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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.

Playing Shiva

Children charged through our house, laughing and shrieking and calling to each other as their games shifted fluidly from one imaginative burst to another.  In the dining room, their adults sat around the table and talked, benignly ignoring the chaos around them.  Earlier, there had been a group photo of the kids and rides in a crazily-painted convertible.

I sat in the kitchen window seat, my feet braced against the middle frame, staring out into the back yard.  The afternoon was chilly and bright but not sunny, as befits March in Cleveland, but I didn’t really see it.  I only know what the weather was like because I’ve gone back to look at the photos of that day.  Whatever light was entering my eyes and falling on my retinas wasn’t leaving any impression in my brain; I was focused somewhere unseeable, trying not to think about the unthinkable.

A hand on my arm snapped me back.  Rebecca stood next to me, her expression clouded and frowning.

“Hey there, Little Spark.  What’s up?”

She climbed wordlessly into my lap and curled up against my chest, her back to the window.  She rested a cheek in a cupped palm that pressed on my sternum, looking unseeingly into the kitchen, still pensive.  The chaos was downstairs in the play room now, distant and muted.  I circled my arms around her curled frame, gently pressing her to me, listening to and feeling her breath draw in and out.

I knew she was upset, and I knew just as certainly that she wanted to talk about it.  I was far less certain that I wanted to hear it, but this wasn’t about me.  It never had been, and it was far less so now.

“What are you thinking, sweetie?” I asked after a few moments.

“I’m scared that my brain cancer won’t go away and I will get dead,” she quavered miserably.

Suddenly I was hugging her tightly, my face half-buried in the bright blue shmata she wore on her head, tears coursing from my eyes.

“Me too,” I choked out.  “I’m scared too, honey.  Mommy and I are both scared.  It’s okay to be scared.”

We wept quietly together, curled up on the window seat.


I had been crying a lot at that point.  Three nights before, after all the kids had gone to sleep, I had stumbled into Kat’s and my bedroom, collapsed on the bed, and sobbed without stopping for more than an hour.  At some points, I wept so intensely that Kat tried to get me to take medication to calm myself, afraid that I was about to literally choke to death on my own sorrow.  Part of me wanted that to happen.

Because earlier that day, we had been told that another tumor had emerged.  As soon as the doctors walked into the room, we knew from their body language that the news wasn’t good.  When they asked Rebecca if she would go play with the Child Life specialist while Mommy and Daddy talked to the doctors, we knew it was bad.  I felt the blood drain from my face as I reached out to take Kat’s hand in mine, both of us staring at the lead doctor and still trying to hope that it wasn’t as bad as we feared.

It was.

The previous August, the doctors in Philadelphia had told us the tumor was essentially completely removed, and that a long course of radiation and chemotherapy could, possibly, prevent a recurrence of the cancer that had almost killed our daughter.  They didn’t give odds.  They didn’t have too many assurances to give us, save one.  They could pretty well assure us that if the cancer came back, all we could do was watch Rebecca die.

Now it was March 20th, almost exactly seven months from the day she had first seized.  We had gotten her through multiple surgeries, two months of treatments in a city far from her home, and then weekly chemotherapy back home.  Holidays had come, her MRIs had been clear, we’d returned to a relative normalcy.  The nightmare had engulfed us, then receded.

Now it engulfed us again, more complete than ever.  For those seven months, I had held my fears in abeyance.  Now there was no dam to hold them back.

I lay in my bed, almost screaming my sorrow, choking and nearly convulsing, as I tried to cope with the certainty that our little girl was going to die soon, and there was no hope left.  Although she would ultimately prove me wrong, because of course she would, I tried to come to terms with my desolate conviction that Rebecca wouldn’t even graduate kindergarten, let alone turn six.

That night, I started to mourn my child’s death.


Within a minute or two, Rebecca was done crying and starting to get restless to rejoin the chaos.  I paused my own grief, wiped the tears from both our faces, and gave her kisses.  She smiled at me and climbed off my lap.

Five minutes later, she charged through the kitchen with her friends, the kids she’d shared a playgroup with since they were newborns, shrieking and laughing along with them, because to be five years old is to live completely in the moment.

They thundered onward, down the steps to the back hall and up the stairs to the sun room and on to the living room.  I listened to her bright, sunny voice echoing from across the house, drew in a deep breath, wiped away my tears, and resolved to live in the moment as much as I could.  For her, and for me.


That night, after the kids were asleep, Kat and I stood in the kitchen, cleaning and putting away the last few dishes left over from the play date.  We talked about the day, how much fun all the kids had had, and shared our mutual admiration of our friends, who had brought their children to play with our child, knowing how that would sharpen their kids’ pain when Rebecca’s death came.

“Thank you for letting me fill the house with people,” Kat said.  “I know it’s tough for you sometimes, having that much noise and activity.”

I shrugged.  It didn’t seem to matter.  Very little did, at that point.

“Do you understand why I wanted them all here today?” she asked.

“You were sitting shiva for her,” I heard myself say, distantly surprised by the words as they emerged.

“Yes,” she said quietly.  “How did you know?”

“I’ve known you for seventeen years now.”

“I was sitting shiva for her while she’s still alive.  How fucked up is that?”

I shook my head mutely.  Tears streaked both our faces.


In the year since that day, a year ago today, I’ve come to realize what an incredible gift it was for Rebecca.  To bring all those kids and adults who loved her so much into the house, all those people she’d known and loved all her too-short life—to give her a day of play and fun and craziness, the kind of craziness she loved, while she was still able to enjoy it—what better form of mourning could there be?

Rebecca knew, long before I did, possibly even before Kat did, why her friends were there.  She mourned the truth, and then had a fantastic day anyway.

I may have been far older than her, but she was far, far wiser than me.

Big Little Heroes

On March 15th, 2015, there will be a St. Baldrick’s Foundation fundraising event at the Cleveland Heights Community Center.  At last year’s event, Rebecca was there, running around and flipping out (in a good way) as her sister Carolyn shaved to raise money.  She gave a big hug to her kindergarten teacher, who had shown up to surprise her and had his head shaved as well.  She was, to all appearances, a totally normal and healthy kid, so full of life that many people there didn’t realize she was one of the honorees.

Four days later was the MRI that revealed the second tumor, the one that killed her two months later.

This year, Carolyn will not be shaving her head, though she is again captaining the team for her elementary school.  In her place, Rebecca’s best friends in the world—the kids from her infant playgroup, as well as her friend Ruth—will be cutting their hair or shaving their heads to raise money in Rebecca’s honor.  If you want to make a difference in their lives, as well as the lives of children who have or will one day have cancer, please consider donating to one or all of these brave kids:

Some of them took years to grow enough hair to comb, let alone braid.  And yet, even at their ages, they are willing to sacrifice that hair in order to do something positive.  We are so, so grateful to them all.

Rebecca being fierce, July 20th, 2013.  Her first tumor, which was already present in this picture, was discovered a month later.

We are also very grateful to St. Baldrick’s for working with us over the past few months to establish The Rebecca Alison Meyer Fund for Pediatric Cancer Research.  This “Hero Fund” is specifically designed to fund promising research into the prevention of tumor reemergence, as well as glioblastoma research in general.  As we say on the Fund’s page:

We were told after [Rebecca’s] first tumor was biopsied that if another tumor appeared, all we could do was watch her die. There were no studies to try to prevent the reoccurrence of the tumor. Once it did recur, there were very limited study options, none of which were life saving—only life prolonging. This is typical of so many types of tumors.

You cannot imagine, unless you’ve lived it, what it’s like to know that your child has a rapidly deteriorating terminal condition about which nothing can be done.  There are no words to describe it.  “Helpless” doesn’t begin to come close.  We hope that Rebecca’s Fund can, in whatever way, however small, help even one family avoid that nightmare.  We hope it can help many, many families avoid it.

You can donate directly to Rebecca’s Fund if you prefer, but please note that all funds raised for the March 15th Cleveland Heights event will be counted as part Rebecca’s Fund.  So please, if you’re inclined to support the Fund, donate to one or all of Rebecca’s friends listed above, because donating to them means donating to the Fund as well.  Thank you.

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