.  That last sentence is like saying that when I have an in-person conversation, anything the other person says is an infringement on my freedom of speech.  In fact, it’s like saying that my response to his post infringes on his freedom of speech.  Which is just silly.

Neither is my pre-filtering of posts an infringement of my speech.  I am not forced to allow comments, nor to pre-judge my posts based on the expected reaction.  It is something I voluntarily accept as part of having an extended conversation.  If I felt that was becoming too much of a burden, I’d turn off comments.

I don’t have comments here out of obligation to some imagined right.  I have them because they’re invitation to contribute, to enrich, to converse.  Just look at what happened with the reset styles: over the course of a few posts, my original work was built upon and improved.  The same thing happened in the early days of S5.  Without comments, neither of those efforts would have gone as far nor been as well-developed as they eventually were.  No, not even with e-mail, which is one-to-one and so doesn’t allow for the commenters to converse with each other.

Of course, not everyone wants to have a conversation right on their site, which is fine as well.  I don’t think Daring Fireball is lessened for its not having comments.  But part of the reason I think that is that John, being a strongly opinionated sort, would probably get the same kinds of comments in return; the bread you cast upon the waters will be returned to you tenfold.  And the fact that much of his posting is about Mac and Windows wouldn’t help much, either.  Nothing invites comment incoherency faster than having a blog about a contentious issue.  (See also: political blogs.)

As well, there’s nothing that says one must have comments always on, or always off.  It’s generally the case that I don’t open comments on the most personal of my posts, particularly those about Carolyn.  In those cases, I close comments because I’m writing them for me and to share those moments with the world, and don’t want positive or negative feedback.  They’re not meant to be conversations, in my view.  They’re snapshots.

(I’ll admit that I may be influenced by the fact that it was a Carolyn-related post that earned me one of the most vitriolic personal attacks that I’ve allowed to stand.)

It is absolutely the case that having good comments is hard work.  It requires leading by example and a willingness to curate/censor the comments that do come in.  And I absolutely think that anyone unwilling or unable to do that work should disable comments.  Because when a site’s comments devolve into “Useless noise[;] Thoughtless drivel written by some anonymous non-entity“, that’s as much the responsibility of the site’s author as of the commenters themselves.

Thus, for meyerweb, I hold to the inverse of Jeremy’s corollary of Sturgeon’s law: here, comments should be enabled 90% of the time.  I would not think to apply either rule to the world at large, of course.  For many sites, comments probably should be off by default.  But not for mine.

Torna A Surriento

Ma nun me lassà, Nun darme stu turmiento!

Luciano Pavarotti died last night of pancreatic cancer at the age of 71.

Among my “classical” recordings, the original Three Tenors concert holds a special place, one that has survived nearly every iPod reorganization I’ve undergone.  What I find most fascinating about that recording is the marked contrast between the three stars, and just how much Pavarotti stands out.  I’ve thought about the reasons why that is, and I think it comes down to his restraint in the use of vibrato.  Whenever I hear a singer whose long notes are more warble than tone, I wince.  I recognize the physical skill that goes into producing the sound, but the result is actually uncomfortable to me.  This is why there’s hardly a soprano I can stand; they all seem to exist solely to find long notes to strangle.

Pavarotti, in contrast, used vibrato as a shading on his notes.  At their core, they were long and pure and steady.  Yes, at times he went for all-out vibrato, but it always seemed to make sense when he did.  He wasn’t warbling to show that he could do it; he did it when and how it was right.  That, coupled with the sheer power of his voice, creates an emotional punch that I’m powerless to comprehend but joyful to behold.

I listened to some Pavarotti this morning, and though his heartbreaking renditions of “Nessun Dorma” and “Torna A Surriento” have always misted me up a little, this time there was an extra tightness in my throat.

Part of me hopes that nobody is asked to sing at his memorial services; or, if anyone is, that they turn down the invitation.  Nobody could do the job as well as he would have.

E noi dovrem, ahimè, morir, morir!

Contrived Conflicts

CSS Sculptor got a very nice write-up from King Z over at The Daily Report, for which I thank him profusely.  I think he’s pegged the tool pretty well in terms of its intent and target audience(s).

What mystified me was the turn the comments took: suddenly they went from giggling over the splashimation and exhortations to port Sculptor to other environments (Coda got several mentions) to an multi-party argument over which was better, Sculptor or Project VII‘s CSS Layout Magic.

Um, why?

As Al Sparber, creator of Magic, stated quite accurately, “They are two very different tools conceived in very different ways”—nothing to add to that, really.  But even if we were to imagine a world where they were very similar tools that operated in very similar ways, I still don’t see why it would have to be a “battle” situation.  It’s not like our world is so small that there’s only room for one of any given thing.

I mean, take a step back and look at the wider development landscape.  There are a whole bunch of web development environments out there (Dreamweaver, Expression, Coda, Firefox with extensions, etc.).  All of them serve the community, each in its own way.  Each is used by a community of people, many of whom gather to help each other improve their skills.  Why try to create conflict between those communities?  What useful purpose could that possibly serve?  We’d be as well served to start a Mac vs. Windows vs. Linux debate.  Which is to say, not at all.

And so it is with the artificial conflict that so mystifies me, that of Sculptor vs. Magic.  Project VII has very loyal customers, and rightly so: they put out great stuff.  I hope that we’ll also have loyal customers, because that will mean we also created something great.  (Obviously, I already think we did, but then I would, wouldn’t I?)  It seems kind of obvious to me that these two communities have way more in common than they do differences.  My usual reaction on encountering someone who’s a huge fan of a web site or a piece of software is to smile and nod knowingly, like we’re part of a secret club or something.  Because in a sense, we are.  We get fired up by the same kinds of things.  We’re our kind of people.

I admit this is veering dangerously close to plaintive “can’t we all just get along?” territory, but c’mon, folks.  There’s already more than enough tension and conflict in the world.  Let’s try not to add to it, yeah?  Now everybody throw the hörns!  Seriously, throw ’em, and put in a little “ROCK!” just for me.  You’ll be amazed at how much better you feel.

Individuals and Communities

I was quickly skimming through David Brin’s rantblog (because frankly I don’t have the six hours it would take to read through all his very lengthy posts) when I came across a quote that resonated so strongly, I had to reproduce it here.

The community stagnates without the impulse of the individual.  The impulse dies away without the sympathy of the community.

— William James

This almost perfectly captures how I’ve tried to shape css-discuss and other communities in which, over the years, I’ve been deeply involved or had a hand in founding.  It is a very good starting point to understanding my views of society, politics, and more.  I’m literally considering putting up a framed copy on my wall, right next to my print of “Jump Station“.

But that’s me.  What do you think is the best relationship between individual and community?  How should they balance, or not?  What’s the best way to inspire and maximize both?

Thanks Be To Jobs

The big day is finally here.  It’s a day for which so many of us have impatiently waited for so long, almost writhing in anguish as we were denied all but the smallest glimpses of the object of our desires.  It is a day that will demonstrate as never before the possibilities inherent when the relentless march of technological progress is matched with a singular vision and a dedicated team of world-class technoartists.  It is the day that is, in many ways, the culmination of all the magic and wonder that Steve Jobs has brought to the world over the past two decades.

That’s right: Ratatouille opens today.

Oh yeah, and there’s some new cell phone coming out.


Nick Finck just pointed me at his latest Flickr contribution—a screenshot of a site that ripped off the design of Digital Web.  I immediately tagged it “piratedsites” in honor of the late, great, figuring that doing so had to be a widespread practice.  In fact, no: only one other Flickr image had that tag, and it was a Zeldman original, and it was not a screenshot.

So I hereby propose that anyone who posts a site design ripoff shot on Flickr or a blog tag it “piratedsites”.  The original site may be gone, but the idea can absolutely be reborn using the social tools we already have.  Technorati, for example, would start pulling together screenshots and blog posts using that tag—and there you go.  Or someone could use the Flickr and Technorati APIs to create their own site dedicated to just this sort of thing.  Heck, it might even be a way to get the actual back on the air in its original form!

Out the scurvy dogs!  Arrrr!

Diverse Links

  • mezzoblue: Homogeneity?

    There’s really nothing in the post I don’t want to quote, but this bit in particular jumped out at me:

    …as a conference organizer, you tend to be conservative. You need to ensure a speaker list that will fill seats. This isn’t “we want to maximize profit” filling of seats either, this is “holy crap we just signed a contract that would put us out multiple tens of thousands of dollars if we don’t hit certain numbers”. When you book larger venues, you make commitments and really put yourself on the line financially. Those who haven’t run conferences simply can’t understand what a nerve-wracking experience this is.

  • Brian Oberkirch: Identity Is a Mashup

    This is an ongoing debate (as it has to be) though the argumentation tends toward the self-righteous, self-evident mode: look at all these white boys on the roster. What are they thinking? I think we can do better. I think we have to do better.

    On that post, a comment by Derek Powazek

    One of the reasons I got very excited about the internet when I discovered it in the 90s was because, finally, here was a place where race, gender, and religion truly did not matter. Where you could succeed or fail on the strength of your ideas alone – not what color you were or what junk was in your pants.

    I still believe this to be true.

  • Hamm on Wry: Post Gender Preferences

    I don’t see how being male, female, white, black, brown, purple, queer, asexual, cancerous, capricorn or a carrot would matter if you happen to also be a professional in the web-standards-meets-development world. I would, honestly, attend a speech given by a carrot if that carrot was recognized as a leader in the field. That’s what professional speeches are all about.

  • Jason Friesen {dot} ca: Diversity Wars

    To me, this is the key to being race- and gender-neutral — actually not caring about a person’s race or gender, but simply whether they can contribute what is needed in a given situation.

  • Adactio: The diversity division

    I firmly believe that conferences shouldn’t simply be mirrors for the Web business, reflecting whatever is current and accepted. A good conference can act as a force on the industry. Conference organisers have a great opportunity here and I think it’s a shame to see it wasted.

  • Digital Web Magazine: Beyond the A-List, Diversity in the Web Community

    I am going to go out on a limb here and use smart mob mentality here. If you know of a web professional who is talented, has done some remarkable things, and should be speaking at some web design conferences by all means let us know…

  • Meri Williams: Conference Diversity .. the Permathread Returns

    You never know, we might just change the world.

December 2015