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Taking Steps

Not too long ago, I got Step Nined on Facebook.

If that didn’t parse as regular English for you, Step Nine is part of the twelve-step program offered by Alcoholics Anonymous. It states, with edits for out-of-context clarity:

“[Make] direct amends to [people you have harmed] wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”

And so someone I knew back in the town where I grew up, a classmate all throughout my pre-college education who I’ll call John, sent me a private message on Facebook apologizing for how he’d treated me, stating that he’d had no reason other than just having been a mean kid, and hoping that things were going well for me and my family.

I’ve pondered this message quite a bit in the interim. The message brought me neither upset nor relief, though I can well imagine that many people in such a situation would feel one or both. I bore no mental or physical scars with his signature upon them. There was no need of closure, or of re-opening, or really of anything, at least from my point of view. He and his actions toward me, positive or negative, are one thin thread in the complex skein that was my childhood, lost in the overall pattern.

In truth, John’s message aroused more pity in me than anything else. I thought as I read it, What must he have endured as a child, that hurting other people seemed normal to him?  And in that thought, I felt an echo from the past, as though the question had come to me before. Perhaps my parents made the observation, as I struggled through growing up, and I was finally able to hear it now. I’m not sure. It doesn’t really matter. If his message is anything to go by, whatever John did has been far more damaging to him than it ever might have been to me.

Still, I keep coming back to John’s message and pondering it further. What I’ve thought about, far more than its contents or the history it references, has been the simple fact of how it happened, and what that means.

Had John wanted to offer amends in, say, the late 1990s, he would have had to actively seek me out. It would have taken the effort of calling my parents to ask for contact information, or other people he thought might have it, and then making that call to me. The social distance would have been a barrier to contact, one whose surmounting signified the importance of the act to him. And then, when he did make that call, he would have talked to me, able to gauge my reaction. There would have been a feedback loop to tell him whether or not his amends were injurious in some way.

And yes, of course, John could have done exactly that today. He could have kept his process entirely off Facebook and gone through those efforts, as an act of personal penance or just as a useful social signifier. Or, perhaps, he could have contacted me on Facebook to ask for my phone number, with a brief statement as to why he was asking for it, and then let my decision to allow the contact or not be a measure of whether it would in fact be injurious.

But he didn’t. Because the internet has disintermediated social effort.

What I wonder about, as I ponder this small signal, is the depth of his remorse. How much does John really mean it, and how much is he going through the motions, trying to get through Step Nine as quickly as possible so that he can reach Step Twelve sooner? Is he working through his personal pain, or is he grinding the leveling process? It’s impossible for me to say. I know it’s a lot easier to send a bunch of “sorry” messages to your contacts than it is to talk to each person you feel you’ve wronged, one on one, one by one, and go through that painful process over and over and over again.

I wonder if that simple ease of contact has robbed him of a critical component of his healing process.

Or, if you want to be more accurate, I wonder if that simple ease of contact lured him into a course of action that was harmful to his healing process.

The things we build are almost always meant to make things faster, more efficient, easier. Perhaps, sometimes, they should be harder.

This genie will not go back into the bottle. The internet isn’t going away and Facebook still has a long way to go before its fall. Even then, something will have replaced it. There’s no reason to think these sorts of connections will become more difficult to make, technologically speaking.

I wonder if they will become more difficult, socially speaking—if an act like that will become frowned upon, as we might frown upon a form letter condolence note. I wonder what sort of protocols and expectations, what social mores, will emerge over time in response to the disruptions our work has caused and will cause, and how they will shape personal interactions at all levels.

I wonder how much effort we should be putting into influencing the evolution of those emergent social constructs, whether through our work or our personal interactions, and how much of that effort would be ultimately fruitless.

I wonder how intentional people are about what they do, online as well as off; and how intentional they should be.

I wonder what I should say to John.

This article was originally published at The Pastry Box Project on 2 March 2015.

The Widening Gulf

So many people who knew Rebecca told us how they had to hold back tears, watching the Super Bowl halftime show.  “I wish Rebecca could have seen it,” they say.  “When Katy Perry sang ‘Firework’, all I could think is how much Rebecca would have loved it.”

Rebecca loved Katy Perry songs, you see.  She loved to sing and dance to “Firework”, so much so that her sister Carolyn made it part of the medley she arranged and performed at Rebecca’s funeral.  And Rebecca loved to sing “Roar”, and pretty much anything from Katy Perry.  Even “Brave”, which is actually sung by Sara Bareilles, but when your terminally ill daughter tells you a song is by Katy Perry, then it’s by Katy Perry.

But all I can think is, I wish I could be so sure.

Because yes, five-year-old-going-on-six Rebecca loved Katy Perry, and Frozen, and hula hoops, and so many more things.  But by now she’d be six-and-two-thirds, and so much can change so fast at that age.  By now, maybe she’d have moved on to Taylor Swift, and Katy Perry would be so last year.  She might be done with Frozen, and instead be into Big Hero Six or The Emperor’s New Groove.

I know that she would be different by now, just as amazing as ever, but different.  Some enthusiasms would have given way to others; her interests would have shifted.  How, we don’t know.  Can never know.

Every day, she becomes a little more distant from us, a little less known.  A gulf slowly widens with the passing of time, and what she would be now becomes ever more uncertain.  We become estranged from our own daughter, not by hurtful words or actions, but by the merciless passage of time, by the choices she never got to make, the changes she never experienced.

I knew that this would come, but for a time I could ignore it.  A month or two after she died, I could still pretend that I knew how she would react, what she would think, how she would behave.  Even though I never knew that with any certainty.  She was never so predictable as that.  Never so static.

Now it’s been too long.

And it hurts, knowing that I can never know the girl she would be now, never know the girl she would have become, never know the woman she would have been.

I miss her, sometimes more than I ever thought possible, so much that I can physically feel the absence.  But sometimes I think what I miss more than the Rebecca I knew is the Rebecca I never got to know.

Friday Figure

Just for fun, and maybe for a little bit of edification, I present to you one of the figures from the chapter on color, backgrounds, and gradients I’ve just finished writing for CSS: The Definitive Guide, 4th Edition.

This figure is (at the moment) captioned “Very, very tall ellipses”; it’s a diagram of what happens if you create a radial gradient with no horizontal sizing.  (Whether you also have vertical sizing is actually irrelevant.)  The ellipses all get so incredibly tall that you only see the sides at their most vertical, which results in the appearance of a mirrored horizontal linear gradient.  This is of course explained in more detail in the chapter, and builds on a whole lot of previous text.

I had a much simpler version of this figure before, and shared it with Sara Soueidan, who had some very smart feedback that helped me get to what you see above.  The figure was finished not too long before i posted it; once it was done, I realized really liked the look, so decided on the spur of the moment to post it.  Thus the late-Friday timestamp on the post.

While the figure is a PNG, it’s actually a screenshot of an HTML+CSS file displayed in a browser—Safari, in this particular case, though most are done in Firefox.  All of the figures in the book will be created using HTML+CSS whenever possible.  Doing so lets me make sure I understand what I’m illustrating, and also allows me to change the look and arrangement of figures without too much difficulty.

So that’s fun with edge cases for this Friday.  If people like it, or more likely I just feel like doing it, I’ll post more in the future.

Run, Salmon, Run

I was recently asked on Twitter about the status of the fourth edition of CSS: The Definitive Guide.  A fair question, given how long the project has lain dormant!  I have two things to announce on that front.

The first is that I’m really excited to say that Estelle Weyl has joined me as co-author for the fourth edition.  We’re working in parallel, tackling individual chapters and doing technical review of each other as we work.  Sharing the load, especially with someone as sharp and knowledgable as Estelle, will help get chapters out faster, and the overall book done sooner.

The second is that writing is once again underway, with four chapters in process.  I’ve got the transforms chapter done, and the backgrounds and gradients (and maybe foreground colors too) chapter almost done.  Estelle is nearing the end of transitions and animations, with flexbox up next.  What comes after that for each of us is a little bit up in the air, though I’ll probably tackle basic visual formatting next.  Unless I get distracted by something more interesting, of course—truth be told, I’ve been eyeing grid layout with some covetousness in my heart.

So, the book is once again underway, and actually has been for a little while now.  I can’t say with certainty when we’ll be done and ready to compile everything into the Doorstop Edition, but we’re pushing for this year or early next.

As an offshoot of this renewed push, I’ve been expanding and revising my CSS test files so that I can check my understanding of the specification, as well as test the fine details of browser support.  Over the holidays I decided, more or less on a whim, to commit the whole kit ‘n’ kaboodle to Github.  There’s no license and no readme, mostly because I didn’t think to establish either when I set up the repository.  Sorry, I guess?  In any case, I regard the CSS in the tests to be public domain, but the actual content (whether inline or replaced) of the HTML files may or may not be, so a single license would have been hard to assert anyway.  I mostly put the files up there as a form of open backup, and also to smooth out the process of managing updates to the tests between my local machine and meyerweb.  Feel free to make use of the tests for your personal education, though!

Writing for The Pastry Box

I’m beyond pleased to note that my second piece for The Pastry Box, “Words, Words”, was published last week.  The first, “Sunrise, Sunset”, was published a month before that.  (It’s not about what you might think—and yet, and the same time, it is.)

For those who aren’t familiar with The Pastry Box, it describes itself thusly:

Each year, The Pastry Box Project gathers 30 people who are each influential in their field and asks them to share thoughts regarding what they do. Those thoughts are then published every day throughout the year at a rate of one per day, starting January 1st and ending December 31st.

It’s become much more than that, in my eyes.  In a lot of ways, The Pastry Box has become a place where writers feel free to stretch themselves and their writing, and to look at themselves and what they do in new lights.  It’s an incredibly valuable resource.  There are thoughts in their archives that touched, moved, and changed me.

I was invited late last year to be a contributor to The Pastry Box in 2015, and of course I said yes.  I accepted the invitation for a couple of reasons.  The foremost reason is, of course, the honor of being a Pastry Box contributor.  Over the past few years, they’ve had some of the greatest minds and writers of our field participate.  That’s even more true of this year’s roster, and I am completely humbled to join them.  The fact that this is the last year of The Pastry Box wasn’t actually a factor, as I’d have said yes in any year.

The second reason is that I’m very interested to see how I write in an environment where there are no comments.  No doubt this marks me for an anachronism, but it has literally been decades since I wrote for an online outlet that didn’t support reader comments.  That ever-present feedback channel is something I value, which is why I still support comments here, but I’m sure it’s affected how I write.  Not negatively, or even necessarily positively—it just affects the writing, or so I believe.  Over the course of 2015, I hope to find out if I’m right about that.

If you’d like to follow along, please follow The Pastry Box via RSS or Twitter (or both, as I do).  Not just for my few thoughts, of course, but for all the amazing contributors this year.  Already there have been insightful, funny, and deeply personal stories, and a new thought comes fresh-baked every day.  That’s why I’ve followed them in year past, and why I am still amazed and honored to be a part of their final year.

Gradient List Bullets

CSS gradients are kind of fun.  I know, they’re a little clumsy at first, but I’ve found that with just a little practice, you can hand-author them without more than a brief refresher course on exactly how to structure the first part.  At least for me, as long as I can get the setup right, the color stops are a breeze.

As I’ve said in previous posts, gradients are images, just like a PNG or SVG or whatever.  That’s why you can write them directly into background properties and have them display.  The thing is, though, that you can use them anywhere a property accepts an image value.  Like, say, list-item-image and list-item.

Yes, that’s right: you can define gradient list bullets.  A test page I set up last week (and the screenshot shown nearby) demonstrates a few different possibilities, but there are so many more.

There are two major limitations I can see: one, you can’t layer multiple gradients together, the way you can with backgrounds.  You get one gradient image, and that’s it.  Two, this isn’t supported in Firefox, not even the nightly builds.  Every other desktop browser appears to support this, usually at least a couple of versions back, and a fair number of mobile browsers as well.  A bug has been filed by Boris—thanks, Boris!—so hopefully this limitation will fall away soon.

Fortunately, this is a textbook case of progressive enhancement.  You set the basic bullet style, then define something snazzier for browsers that can handle it (which is, again, most of them).  If your design somehow critically depends on the appearance of the list bullets, then you’ll need to use another approach.  Also, rethink your design.

A third limitation, one not nearly so momentous, is that the list bullets are kind of small as compared to the list items’ font size in most browsers, but a bit bigger in others (as Ana Tudor pointed out; thanks, Ana!).  So if you’re going to express yourself with list bullets, be bold and not too complex, and realize there will be some sizing differences across browsers.

A fourth limitation is performance.  If you make your gradients too complex, especially if they’re radial gradients, you may degrade the user experience, particularly on mobile.  As always, use your new-found power responsibly.  Thank you.

Words, Words

R: “What are you playing at?”

G: “Words, words.  They’re all we have to go on.”

—Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz & Guildernstern Are Dead

My recent-inbox counter incremented by one, and I was between tasks, so I went to take a look.  It was a notification from Facebook:

Jesse Gardner commented on a link you shared.

"*gets some popcorn*"

Thanks,
The Facebook Team

I couldn’t figure out what would have provoked that sort of comment, so I went to look at the link I’d shared and came away even more confused.  What about the link was popcorn-worthy?  It wasn’t even a case of being an inappropriate response: it was so out of left field, it seemed literally disconnected from the post.  I seriously wondered whether it was a reply meant for some other post, accidentally dropped onto mine by some combination of multiple browser tabs and mental distraction.

So I asked, and it turned out Jesse was actually replying to an earlier comment on that link.  Once he clarified, his comment made perfect sense, and it was in fact quite funny.  What had seemed like a complete non sequitur was revealed to fit seamlessly into the conversation.

Words have such power, but none of it their own.  The words “commented on a link you shared” are so neutral, they make the Swiss look hyperpartisan, and yet they were sufficient to fit into my mental state in such a way that I was led completely astray.  I was so taken in by the idea that Jesse was commenting on the link, I never stopped to ask if he was participating in a conversation.

It wasn’t the words that led me astray, but my interpretation of them.  I led me astray.  Everything I brought to that moment of reading, all my experiences and biases, took the incredibly banal concepts encoded in those arbitrary marks and came to a conclusion that had nothing to do with Jesse’s original intent.  An entire flowering construct of incorrect, misleading assumptions grew out of that simple moment of unconscious interpretation.

No matter how hard we work to be clear, no matter how many words we spend on precision, no matter how carefully we choose our words, what people find in our words is more a product of their views than our efforts.

This is the dilemma of communication: we cannot control how people hear us, and yet cannot declaim all responsibility for what they hear.  If we express ourselves badly, or in a way that is misinterpreted by many, that is on us.

This is the dilemma of communication: we cannot control how people speak to us, and yet cannot declaim all responsibility for what we hear.  If we misinterpret another’s intent, or listen in bad faith, that is on us.

Words have such power, but none of it their own.  We invest them with all the power they have, each in our own way.  We rarely think about it, rarely make conscious decisions about what power we invest in which words.  I think we think far less about what we hear than what we say, and still less about why we hear what we hear.

Nothing about communication can be entirely one-sided.  We bring ourselves to the words that pass between us, every node in the network running on a unique protocol, striving for clarity in a landscape that seems built for confusion.

This is dilemma of communication: words.  Words.

This article was originally published at The Pastry Box Project on 2 February 2015.

Media Queries

Thanks to a combination of my slow process of re-integrating into the web community and the Year in Review explosion at the end of 2014, I actually have some media appearances to tell you about.  (This is at least four times as weird for me as it is for you.)

Since I love the written word, I’ll start with the fact that I’ve been published at Slate Magazine.  As the whole Year in Review thing was going crazy viral, an editor at Slate emailed to ask if I’d consider republishing “Inadvertent Algorithmic Cruelty” with them.  I said I’d love to as long as I could revise the piece a bit, to which they readily agreed.  So I reworked the opening to be extra-clear about what had actually happened, gave it a closing that was better attuned to a wider audience than the few hundred web designers I assumed would read the original post, and they ran it.  (The headline was, I have to say, not my idea, but that’s how it goes in most magazines: editors write headlines.  I was at least able to suggest some tweaks.)

Shortly after that piece went live, I was asked to be part of a piece on Huffington Post Live about Year in Review (of course).  I was still in Tennessee when the segment aired, and our hotel’s wifi wasn’t up to the task of streaming video, but thankfully they were willing to have me on by phone.

I saved what I consider to be the best for last.  Jen Simmons just recently had me as a guest on The Web Ahead, where we talked for two hours about what my family has been through in the past two years, designing for crisis, Year in Review, what it’s like to have a story go viral on you, being intentional in the age of social media, new details about my AEA talk “Designing for Crisis”, the Metafilter dot, and a whole lot more.  Parts of it are emotionally difficult, but not too many.  We got pretty deep into what I’m thinking about design and where it should go, and in a few cases Jen posed questions that I couldn’t really answer, because they’re at or beyond the edge of what I’ve figured out so far.

Jen is such a great interviewer.  Not only did she ask great questions and then patiently let me ramble my way to answers, she brought really smart perspectives to everything we were talking about.  Listening to her observations and thoughts gave me several new insights into designing for crisis, and more.  You should listen to the episode, or to any of the shows in her archives, just to hear a master of the craft at work.

So, yeah.  This has all been very interesting for me.  At some point, I’ll probably write something about what it’s like to watch a story about you go viral, but for now, I’m enjoying the return to anonymity.  It’s left me time to think more about empathetic design, and to catch up with work and other people’s thoughts.  That’s the best part of this whole web thing: learning from others.  It’s why I got started with the web in the first place.  It’s why I’m still here.

February 2016
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