meyerweb.com

Skip to: site navigation/presentation
Skip to: Thoughts From Eric

Rebecca’s Gift

Yesterday was the eleven-month anniversary of Rebecca’s death.  I’ve been trying not to focus on those monthly anniversaries, but this one stuck out for me.  Because in a month—thirty days, as I write this—it will be both the first anniversary of her death, and the day she would have turned seven.

I haven’t really written directly about the grieving process since late March, because it’s been in a stable pattern and nothing has really changed.  Kat and I still grapple on occasion with the question of whether this is a nightmare or a post-dream.  Are we having a nightmare that our daughter died, and we’ll finally wake up; or did we dream that we had a middle daughter, and have since woken up?  Of course neither is true.  She came to us, and grew, and died.  It’s just so hard to come to peace or acceptance or even just comprehension that the mind hunts for an escape hatch, some way of making some part of it not true.

Don’t take this as intimation that we spend every waking second in agony, paralyzed by grief and shock.  Those periods of irreality and escape-seeking are just that: periods of time.  Not all the time.  Most of each day, I function normally, and honestly don’t think about what happened.  There’s work to do, projects to start or complete, errands to run, books to read, kids to raise.  These things all take precedence in their own ways, and Kat and I are both committed to being as present as possible in our lives.  We don’t deny what happened, but we don’t fetishize it, either.  Life cannot stop because a life stopped.  It’s not how either of us could live, even for ourselves, and we have more than ourselves to consider.

Some days are more difficult than others, of course, but for whom is that not true?  We all get through life one day at a time.

One of the things that has really helped us as a family, and Kat and me as parents, has been to go on family vacations.  Some went better than others. A short trip we took to Amish Country in late July of 2014 was probably too soon.  Our annual August trip to New Jersey, coming as it did on the first anniversary of Rebecca falling ill, was both helpful and difficult; and maybe the difficulty was part of what made it helpful.  The trip we took to Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge just after Christmas was just about right, in terms of timing, and was definitely a huge boost to us emotionally.

These escapes from the normal routine of home and calendar, where we could just concentrate on being together and doing things together and not having any particular demands on us, were incredibly helpful to the healing process.  Friends told us after our trips that we seemed more relaxed, less haunted.  The time we spent together helped us figure out how to be a new family, without all the distractions and chores of everyday life.

The other thing that Kat and I in particular appreciated about our trips is how we could make Carolyn and Joshua the center of the experience.  When Rebecca was being treated, and then when she was dying, we did what we could to make Carolyn and Joshua feel not marginalized, but there was no way to avoid it.  Mommy and Daddy went on a two-month trip to Philadelphia with Rebecca, not them.  We went with her to the hospital, not them.  We worried about her temperature and bruising level and energy, not theirs.  People made banners and posters and cards and healing stars for Rebecca, not them.  Friends and family came to see us because of Rebecca’s cancer, not because of them.  Make-A-Wish granted Rebecca’s wish, not theirs.  People came to pay respects to the memory of Rebecca’s life, not the ongoing reality of their lives.

How could they not feel marginalized?

Kat and I worried about this all the way through, guided to some degree by the insights I had from my own childhood, and tried to counter it as best we could.  Kat went on theater dates with Carolyn, and lunch dates with Joshua.  I played games they liked, and took them to parties.  Regardless, they knew what weighed most on our minds, and we never tried to deceive them or tell them they were wrong.

But those trips, after Rebecca was dead, could be all about them.  They were central again.  We went to the Jersey shore, and did old favorite activities as well as tried new things.  We went to Disney and granted their wishes as best we could, getting them to special character events and letting them stay up to watch the fireworks.  We took them to the museums and shops and ski slopes in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, picking the things they wanted to try out.  We made them feel special again.

You can’t imagine how great a gift that is, both for them and for us, unless you’ve been through this yourself.

That’s a gift that Kat and our good friend Karla want to give to families who are going through this.

That’s why, a week ago today, they launched Rebecca’s Gift, a 501(c)(3) non-profit dedicated to providing healing family vacations after the death of a child.  Rebecca’s Gift is accepting donations in support of that mission, and has its first fundraiser scheduled for this November.

Their goal is to raise enough money to send two or three families on healing trips in the summer of 2016; that is, summer of next year.  At first, the scope of Rebecca’s Gift will be narrow by necessity: eligible families will be those who had a child die of cancer between six and 24 months before the trip is taken, and who have surviving children age 18 or younger.  Rebecca’s Gift will work with partner organizations to identify families who need this support.  They don’t plan to take on anything more ambitious than that to start, in order to make sure those first trips are everything they can be.

As for the future, we’ll see.  The hope is that this will one day be open to more than a few families per year, open to families whose child died from something other than cancer, and perhaps open to parents who have no other children.  If Rebecca’s Gift grows strong enough to do those things, then I feel confident they will.  Those are all questions for the future.  For now, they’re focused on making sure they can help families who need the same time away to reconnect, rebuild, and relax.  Even if it’s just for a few days.

If you can help, I know your support will be welcome.

Warning Hashflags

Over the weekend, I published “Time and Emotion” on The Pastry Box, in which I pondered the way we’re creating the data that the data-miners of the future will use to (literally) thoughtlessly construct emotional minefields—if we don’t work to turn away from that outcome.

The way I introduced the topic was by noting the calendar coincidence of the Star Wars-themed tradition of “May the Fourth be with you” and the anniversary of the Kent State shootings in 1970, and how I observe the latter while most of the internet celebrates the former: by tweeting some song lyrics with a relevant hashtag, #maythe4th.  I did as I said I would…and Twitter blindly added a layer of commentary with a very simple little content filter.  On twitter.com and in the official Twitter app, a little Stormtrooper helmet was inserted after the hashtag #maythe4th.

So let’s review: I tweeted in remembrance of a group of National Guardsmen firing into a crowd of college students, wounding nine and killing four.  After the date hashtag, there appeared a Stormtrooper icon.  To someone who came into it cold, that could easily read as a particularly tasteless joke-slash-attack, equating the Guardsmen with a Nazi paramilitary group by way of Star Wars reference.  While some might agree with that characterization, it was not my intent.  The meaning of what I wrote was altered by an unthinking algorithm.  It imposed on me a rhetorical position that I do not hold.

In a like vein, Thijs Reijgersberg pointed out that May 4th is Remembrance of the Dead Day in the Netherlands, an occasion to honor those who died in conflict since the outbreak of World War II.  He did so on Twitter, using the same hashtag I had, and again got a Stormtrooper helmet inserted into his tweet.  A Stormtrooper as part of a tweet about the Dutch remembrance of their war dead from World War II on.  That’s…troublesome.

Michael Wiik, following on our observations, took it all one step further by tweeting a number of historical events collected from Wikipedia.  I know several of my British chums would heartily agree with the 1979 tweet’s added layer of commentary, but there are others who might well feel enraged and disgusted.  That could include someone who tweets about the election in celebration, the way people sometimes do about their heroes.

But what about appending a Stormtrooper helment to an observance of the liberation of the Neuengamme concentration camp in 1945?  For that matter, suppose someone tweets May-4th birthday congratulations to a Holocaust survivor, or the child of a Holocaust survivor?  The descendant of a Holocaust victim?

You might think that this is all a bit much, because all you have to do is avoid using the hashtag, or Twitter altogether.  Those are solutions, but they’re not very useful solutions.  They require humans to alter their behavior to accommodate code, rather than expecting code to accommodate humans; and furthermore, they require that humans have foreknowledge.  I didn’t know the hashtag would get an emoji before I did it.  And, because it only shows up in some methods of accessing Twitter, there’s every chance I wouldn’t have known it was there, had I not used twitter.com to post.  Can you imagine if someone sent a tweet out, found themselves attacked for tweeting in poor taste, and couldn’t even see what was upsetting people?

And, as it happens, even #may4th wasn’t safe from being hashflagged, as Twitter calls it, though that was different: it got a yellow droid’s top dome (I assume BB-8) rather than a Stormtrooper helmet.  The droid doesn’t have nearly the same historical baggage (yet), but it still risks making a user look like they’re being mocking or silly in a situation where the opposite was intended.  If they tagged a remembrance of the 2007 destruction of Greensburg, Kansas with #may4th, for example.

For me, it was a deeply surreal way to make the one of the points I’d been talking about in my Pastry Box article.  We’re designing processes that alter people’s intended meaning by altering content and thus adding unwanted context, code that throws pieces of data together without awareness of meaning and intent, code that will synthesize emotional environments effectively at random.  Emergent patterns are happening entirely outside our control, and we’re not even thinking about the ways we thoughtlessly cede that control.  We’re like toddlers throwing tinted drinking glasses on the floor to see the pretty sparkles, not thinking about how the resulting beauty might slice someone’s foot open.

We don’t need to stop writing code.  We do need to start thinking.

Time and Emotion

This coming Monday, as has become tradition, a significant fraction of the Twitter user base will send out Star-Wars-themed tweets tagged #maythe4th or #maythefourthbewithyou, because saying the day in that way makes for a handy bit of wordplay.  There will be cosplay pictures, Yoda-esque inversions of sentence structure, and probably (this year) a fair bit of squeeing about the upcoming sequel and its brilliantly fan-service trailer.

Also this coming Monday, as has become tradition for me, I will send out a tweet containing the opening lines of “Ohio” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, tagged #maythe4th, because it was on May 4th, 1970 that National Guardsmen fired a volley into a crowd of Kent State college students, wounding nine and killing four.

Anniversaries are potent psychological markers.  We reflect on historical events, both global and personal, that have particular meaning to us.  We celebrate the days of our birth, of first meeting our loved ones, of all manner of wonderful life-changing moments.  We mourn the days of our losses, of our betrayals, of all manner of terrible life-changing moments.  In every heart, a secret calendar.

There are only so many days in the year; pile enough things together on a calendar, and some of them will coincide.  Some of those alignments will coalesce into rays of remembered joy, warming us from the past.  Others will form spears of relived pain, lodging afresh in our hearts.  A few may do both, comforting and piercing all at once.

The longer we spend online, the more traces of those secret calendars will take public shape.  The dates of my first marriage and divorce are not, to the best of my recollection, recorded anywhere online, but the date of my second (and current) marriage is there, thanks to some early blog posts.  The date of my first professional award is there.  The dates of our children’s placements and adoptions are there.  The dates of my daughter’s illness and death are there.

The more we build online networks, not physical networks but social and emotional networks, the more pieces we leave lying around for algorithms to gather together and present to us with no real thought for what those pieces actually mean, or for how they should or shouldn’t fit together.  A human can glance through a pile of photos and tell which are emotionally or even narratively out of place.  Code cannot.  A human can quickly determine which scraps of text and pixels were happy at the moment of their creation, only to be transformed into talismans of sorrow by later events.  Code cannot.

We’re collectively creating strata of data, adorned with easy bits of metadata like time and date and sometimes place, but lacking all the truly important metadata like feeling and meaning.  As we share with each other, we share with the future.  We share with the companies that help us share with each other, because it’s easy to store it all.  Content in the old network was ephemeral, and in the older networks was tangible but private.  In the new networks, everything we create is easy to retrieve—if not for us, as users of the network, then at least for the code that runs on the same machines which accept all that we share.

And so, more and more with every passing day, code is written to reach back into everything we’ve created, assembling it along easily-identified axes like Likes or Faves or geographic coordinates or the day of the year, in order to show it to us again.  Sometimes it’s code we invite into our lives, but not always.  Sometimes we find the code that drives the networks we use resurrecting our past without warning.

This will not always be welcome.

There are things we can do to make our remorselessly remembering routines more humane, and most of those things are rooted in experience design.  We can design compassionate consent requests ahead of introducing new functionality, and easy ways to mark which dates and memories and bits of data should be avoided, and even design thoughtful expressions of remorse and apology.  We can and should add this very human layer of thoughtfulness to cushion us from literally unthinking code that yields results which may harm as easily as they may heal.

It won’t be easy, and we’ll make mistakes no matter how hard we try.  Our very attempts to be thoughtful may backfire and make things worse, but we’ll learn from those mistakes and do better the next time.

Nothing could be more human than that.

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

Heard and Received

A week ago today, I stood on a stage in San Francisco and told a couple thousand developers they were doing it wrong.  I mean, I got up there at O’Reilly’s Fluent, The Web Platfom conference, and gave a talk with a slide that literally said, “The Web is NOT a Platform”.  You can see it here, all fifteen minutes of it, in which I borrowed liberally from Jeremy Keith, added a splash of Mike Monteiro, and mixed it all together with things I’ve been saying and thinking for the past, oh, decade or more.

As it turned out, and a little bit to my surprise, a fair number of people completely agreed with what I had to say, judging by the reactions I got both online and in person.  Only a few people disagreed with me in person, which was fine; I actually hoped that there would be some pushback, since I’m not the smartest person in the world by any stretch.  The best part was, our disagreements were friendly, well-sourced, and collegial.  I love having conversations like that.  I don’t know that any of us changed our minds, but we were able to test our assumptions and viewpoints against each other.  In one case, I shook hands on a friendly, no-stakes bet over which of us would prove to be right, five or ten years down the line.

What made it really fun is that not twenty minutes after I stepped off the stage at the end of that talk, I stepped back on to accept a 2015 Web Platform Award alongside Sara Soueidan, Mark Nottingham, and Mikeal Rogers.  Those are some amazing people to stand with, and that it came from O’Reilly made it even more humbling.  In fact, Sara said it best: “This is my first time ever winning a web award, and I feel privileged to have won it from such a prestigious company.”  To which I would only add, and in such prestigious company.

I do want to note that what I said at the very end of my acceptance remarks was woefully insufficient.  What I should have said, and would have said if I hadn’t suddenly felt completely overwhelmed, is that the web has meant more to me, done more for me, and given more to me in the past two years than any one person could ever have any right to expect.  The web and what it makes possible, the ability to reach out and share and hear from you and stay in touch—that kept me sane, and may very well have kept me alive.

Thank you all.

Talk Talk

If you prefer hearing voice to reading text, I was on a couple of podcasts recently and would like to share; also, I have some live appearances coming up soon.

The first podcast is a 16-minute segment on the eHealth Radio Network, talking about designing for crisis.  This was recorded shortly before AEA Seattle and HxRefactored, which is why I talk about HxRefactored in the future tense.  Much as was the case with my talk at HxRefactored, this concentrates on the topic of designing for crisis in a medical/health care context, and as it turns out, it’s only slightly shorter than was my HxR talk.

The second is both longer and a bit more recent: I talked for an hour with Chris and Dave at Shop Talk Show about flexbox, inline layout, the difficulties of the past two years, and how I’ve changed professionally.  It doesn’t shy away from the emotional side, and some listeners have described it as “heart-rending” and “sobering”.  So, you know, fair warning.  On the other hand, I call Chris Coyier a “newb” about a minute in, so there’s that.

In the Shop Talk episode, we talk briefly about Facebook’s On This Day feature, which had just launched but I hadn’t seen at that point.  Yesterday, it finally popped up in my Facebook timeline.  I had observations, and will probably write about them soon.  First, though, I need to finish up my slides for Fluent, where I’ll be giving my talk “This Web App Best Viewed By Someone Else”.  I get 13 minutes to tell the audience that they… well, I don’t want to spoil it for anyone.  (Plus there’s another slide deck I need to finish up for next week, but that’s for a private engagement, so never mind that now.)

In May, I’ll once again be presenting the hour-long version of “Designing for Crisis” at An Event Apart Boston.  There are still some seats left if you’d care to join us; it’s a pretty great lineup, and as usual I’m feeling a wee bit intimidated by the brilliance.  Attendees have been telling us that this year’s lineup is one of the best they’ve seen, making AEA worth every penny and then some, so you’d get way more out of the show than just hearing me.

In case you’re wondering (and I also mentioned this on ShopTalk), I won’t be at AEA San Diego in June.  Part of me very much wants to be, but an accident of scheduling made it inadvisable: the show starts June 8th, the day after the first anniversary of Rebecca’s death and what would have been her seventh birthday.  I don’t know that I’ll be in any shape to hold brief conversation, let alone stand on stage in front of a few hundred people and give an hour-long talk, in the days immediately following.  Rather than risk it, we (the AEA team and I) decided to have someone else take my place at the San Diego show, and that show only.  I intend to be at all our other shows this year.

Hopefully, I’ll get a chance to write about attending not-web-design conferences in the near future.  I find such experiences entertainingly, and in some ways refreshingly, different.  I recommend it.

The Pivotal Ways

Five years ago yesterday, the suave and debonair Ethan Marcotte debuted a talk titled “A Dao of Flexibility” at An Event Apart Seattle.  I still remember the feeling in the room.  Those of us who were there realized that it was a pivotal moment for the web, even before Ethan had left the stage.  It was the moment that responsive web design burst forth into the world.

The title, and content, of Ethan’s talk explicitly paid homage to the rugged and handsome John Allsopp’s “A Dao of Web Design”, published fifteen years ago today at A List Apart.  It’s hard to overstate how much wisdom and prescience is distilled into that deceptively short piece.  As I said in the testimonial I contributed to ALA’s remembrance:

John’s insights are as sharp and relevant as ever, especially when we realize the web’s inherent flexibility isn’t just about layout—that, in fact, layout flexibility is one of the web’s least important features. I try to reread “A Dao of Web Design” at least once a year. You should, too.

There’s not much more I can add, and honestly, anything I tried to add to these seminal works of brilliance would only cheapen them.  Go, read; go, watch.  Remember where we’ve come from, and use that foundation to chart where we’re going.

Obsessive Musings

I’m typing this, sandy-eyed and a little light-headed, as the Eastern Seaboard slowly scrolls beneath me.  It’s the second of two flights today; the first took off from Seattle at not quite 3am, at least considered from the Eastern (U.S.) time zone.  To those in Seattle, of course, I left shortly before midnight yesterday.

I’m headed for Boston by way of Dulles, there to land, roll off the plane, grab a cab, and get to the conference hotel on the harbor.  This afternoon, I’ll deliver a 25-minute talk in hopes of advancing the state of medical and health care design.  It’s a much cut-down version of the talk I gave not 18 hours ago (as I type this) at An Event Apart Seattle.  Basically, I just took my AEA talk and cut out all the parts that aren’t about health-care-centered design, then compressed a bit the parts that were.  The goal is to leave time for a question or two from the audience.

I left home this past Friday for the Pacific Northwest, and won’t get home until tomorrow—well, today, if you’re reading this on its publication date.  But then, if you are doing that, then everything I’m saying happened yesterday.

I may be a little sleep deprived.

Six days is a long time to be away from my family, at least by my standards, and it’s an especially long time to be away after no significant work travel for almost two years.  The punishing schedule makes it seem even longer to me.

I do it because I’m obsessed.

Time was, I was obsessed about HTML and CSS and the myriad possibilities of the web.  I still have all that, but it’s now almost an echo of what it was.  Apparently, I only have room in my life for one professional obsession.

Now I’m obsessed over the idea of designing with compassion, designing with empathy, designing with care.  It’s hard to articulate exactly what I mean in a compact manner.  The idea doesn’t have an accurate, obvious label yet, the way responsive web design does.  I’m trying to figure it out with Sara Wachter-Boettcher.  We’ll get there.

Writers talk of a muse that drives them, that tasks them.  They become obsessed with writing.  I assume that a muse is basically just an anthropomorphized obsession.  Maybe so.  I’ve never been that kind of writer, but now I have that kind of obsession.  It drives me to present two versions of one talk in successive days on opposite coasts.  It drives me to branch out in unexpected ways, pushing into areas of web design that I had never thought myself qualified to comment on, pushing beyond web design into the wider field of design in all its forms.  It will soon drive me to write in a way I never have before, for audiences I never expected to address.

I would have given a great deal to have never had this obsession, but I do.  Now I hope I can rise to exceed the demands it places on me.

If this all sounds a little grim, well, part of it is.  After all, it springs from a grim place and time.  But then, a big part of that grim tone is probably due to my physical weariness—the flight from Seattle to Dulles was only long enough for me to catch three hours of sleep.  Ordinarily, I’d be micro-napping on this flight to Boston, but instead I’m typing, pushed by my obsession to articulate it so that I can look at the words I’ve written and take them as a commitment, layering another thin stratum of determination on top of the obsession, adorning my muse with a plate of conceptual armor.

There might be more to this metaphor, but if so, the lack of sleep is clouding my ability to see it.

The plane has begun its initial descent into Boston.

Time to see where my obsession pushes me today.

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

On This Day

Earlier today, Facebook announced a new feature called “On This Day”.  With On This Day, you see pictures, posts, and other events that occurred on a given day.  If you’re familiar with Timehop, it seems very much like a Facebook-only Timehop.  That will probably seem limited and broken to actual Timehop users, but for the vast majority of Facebook users, it will be a new and potentially very welcome feature.

As you can imagine, given what happened with Year in Review, I’m very interested by On This Day.  I haven’t interacted with the actual product yet, so I don’t know what kinds of opt-in or opt-out features will be present.  If any.  From the screenshots in the Facebook announcement, it looks like they’ve taken a much more neutral direction with the visual design.  There are calendar pages and abstract photos, with few of them expressing much in the way of emotional content.  An exception is seen at the top center of the banner image on the announcement, depicting what appears to be a woman in love, but that’s actually a decoration on the banner, instead of a UI component.  Whether those sorts of things will show up in the UI, I don’t know.

But this is what I wonder: is Facebook about to hurt a bunch of people?  From the announcement:

To see your On This Day page, you can click on the On This Day bookmark, search for “On This Day,” or visit facebook.com/onthisday. You might also see a story in your News Feed.

Putting “a story in the News Feed” is exactly how Year in Review became a viral news story.  And it’s what distinguishes On This Day from Timehop or ThinkUp (which has “your most popular update” features).

If I install Timehop, for example, I know what I’m getting into.  I’m actively, consciously deciding to revisit events from past years by way of Timehop.  I can decide not to launch it at all on certain days, if I know what I see would be too painful.

On This Day, on the other hand, is part of an existing ecosystem.  Dropping On This Day into the Facebook news feed without consent is very much like having Timehop install itself onto your smartphone and then auto-launch, all without asking.  If this happened, we’d (rightly) take the responsible parties to task.  Patronizing dismissals that “you use a smartphone, you get what you deserve” would be relatively thin on the ground, whereas I’m sure there will be plenty of that directed toward any Facebook user upset by what an On This Day new feed entry shows them.  That was certainly the leading line of condescension around the Year in Review news feed post.

There isn’t much more to go on in the announcement, though I did notice:

…you can choose to subscribe to notifications so you’ll be alerted when you have memories to look back on. You can also edit and delete old posts, or decide to share your memories with friends.

Editing or deleting old posts is interesting, if a bit troubling to the historian in me, and the ability to sign up for notifications is a welcome sign of opt-in ethics, but what I notice here is what’s missing:  I don’t see any reference to an ability to opt out of On This Day, either for certain days or altogether.  It might be there and simply not referred to in the product announcement, but I wonder if this is something that Facebook users will simply have to get used to.

The timing of this has a personal resonance.  As I wrote about yesterday, we just passed the first anniversary of the day Kat and I were told about Rebecca’s second tumor.  For the next eleven weeks, both our posts and pictures from last year, wherever they’re housed, will form a chronicle of the last days of our daughter’s life.  How will we react to Facebook, how will we feel about our experience there, if On This Day constantly reminds us of those events?  Will this product increase our affinity with Facebook, or our antipathy?  Perhaps we might go to Facebook to catch up with friends and joke around with them a bit, as a form of mental respite.  Or, perhaps, we would have done that, but now will be unable to do so.  We’ll soon find out.

Lest anyone misunderstand, this isn’t just about Facebook.  It’s about every service or product that seeks to increase user affinity, and avoid user antipathy.  Facebook just happens to be providing some very obvious grounds on which to base these conversations.  Given their line of business and scale of operation, that’s probably to be expected.  I’ll be following this with great professional and personal interest.

June 2016
SMTWTFS
May  
 1234
567891011
12131415161718
19202122232425
2627282930  

Archives

Feeds

Extras