Categories
My Opinion WordCamp

It is time to rename the “Happiness Bar”

tldr: The “Happiness Bar” needs a new name. I’ll start the brain storming here:

  • Help Desk
  • Help Bar
  • Admin Bar
  • WordPress Help
  • Q&A Desk
  • Support Desk
  • Support Bar
  • Service Bar
  • Oracle Bar

I’ve been a volunteer at the Happiness Bar of close to 10 WordCamps in the last 5 years. The experience of interacting with and helping others working with WordPress has been educational, entertaining, and often enlightening. There is no better place to see first hand the incredible diversity of our community and to experience WordPress through the eyes of other users.

Even so the Number One takeaway from my Happiness Bar stints is this:

“Happiness Bar” is a name nobody understands.

Unless you have volunteered to stand behind the desk at a Happiness Bar in the past or you are a WordCamp organizer there is little chance you know what a “Happiness Bar” is, so let me introduce you to the concept:

The Happiness Bar is a desk at a WordCamp (or other WordPress-centric conference or event) staffed by volunteer WordPress experts where you can ask questions and get help with WordPress. The name “Happiness Bar” probably comes from the thought that getting help and finding solutions to your problems will make you happy.

The problem, which is pretty obvious, is that the name “Happiness Bar” says nothing about what is being provided.

The most important task of giving a service a name is to ensure the name communicates what the service does to the uninitiated. And while a help desk may induce happiness, that is not the function of the help desk. The help desk is there to provide help. The name “Happiness Bar” is more befitting a bar where they hand out cotton candy, hugs, or free jokes.

Talking to WordCamp attendees and asking them what the “Happiness Bar” is I’ve gotten every answer but the correct one:

“Is it where they hand out swag?”
“It’s a place where they give you life advice?”
“It’s a desk where they have life/business/happiness coaches?”
“You go there to get a massage?”
“Do they give away candy?”

When I co-organized WordCamp Vancouver I refused to have a Happiness Bar because I already knew the name was misleading and nobody would use the service. Nobody even noticed. Having staffed Happiness Bars in different cities before and since just validated my suspicions: Calling the Help Desk the “Happiness Bar” is a surefire way of confusing the audience enough that those who could actually use the help won’t ever find it.

I think historically the name makes a bit of sense, but that is irrelevant. The use of the name today is an anachronism at best and self-defeating at worst. What is meant to be cute, fun, and non-conventional, is in reality confusing, non-explanatory, and misleading. When WordCamp attendees are looking for help and can’t find it even when they are standing directly in front of a huge sign saying “Happiness Bar!” any marketer would tell you there is something off about the branding. That happens. All the time. At Every. Single. WordCamp. Old-timers like me know what the “Happiness Bar” is. The rest of the attendees think it’s a place where they hand out swag. Or candy. Or massages. Or some unknown substance that provides happiness.

I think we should have a Happiness  Bar that hands out swag, candy, massages, and free hugs. But if we are going to continue offering WordPress help at WordCamps we need to give the help desk a befitting name. My vote is “Admin Bar”, but that’s just me.

Categories
My Opinion

My Connected Device is Listening

My Android phones have been listening to me for years. I have no doubt about this. When I started talking about something absurd late last year – “can you use hand lotion to condition a leather chair” – and then decided to look it up on my phone, the first suggestion google makes upon entering “Can you use” was “Can you use hand lotion to condition leather products”. And that’s just one example.

People call me paranoid for saying this, but I’m not. I just understand (or at least pretend I understand) what’s going on inside our connected devices.

Speech Recognition in the Cloud

If you have an Android phone with the Google+ Launcher applied, try this: Turn it on and just say “OK, Google”. This automatically opens the voice to text search box where you can talk to the device and get it to do things like a search or send an email or whatever. I’m sure the Fruit Company phone can do the same thing. And the one from Macrohard. It’s amazingly unamazing in a world where rapid technological advancement has made us jaded.

What’s actually happening here is really quite amazing: The phone is constantly listening for specific voice queues, and when they are triggered it starts doing stuff. It gets even more impressive when you start dictating. You can actually see the phone guessing and correcting itself in real time as it does to make sure it gets everything exactly right. And watching this happen it’s clear there is a lot of contextual semantic processing going on out there in the cloud.

What we have here is the dream of speech recognition come true in the cloud. And now that we have it people are (and should be?) terrified.

Your Samsung TV is Eavesdropping on Your Private Conversations

Earlier this week the tech media and everyone else suddenly got very interested in connected devices and their listening capabilities. In the Terms of Service for Samsung’s Smart TVs a line was discovered that said:

Please be aware that if your spoken words include personal or other sensitive information, that information will be among the data captured and transmitted to a third party

The reporting was quickly followed by a statement from Samsung saying:

If a consumer consents and uses the voice recognition feature, voice data is provided to a third party during a requested voice command search. At that time, the voice data is sent to a server, which searches for the requested content then returns the desired content to the TV

George Orwell fans with better memories than me immediately caught on to the striking similarities from the book 1984:

And the world burned for days.

The Clash of Dreams and Reality

What we have here is a clash of dreams and reality. In our dreams we want to be able to talk to our devices and have them do our bidding. In Star Trek they had the Universal Translator. You can now get much the same feature by downloading the Google Translate app on your smartphone. Try it. It’s absolutely mind blowing. But for this technology to work we can’t just rely on our phones or computers or TVs. Language is complex and can’t be simplified to algorithms that can run on our local devices. For this technology to work we need the Cloud. And that means literally recording and sending your conversations over the web to a server that then parses the data, gleans the meaning of it, and acts according to your instructions.

In short, when you talk to your device your device needs to actually understand what you are saying. Which is why your Samsung Smart TV and your cell phone and probably your computer and any other connected device in your house is in fact listening to you all the time

The Question Isn’t If You are Being Recorded, But Who Listens

Most people will find this revelation rather unsettling, but the reality is this is not new. It’s been going on for years. And it’s a direct response to what we as consumers have been asking for.

The bigger question is who’s listening. The device and service companies are pretty much unanimous in saying they are not recording and not listening. The recordings are purely for the computers. And in a way it is probably believable (unless you are talking about that website that wants to sell your face on a book. They are totally listening). I don’t actually fear the companies (much), but I do question their encryption algorithms.

Post-Snowden we have confirmation of what many of us have known all along: If you put it on the Internet the US intelligence system will be listening in. So does this mean that someone is sitting in a bunker somewhere in the US (or elsewhere) listening to our conversations while we watch TV, or eat dinner, or chat with our phones within reach? Not unlikely.

Somewhere George Orwell is shaking his head in shame while dictating his next novel through his phone.

Categories
My Opinion

The Spirit of Flickr and the Problem of Intent

I’m trying something new here: Audio versions of my essays. So, if you want to listen to me read this essay rather than read it, hit the play button below and let me know what you think about this idea!

Over the weekend a conversation has started over the move by photo sharing site Flickr to start selling canvas and other prints of photos published under various Creative Commons (CC) licenses with attribution but in some cases without financial benefit to the artist. The story started at Wall Street Journal, got picked up and went viral with Dazed, and gained further traction when authoritative figures like Jeffrey Zeldman chimed in.

I’m not going to argue the legalities of this issue. As has been stipulated by pretty much everyone who has spoken about it, Flickr – and by ownership Yahoo! – are well within their rights to do what they are doing from a legal standpoint. If you publish content under the CC-BY license you are explicitly granting anyone the rights to republish that content in any way including commercially (under which selling for money would fall) without reimbursing the original creator as long as they provide proper attribution to the same creator. By contrast the CC-BY-NC license grants anyone the right to republish that content under the same guidelines only for noncommercial purposes. If they wish to publish it for commercial purposes (including sale) they must be granted a separate individual license from the creator. (There is a lot more to Creative Commons and I urge you to educate yourself about this type of license, but that’s the gist of this particular story.)

Categories
My Opinion

#YesAllWomen: This Is Not About You

Dear Random Man of the Internet. If you are feeling marginalized, targeted, oppressed, or objectified by the #YesAllWomen hashtag that has been trending on Twitter since the Isla Vista murders last week, here is a dose of reality. This is not about you. And you need to listen.

This morning I tweeted the following:

#YesAllWomen encourages empathy in a debate clouded by cognitive dissonance. Listen and learn.”

And you immediately responded:

“No it doesn’t. It indicts men. Exploits tragedy where mentally ill man who hated all humanity killed 3 men. All to advance an agenda.”

This seems a common sentiment and it is a validation of my original tweet: The cognitive dissonance felt when confronted with the reality of how our society treats women causes men to feel like victims of unjust treatment – a role reversal they immediately speak up about. Which is exactly what women are doing with the #YesAllWomen tag. You are right, Random Man from the Internet, there is an agenda here: Women want to be treated like human beings, not objects. And whether you feel you are part of the problem or part of the solution it is your obligation to check your ego and privilege at the door, hear them out, and see the world from their perspective. Your feelings on the matter are not relevant here. This is not about you.

Empathy and the Shared Experience

When a person shares their human experience with us and gives us a glimpse of what the world is like from their perspective, we are privileged to listen. Our ability as humans to share in the experience of others, to empathise, and to adjust our world-view and our behaviour accordingly is what makes us a social species. It is part of what makes us who we are.

When the experience shared is one of fear, frustration, anguish, and pain, we are obliged to listen and to give our support. #YesAllWomen is that; on a scale we have never seen before.

#YesAllWomen is the collective sharing of the human experience from the majority of the human race: Those that identify as female. It is a glimpse of what the world is like for a group that is marginalized, targeted, oppressed, objectified, and sexualized by the very society they are a part of. And when they speak up, we owe it to them to shut up and listen, take their message to heart, stand with them, and take a long hard look at ourselves.

#YesAllWomen: It’s Not About You, It’s About Us

#YesAllWomen is not about you: It’s about us. We can’t continue down a path that forces half of us to live in fear, constantly looking over their shoulders, and knowing that no matter how hard they work, they will be judged on their gender before they get judged on their merits.

#YesAllWomen is not an indictment of you as a person, nor of all men or any other group. It is an indictment of a society and societal norms that are as anachronistic as they are morally wrong. It is a demand that all voices be heard and that we put our cognitive dissonance aside. Look beyond yourself and help shine a light on systemic injustices imposed on our fellow human beings.

Listen and Learn

To all the women out there, yes, all women. Please keep talking. We are listening and we stand with you.

Take an hour out of your day to read the ever expanding #YesAllWomen tag. Take a few steps in her shoes and realize it is not about you. It is about humanity.

 

Categories
My Opinion

Tools of the Trade, 2014 edition

Every once in a while people ask me what tools I use so I figured I’d share an incomplete list to give you a peek at what happens on my computers on a daily basis.

When reading this list keep in mind tools for developers are about as personal a choice as what colour underwear you prefer or which super hero is the best so as I present my setup there is about a 110% guarantee everyone will disagree. Which is one of the many reasons I love what I do. Opinion, passion, personality, all combined into one big mess.

Anyways. Here we go.

Categories
Accessibility My Opinion WordPress

The accessibility-ready Tag Should Be Required for All WordPress Themes

When was the last time you tried navigating your WordPress site using only the keyboard? Chances are you never have, and if you do you are likely to have a sub-optimal experience at best. The alarming reality is only a handful of WordPress themes (and thus WordPress-powered sites) meet basic accessibility guidelines. This is not OK. I’m issuing a challenge to the WordPress community:

Accessibility should be a requirement for all WordPress themes.

Categories
My Opinion

The 99 Habits of Highly Successful, Motivated, Efficient, Charismatic, Happy People

Do viral list articles on the web leave you feeling like you’re not measuring up? Like everyone is more successful, motivated, efficient, charismatic, and happy because they do things differently? Fret not my friend. I have the cure to all that ails your self-doubting soul: The definitive list of the 99 Habits of Highly Successful, Motivated, Efficient, Charismatic, Happy People.

Adopt these habits and your life and self-image will change dramatically for the better:

  1. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  2. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  3. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  4. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  5. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
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  10. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  11. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
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  41. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
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  63. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
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  66. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
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  69. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  70. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  71. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  72. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
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  74. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
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  78. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
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  80. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  81. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  82. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
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  86. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
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  96. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
  97. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.
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  99. Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.

In conclusion: Don’t read lists comparing yourself to others.

Categories
My Opinion

Analogue

Last November web design luminary Frank Chimero published a talk – turned – article about web design and user experience called “What Screens Want“. It’s a compelling and thought provoking piece on how we think of screens as design surfaces and how we need to break from the confines and rigid frames of traditional print design to reach the full potential of screen-targeted design and give screens what they want. If you work with screens and especially if you work under the broad umbrella called “web design” you’d be well served to read the article and use it as a starting point to reevaluate how you think of screens.

Sitting in my couch last night I felt compelled to take out my Moleskine and a pencil and sketch out what was directly in front of me. If you’re a regular follower of this site you may have noticed I’ve started hand illustrating my articles. This is a feeble effort on my part to rediscover the skill of drawing, something I like most others pretty much abandoned after secondary school. But the drawing you see above is is not nor was it ever meant to be an illustration for an article. It was more than anything the physical manifestation of a sudden realization I had about what screens actually want.

Screens want attention.

From my vantage point I had four live screens: A TV (out of frame), my old laptop (left), my smartphone (on top) and my new laptop (right). All on, all displaying different information, all screaming for my attention. Though this is not a normal scenario for me (I usually only have one laptop in front of me at a time) it made me realize my exposure to screens is bordering on permanence. When I wake up in the morning I check my phone for emails. When I eat breakfast I watch news on TV. When I work I stare at a screen. When I’m done work I read up on articles and interact with social connections through one of several screens. Then for some relaxation in the evening I watch TV or a movie, again on a screen.

The crazy thing is that it doesn’t end there: In my car there is a screen telling me if it’s currently using electric or gasoline power. Most bars and restaurants have screens showing some sort of sporting event. At the mall there are screens running ads. There are screens on the backs of every seat on most planes. The supermarket cashier has been replaced by a screen. I touch a screen to buy a ticket to use public transit, a screen tells me what classes are currently available at the gym, there is even a tiny screen inside the viewfinder of my camera.

The screens that surround us are attention vampires. When a screen is within your field of vision you can’t help but let your eyes drift towards it, even when what it displays is irrelevant or uninteresting to you. And once it has your attention it feeds off your focus, draining you. Their bold colors, quick movements, and hyper-realism trigger something in the primitive parts of our brains that make us pay attention.

As a web designer I am relying on this effect and I’ve learned to exploit it. I know how to make something appear on a screen in such a way that you just have to look at it. And I know that others are far better at it than I am. So good they can make you look at a screen and not notice what is happening around you in real life. So good they can make you believe in their reality and doubt your own experience. So good they can alter our perceptions of ourselves, of others, of our world.

When I was a kid my parents limited me to one hour of TV per day. “Watching too much TV makes you a fool” my mom would say. And she was right. TV does make you stupid unless you are very careful about what you watch and ask a lot of critical questions. But it’s not just the TV any more. All these other screens, there to give us information and enlighten us, have the same ability to make us dumb and disinterested and desensitized through information overload.

So maybe in addition to asking  what screens want we should also ask “what do we want from screens”.

Categories
My Opinion WordPress

Why Post Formats Should Be Plugin Territory

Post Formats is arguably the most poorly defined and confusing feature of WordPress core both for developers and users. Post Format behaviour is inconsistent across themes and the guidelines for the feature are ambiguous at best. When the core developer team started work on a proposed Post Formats UI around this time last year they unwittingly went down a path that eventually led to a lengthy delay of WordPress 3.6 and the restructuring of how core features for WordPress are developed.

Currently Post Formats themselves remain as a core feature and there is sporadic talk of restarting work on the Post Formats UI. I question it’s valid claim as a core feature and propose a radical shift and a rethink: Redefine post formats and their function, draw up strict guidelines, and move the entire feature into a plugin.

The Post Formats Inception

From the original introduction in version 3.1 it was pretty clear Post Formats is a blogger-first feature introduced in large part to compete with Tumblr. WPTavern has a great write-up if you want further info on its background. The general idea was that a blogger should be able to easily publish a quote, a link, a picture, a video, and so on without having to go through the trouble of assigning categories and tags and structuring her content. And this makes sense if you are Automattic and you fear Tumblr may be a serious competitor to WordPress.com. It may even make sense if you consider WordPress to be primarily a blogging application. But WordPress is not a blogging application – it’s a light weight CMS. And a large portion of WordPress users are not bloggers.

This begs a question: Should a bloggers-only feature be a core feature in WordPress?

A lack of definition

If you’ve ever used Post Formats you will know that pt what it means to apply a format to a post is largely unclear and entirely at the whim of the theme developer. This is exemplified in how different Post Formats work in the default Twenty Thirteen and Twenty Fourteen themes. This inconsistency can be traced back to the lack of a clear definition of what a certain Post Format is or should be. The breakdown of Supported Formats and Suggested Styling in the Codex article for Post Formats provides some general guidelines but the language is non-committal and ambiguous leaving ample room for interpretation. Take the Image definition as an example:

image – A single image. The first <img /> tag in the post could be considered the image. Alternatively, if the post consists only of a URL, that will be the image URL and the title of the post (post_title) will be the title attribute for the image.

This example outlines three wildly different user scenarios, all of which are more or less mutually exclusive:

  1. An image post should have one image, and one image only.
  2. An image post should have one or more images where the first image is considered the image.
  3. An image post should have one URL pointing to an image and the theme will wrap this URL in an <img /> tag and use the post title as the title attribute.

There are also many unanswered questions: Can an Image post have text content? Should the more tag be used? What content should be displayed in index pages and in the single post template?

But the biggest issue is what this ambiguity does to consistency:  If you use a theme that employs interpretation 3 and then switch to one that employs interpretation 2 or 1 you will have to reformat your content or end up with a sub-optimal user experience for the visitor (in this case providing an unlinked URL in place of an image). The same goes for other combinations, and this extends to all the different Post Formats.

From a design and development perspective this may seem like an attractive lazzis-faire approach, but for the user it is a setup for chaos. When the designer and developer are left to interpret the Post Formats as they please the end result is that the user cannot expect consistent behavior across themes when using the feature. Which is an excellent reason not to use the feature at all.

Interestingly this is not far from the reasoning Justin Tadlock uses for keeping Custom Post Types out of distributed themes: When the user can’t expect consistent behavior between themes, the feature should be a plugin that be applied independently of themes. I argue this is the case for Post Formats as well.

A solution looking for a problem

As I stated earlier the inception of Post Formats seems to have been a desire to make it easy to post single images, single videos, and other simple content to a WordPress blog. From my experience interacting with WordPress users of all skill levels this is not a typical usage scenario. While many use WordPress primarily as a blogging tool, few post the types of content that Post Formats seem to be intended for: Single images, videos, and audio clips with no text, single quotes, chat logs, links, and so on. The only justified and consistent use of Post Formats I’ve seen anywhere is on Matt Mullenweg’s own blog where he frequently posts Asides. In most other cases the format seems relatively irrelevant and the display goal could just as easily be met with standard layout techniques.

Furthermore Post Formats have no purpose for those using WordPress as a CMS. In fact, the proposed Post Formats UI with it’s ambiguous interface would be a major distraction and cause of confusion to many of these users. As for the type of content intended for Post Formats there are important SEO and RSS issues and questions of whether mass-posting of small pieces of content has merit.

One could argue the infrequent use of Post Formats is due to the lack of theme support and the feature being hidden away, but the whole concept of “QuickPressing” seems foreign and even detrimental to what I’ve observed as the typical user behavior. It may well be that the front-end editor in WordPress.com generates a lot of this type of posts and that Post Formats should be a primary feature on that service, but I have my doubts that a Post Formats UI will change the core behavior of self-hosted WordPress users in a significant enough way to justify its wholesale inclusion.

A Way Forward, as a Plugin

I propose a rethink of the concept of Post Formats and a removal of the feature from core and into a plugin. As it stands right now Post Formats is essentially a locked taxonomy developers can test against in conditional statements. There is no clear definition of exactly how the formats should behave, the user has no clear explanation of how she should use them, and there is a question begging to be asked about whether the feature is something the general WordPress user wants or needs in the first place.

To start the process a usage scenario has to be clearly defined and stated. That means answering four key questions:

  1. Who is the Post Formats user?
  2. In what scenario is using a Post Format better than a regular post?
  3. What does she expect from Post Formats in terms of new content and different display modes?
  4. When and where would she use Post Formats (From WordPress admin? As a browser bookmarklet? In an app?)

Based on the answers to these questions the goals and intentions of the user can be defined and the feature can be built to meet them.

To ensure ease of use and an informative user experience the Post Formats plugin will likely add a new panel to the post editor UI not unlike the proposed Post Formats UI. The panel should have clear instructions explaining the difference between Post Formats and the regular editor and when a Post Format is selected the UI should change to accommodate the information required for that format. This might mean adding new input fields for dedicated content or hiding existing fields in the editor or a combination of both. That way the ambiguity in the existing solution is eliminated, the user is provided with clear instructions about what to do, and the correct type of content is provided to be displayed on the front end.

On the development side baseline output behavior must be established to ensure the output from the Post Formats plugin is integrated into the output of the regular post content in such a way that the intention of each Post Format is preserved. This likely means placing any Post Formats meta content at the top of the post and pushing the regular post content down. It may also mean wrapping Post Formats meta with hooks so the content can be displayed separately from the main content in index pages and widgetized areas. If a theme developer chooses to create custom templates for the Post Formats plugin, the behavior of those templates must stay within the parameters of the guidelines. If the developer chooses not to ship custom templates the visitor should still have an enhanced experience in line with the intentions of the site owner.

By removing Post Formats from core and placing them in a plugin, establishing clearly defined usage scenarios and goals, and providing strict guidelines for theme implementation, the feature will turn into an optional enhancement for those that want it rather than a confusing and frustrating addition to an already complex admin panel experience. It will also allow the feature to evolve and change to fit the demands of the user in a way a core feature never could.

A lot of impressive work has gone into this feature and Post Formats has merit as part of the WordPress ecosystem, but the way it is currently implemented is not beneficial to theme developers, users, or those who visit their sites.

That is my opinion. I’d love to hear yours in the comments below.

More perspective on Post Formats

Much has been published on this topic. Here is an incomplete list for further reading:

Categories
My Opinion WordPress

Will Flat-File Dethrone WordPress? Unlikely.

WordPress is out. Flat-file is the new wine. Or so the developer literati claim. I beg to differ. I also think these claims are an indicator of a serious problem with the open source industry: The people who develop Open Source applications are disconnected from the people who use their applications.

Flat-file vs WordPress: A 1 minute primer

If you’ve never heard of a flat-file before let me give you a quick primer: A flat-file is different from a “normal” CMS (like WordPress) in that it doesn’t use a database to dynamically generate pages. Instead it’s a hybrid model using JavaScript and other clever techniques to serve up individual or combinations of static files or pull content from content repository files (basically a spreadsheet or text file). The key here is flat-file solutions don’t need a database and usually don’t need PHP. (The historically savvy reader will now realize that flat-file CMSes are essentially static DWTs reinvented. That would be correct.)

There are some definite benefits to a flat-file (or what we old fogies call “static sites”) approach: You don’t have to rely on a complex server array for the site to work so your site won’t buckle under the sudden load of thousands of visitors, each page is an individual file so it will (at least in theory) load quicker, and you don’t have to deal with complex server management.

There are many flat-file solutions available and more coming online every day. This is after all the new wine for developers and everyone wants a taste. You have your CMS-style options like Ghost (originally proposed as a “simplified WordPress experience”), KirbyStatamic, and Jekyll – all of which have been lauded as “WordPress Killers“, and you have your externally hosted solutions like Harp (which uses DropBox as the file repository) and even DIY solutions that allow you to use Google Drive as the file repository. And you have services like GitHub Pages which let you use advanced developer tools to publish basic static websites.

And yes, I am aware there are a wide range of options here, that I omitted your favorite solution, and that my explanation is oversimplified. 

Ghost Face Killer?

When Ghost was proposed and then launched it was to much fanfare and celebration. Bold predictions were made of the imminent demise of WordPress due to Ghost’s simplified user experience and obvious appeal to bloggers. It’s safe to say these predictions did not correspond with reality. Why? Because setting up Ghost is not easy. In fact it’s quite complicated and requires a high level of expertise. Same with most if not all the other self-hosted flat-file CMSes. They may have a simplified file structure and user experience, but if people can’t figure out how to make them work, they won’t use them.

To curb this problem Ghost has launched a hosted for-pay service (though my theory is this was the plan all along) where you simply set up and pay for an account and start blogging. Which is no different from what WordPress.com, or Medium, or countless other hosted blogging services are already doing. So when flat-file becomes a hosted service the differentiation disappears.

“Kill your databases” they said. “It’ll be fun” they said…

One of the prime arguments for using flat-file is that you don’t need a database for most sites. It goes something like this:

“For a marketing site with 5 to 8 pages a database is just bloat. You’re better off just writing the code yourself.”

This is true in some cases, and if you are writing the code yourself you don’t need a flat-file solution either! However most sites today are not (or should not be) 5 to 8 pages even if they are marketing sites.

More than anything else the value of the web lies in the limitless potential for publishing. You don’t have to restrict yourself to a set number of pages or articles or images. You can publish as much as you want. And you should. The more quality content you publish, the more likelihood it will be seen, shared, and acted on. So when I see someone talking about a 5 to 8 page marketing site and the lack of need for a database my first question is “what about the attached blog?” There are very few cases I can think of where adding a blog with constant updates to a site would be a bad idea. In most cases adding such a blog can be a tremendous benefit to search and share traffic and the blog can even become the primary marketing tool. And once you have a blog and comments and other things you are moving into database territory. Sure you can use a flat-file CMS for this but it’s not really a good idea.

The Reality Distortion Field

I believe the emergence of the flat-file CMS has less to do with a consumer need than a developer desire to create something new and dethrone the current King of the Open Source Hill. While the argument for these solutions is that proper CMSes like WordPress are too big and too bloated for most users the alternatives they offer are more complex and don’t address the main appeal of WordPress:

What makes WordPress so popular, and the reason a lot of developers hate it so much, is that anyone can do it. You don’t need to understand Git or Markdown or Node.js or even PHP or MySQL to set up, configure, and publish content with your own self-hosted WordPress site. A complete novice with limited web browsing experience and a credit card can get a shared hosting account and publish content on a shiny new WordPress site within half an hour.

WordPress is a tool for everyone.

The flat-CMS tools touted so aggressively by developers on the other hand are developer tools built for developers by developers. Don’t believe me? Pick a random person off the street and ask them when was the last time they did a Git commit or wrote something in Markdown. The real world user of WordPress is not a developer. The real world user is someone wanting to share their thoughts, ideas, images, or art with the world in a simple and easy way.

When a flat-file solution uses Git commits or Markdown or “write your own HTML” as a marketing tactic you know all you have to know: This is not for the people, it’s for the developers who built it.

Rumors of WordPress’ demise are greatly exaggerated

WordPress is not dead or even on the decline. And flat-file solutions are not a threat to its position at the top of the Open Source Hill. The real threat to WordPress is actually WordPress itself, and this is something I’ll write more about in the future. While the flat-filers are wrong in their claim that flat-file is easier or better than WordPress, they are right in that WordPress is getting too complex and too heavy. For WordPress to continue its growth and eventual takeover of the entire published web it needs to slim down and become more modular so it can address the needs of an ever more diversifying user base. And those who build their businesses and reputation on WordPress need to realize kindergarten is over. We are not just playing at this any more. Serious business relies on WordPress and WordPress is serious business.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Are you running a flat-file solution? Have you abandoned WordPress for something slimmer? Leave a comment and pipe in.

 

Categories
Internet My Opinion

Glass, Filter Bubbles, & Lifestreams – connecting the dots

Has Google ever guessed what you were going to search for long before you finished typing it out, even before you gave it enough information to really be able to make that guess? It’s uncanny at first, but it quickly becomes something you not only expect but appreciate. Because that’s what we want our digital tools and technologies to be: Instruments that guess what we want and give it to us as soon as, or even better before we ask for it. But are these tools giving us the information we are looking for of are they providing us with the answers they think we want even if that information is not actually what we should be receiving? And just as importantly: How do these technologies know what we are looking for and what kind of answers we prefer? And who controls, interprets, and protects that information and that process?

Glass

As I write this Google is in the process of rolling out a new type of technology that has the potential of changing our lives, our interactions, and our society in a fundamental way. That technology, obscurely named “Glass“, is designed to add a digital layer to our everyday lives, removing the abstraction of the screen by superimposing web-based services and capabilities onto the real world we see in front of us. Glass is a computer in the shape of glasses, providing a heads up display akin to what you see in video games but designed for everyday life. The stuff of dreams made reality. The tech world is not surprisingly raving about this new leap in technological advancement. Wearable computers have long been the Holy Grail for tech enthusiasts and the potential inherent in this technology has long been a favored topic among science fiction writers and technologists alike. Used for good the technology Glass represents could be of tremendous value and benefit to us all. I can think of thousands of situations where Gass could be useful, essential, even required. And that is undoubtedly the intention of its creators: To make live easier, better, more enjoyable. But whatever its intention, this technology could easily end up augmenting our reality and our lives in a very real way that makes Orwell’s dystopian predictions of Big Brother a rosy fairytale. And the alarming part is we wound’t notice it was happening because it already is.

The Map of You and Me

Take a step back and think about how you use the web today. No longer just an information hub the web has become the medium on which we conduct a large percentage of our communication. In the past you probably used Google mainly for search, but today you likely use it for your email, chat, social networking, video consumption, and more. And Google is but one of many vendors for search and web services. Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, Pinterest, all of these services have been adopted into our everyday lives under the auspice of making our lives simpler and more informed. But what happens behind the scenes? How is it that these services are so good at guessing what we want and serving our social, informational, and entertainment needs? It’s because every time we use one of these services that service in turn gathers, stores, and interprets information about us and our behaviours. And the more information is gathered and analyzed, the better the algorithms get and the better the services get at predicting our behaviour. Every email you send, every Tweet or Facebook update, FourSquare check in, every watched YouTube video, comment on Google+ or simple text search in a search engine becomes part of a personality profile. And every future action on these services is impacted by this profile. If this was happening in the real world we would be alarmed. When Target started profiling its customers and was able to predict a customer’s pregnancy before her family, it sparked an outrage. But our online services have been doing this for years and have eased us into it so that rather than questioning what is going on we not only accept but expect it. We have implicitly allowed large data mining corporations to start the biggest mapping of human behaviour ever undertaken, and done so without asking questions about why they are doing it and what this information is and will be used for.

Bubbles

On the face of it all this may seem to be OK. If a personality profile means the services you use online can predict what you are doing and simplify your life accordingly, what’s wrong with that? The problem is that the main purpose of these services is not to help you but to keep you using the service and be influenced by it and things like advertising in the process. So instead of providing you with the information you are looking for, they provide you with the information they think you will like the most and therefore return next time you want information. When you make a search on a search engine or open Facebook you are not presented with an accurate picture of the online world. Instead what you get is a carefully crafted image skewed to match your biases and preferences, whether they be social, religious, ethnic, or political. A conservative christian white male will be presented with vastly different search results from those of a liberal atheist Asian female when entering queries regarding politics, religion, or ethnicity. And the search results they get will usually be ones that provide positive reinforcement to their views and ideals. This phenomenon has been called the Filter Bubble and it is something we as a society need to take a long hard look at.

In a nutshell Filter Bubbles are web based worldwide echo chambers that isolate ideas and protect their inhabitants from opposing or dissenting views. As a result when a person with extreme ideas goes to the web, he will find endless support for his ideas, even if those ideas are groundless, misinformed, and largely discarded by society as a whole. In a worst-case-scenario this informational bias can lead to a person becoming radicalized and a danger to society. In the last few years we have seen several instances where the filter bubble is likely to have had a part: In the USA a large portion of the populace believe in one of many unfounded and debunked conspiracy theories about President Barack Obama – that he is a Muslim, that he is not a US citizen, that he is a terrorist and so on. In Norway an ultra-nationalist right wing terrorist killed 77 people in an attempt to quash a political party he was convinced was trying to convert the country to Islam. And in the wake of the Newtown massacre that saw 26 killed, so-called “Truthers” used the web to promote a conspiracy theory that the attack was a hoax perpetrated by the government to bring forth stricter gun control laws. The common thread that binds these and other such instances together is that the ideas are perpetuated on the web and spread among like minded people. And once they are caught in a filter bubble they only find information that reinforces and strengthens these ideas. Google and other service provides claim they are taking steps to prevent this type of extremist bubble effect, but the principle of the filter bubble lies at the core of their services and will more likely get further entrenched than dismantled.

Your Lifestream, controlled

Looking into his crystal ball technologist David Gelernter is now predicting we are moving towards a future in which predictive search and input is coupled with real-time streaming of information producing a personalized information stream presented to us at all times. Considering the current bias in online information delivery, and the ever escalating data mining of our everyday lives, this is an alarming proposition at the best of times. When you add Google Glass and the inevitable Apple variety of the same product it becomes a nightmare Orwell would have thought too unrealistic to write, even as fiction. Consider a world in which a significant percentage of the population wore Glass or an equivalent product. They would be wired to the web and its services 24/7/365 and would send and receive a constant stream of information. At the other end all that information would get stored, parsed, analyzed, and used to guide the users through their lives. There are tremendous security and privacy issues here, many of which are addressed in Mark Hurst’s The Google Glass future no one is talking about, but to me the more alarming aspect is the potential this technology gives to large corporations, clever marketers, and even governments to influence and control our behaviour.

If you take a look at your life today you can see how much influence search and social sharing has on your decisions and your opinions. And these influences are already heavily curated to move you towards certain products, attitudes, and behaviours. For now this is based on your interactions with computers, tablets, and smart phones. Now imagine what happens when you start wearing a device that provides this same type of information to you at all times. No longer abstracted to an external screen but added to your regular field of vision. And while you are consuming the carefully curated and controlled information fed to you, the device is recording your every move, every interaction, and every word spoken.

Brave New World of Glass

On a server somewhere there is a file with your name on it with more information about you than you have on yourself. The server can predict your every move with impressive accuracy, it knows where you are, where you are going, and who you are interacting with. And at every turn in your life it will use this information to try to influence your decisions and your actions. This is not science fiction nor the future. This is happening today, right now, as you are reading this and considering who to share it with. Tomorrow it will be right in front of your eyes changing your reality. Big Brother could be so lucky…

Categories
Internet My Opinion

Powerful. Beautiful. Meaningful.

We are graduating members of the class of We Made It

Sometimes amazing things bubble up from the murky depths of the web to provide us with perspective. Whether you are or were a victim of bullying, you stood by while others were bullied, or you were a bully yourself, grant yourself the time to watch this piece of internet art.

For more info go to tothisdayproject.com