Eryan Cobham

Thinker-tinker. Web Developer.

Try a Little Tenderness…

People on the web like to criticize and insult others. That’s a pretty obvious statement, but I might not mean who you think I mean. I’m not referring to the usual anonymous discussion thread or bulletin board trolls. I mean that the people who go to work every day actually building the web like to criticize and insult each other. I’m also not referring to legitimate constructive criticism–you know, the type that offers helpful suggestions about how to improve something. No, people that build the web just like to call each other idiots a lot. You’ve probably done it too and not thought much about it. Maybe you’ve had to work on a redesign for a site where it seemed like it was the first site previous designer/developer had ever worked on. “What kind of person still used tables in 2006? He/she obviously had no idea what they were doing and doesn’t deserve to even have an email address, much less make websites.” It’s almost second-nature, many of us care pretty deeply about what we do and we hate to see someone else do it poorly. Not only because it reflect badly on everyone else, but also because we’re generally nerds that like to see things done “the right way” (whatever that means to you).

I had been thinking about this phenomenon a while ago, early last year sometime, when I noticed the disproportionate contempt I had for some websites. I’d go through sites picking at all of the little errors that I noticed, wondering how they slipped through, and thinking about how of course I’d be able to do a much better job. Then I started getting a lot busier and started looking at some of the stuff I was putting out, and wondering what the next person that has to work on the site I just finished going to say about me? Yeah, there may be some things I couldn’t quite smooth out before the deadline to launch the site came up, but I had reasons! My successor has to take into account the time it took for the client to respond, or their irrational color preference I couldn’t budge, or their requirement that I everything be crammed onto the home page with terrible copy and spacing!

Actually, no. Your successor won’t take that into account, the same way you didn’t take it into account when looking at someone else’s work.

What made me think of all of this was this little controversy in the web design community due to a blog post by Andy Rutledge critiquing the design of news websites and using the New York Times, specifically, as an example. I definitely respect Andy as a designer and for the many posts he writes explaining some of the things that designers should be doing. I read that post and thought some of his ideas were pretty good. While they certainly wouldn’t completely work for the Times, maybe some news organizations would be able to implement some aspects and make reading news on the web a better experience. I’m not a fan of his outspoken, and in my opinion somewhat combative and inflammatory style, but I can usually get past that stuff to focus on the helpful parts. After reading the post, I didn’t think about it too much, until I saw this blog post by Khoi Vinh that seemed to refer to Rutledge’s post. Vinh is a former design director for the Times, so he and a lot of his friends and former coworkers built the site.

Vinh praises some of the ideas and the execution of the blog post, but he makes a critical point at the end that I found most important.

I will say this, though: unsolicited redesigns are terrific and fun and useful, and I hope designers never stop doing them. But as they do so, I also hope they remember it helps no one — least of all the author of the redesign — to assume the worst about the original source and the people who work hard to maintain and improve it, even though those efforts may seem imperfect from the outside. If you have good ideas and the talent to execute them and argue for them, the world will still sit up and pay attention even if you take care in your language and show respect to those who don’t see things quite the way you do.

Basically (in not so many words) you can disagree without being disagreeable.

Apparently Rutledge has been receiving a lot of criticism for his redesign, and he wrote another post addressing such criticism, once again written in the same tone. I read some of the articles which he linked to. Most certainly didn’t fully get across what he was trying to do with his analysis, but I didn’t think they were quite as bad as he seems to think (this seems natural, since they weren’t attacking me personally). However, when people (including employees of the Times) took to twitter, blog posts and news articles to attack Rutledge, I don’t know if they were responding to his points so much as they were responding to his tone and some of the content around his points. From the first paragraph of his post, he basically primes people to start coming up with an a response.

Digital news is broken. Actually, news itself is broken. Almost all news organizations have abandoned reporting in favor of editorial; have cultivated reader opinion in place of responsibility; and have traded ethical standards for misdirection and whatever consensus defines as forgivable. And this is before you even lay eyes on what passes for news design on a monitor or device screen these days.

Maybe he was trying to draw attention to the post, or maybe that’s just how he feels, nobody knows but him. Either way, this brings me back to my original point. People don’t seem to consider (or care) that there are actual people on the other side of the screen. As the worker bees trying to grow the Internet every day, you would think that we’d would be much more cognizant of this on a daily basis, but it doesn’t seem that way.

This isn’t about not hurting people’s feelings. That has to happen and can’t be avoided. Any kind of criticism hurts, even the constructive kind. But at least constructive criticism shows you a path to improving, so that’s what you latch on to, and you grow and get better. But if you go to work every day, trying to improve, what kind of lesson can you really take from someone saying “[i]t is hard to believe that the Times, or any other similar publication, actually cares about the news when they treat it with this sort of indignity”?

I think that kind of language immediately obscures the point you were trying to make and potentially forecloses the possibility of a reasonable debate about the issues. It makes it easy to argue and difficult to learn anything when you just think the person you’re arguing against is stupid and wrong. All I’m really trying to say is that I hope in the future we all think a bit more about who did the hard work to create the thing that we’re so casually insulting. I happen to think that’s a better way of operating. I intend to do my part here and on Twitter to make what I say more productive, and closer to something I would actually want to spend time reading. Hopefully others do too.

As Many Times as It Takes

White celebrities move in a space of white privilege that allows for both forgiveness and forgetfulness on behalf of the ever-present mainstream media machine. This is a space that Black artists are shut out of. As racial identity continues to be negotiated through images and representations, Black celebrities continue to be subjected to the deeply embedded archetypes and stereotypes of Blacks in this country. Read: Chris Brown as the “angry black juvenile delinquent” and Janet Jackson as the “hyper-sexualized, overly promiscuous black female.”

I’m a little torn about this article, which you should go and read first. On one hand, I definitely agree with her larger point—that black celebrities can be subject to very different standards than white celebrities. On the other hand, this seems to be a particularly bad situation to use as an example of such differences.

I would actually argue that the black community is a little too fast and forgiving in bringing its celebrities back into the fold. Not for the stupid stuff I don’t care about, like showing a nipple on or having a stress-induced nervous breakdown, but for serious stuff, like statutory rape and violence. I think there is too much rushing to protect someone because the mainstream media is being too hard on them. One obvious example is R. Kelly, who managed to neither apologize nor suffer any long-term legal repercussions beyond the expense and public humiliation of the trial. People never seemed to stop stepping in the name of love.

I think Chris Brown’s situation is quite a bit different though, because he committed an act of violence against another person, and that person was at least as famous as he was (don’t discount how important that second part is). I don’t really follow much celebrity news and gossip, so I don’t know how many other celebrities of any race were involved with violence like this. I know Sheen has had some charges brought and abused the women associated with him on several occasions. Unfortunately Sheen is a bigger star than them, and people took their colorful pasts to mean they were slightly less…reputable. Wrongly, their accounts of the incidents were discounted. There’s also Mel Gibson, but he’s continuing to suffer some consequences. I’m sure there are more, but right now I can’t really think of any comparable situations, other than maybe Ike and Tina Turner. Yeah, Miley Cyrus and Lindsey Lohan and others have done dumb stuff, but they’re only hurting themselves, and people love to see the rich and famous self-destruct.

With Brown, I never really got a sense of any contrition. Like I said, I don’t pay a whole lot of attention, so I could be wrong. I remember him putting out a youtube video, but I also definitely remember seeing pictures of him chilling at a pool with a bunch of women having a good ‘ol time a few weeks later. I’m not saying he needed to be a hermit, but c’mon son, Rihanna’s face hadn’t even finished healing yet. Since he was apparently shunned immediately after the incident, this is basically the first time in two years that people actually want to hear what he has to say—so long as what he has to say is “I’m sorry” (look no further than Michael Vick for an example of that). His big problem (besides having a temper) is that he has now turned what could have been a bad incident into a bad pattern. He could have taken all the questions in stride, sounded contrite, performed, and moved on to the next interview but he didn’t. Why? Because he does have anger issues.

Leigh is right that Brown is a young kid that needs better people around him, but I also think he needs some serious anger management and time before he should be allowed to let slide. Domestic violence is too important of an issue for two years, a misdemeanor charge, and some bs community service to be enough. That’s not the way things work nowadays, though. Now, your road to redemption is paved with dollar bills. The way things work is that he has two choices: 1) change the topic by making himself into a sideshow, so people stop thinking about why he was originally in the news (not an easy thing to do, making violence funny, but possible, as Sheen has shown); or 2) start excelling at his craft and making hit songs (the R. Kelly/Kobe Bryant route). He had already chosen the latter path, which is the only reason he was on GMA to begin with.

Unfortunately, if he really wants people to stop asking him questions, then all he needs to do is start “#winning.”

Google Voice Issues

Just finished reading this article on Slate about how Google Voice now has phone number portability. The author, Farhad Manjoo, fully admits that he’s a huge Google Voice proponent and thinks everybody should use it too. That’s his opinion, and he’s welcome to it, but I’ve been using GVoice since it was still called GrandCentral, before it was purchased by Google, and I steadily find myself no longer wanting it to be the one and only number you will ever need that they are trying to make it into. I actually find myself much more interested in finding a service that does the opposite. I’ll explain, here’s the part near the end that struck me.

The phone network still operates as if our phones are tied to specific, permanent devices and geographic locations. Voice is building a new, modern structure on top of this network, a system that works more like e-mail or instant messaging. Your e-mail and IM accounts aren’t tied to certain computers; they’re out in the cloud, and you can chat with your friends whether you’re at home in Brooklyn or at an Internet cafe in Zanzibar.

Phones should work the same way. Why shouldn’t you be able to reach me on a single number whether I’m at home or at work? And why shouldn’t I be able to answer every call on my home phone, where I don’t have to pay for airtime?

There’s no doubt that GVoice is pretty powerful. You can customize it so that family members’ calls always get through, work calls only come through at certain times, and blocked numbers go straight to voicemail. That’s all pretty great, because it’s really flexible, and you can have a different action for each person with your number.

The other side of that coin though is that flexibility causes equal parts complication. You have the power to go into fine-grained detail with what happens when each person calls your number, but that means you have to actually log onto GVoice and spend the time doing all of that customization, which even I am loathe to do. Even if it’s only to put everybody into “Family,” “Friends,” and “Work” groups, that’s a pretty significant investment of time (especially when you have Google Contacts adding every single person you email into your contact list— a big part of why I stopped syncing GContacts with Address Book and just largely ignore it). I organized people into groups once a long time ago; it took forever, and I have no interest in doing so again.

Power users are sure to dig deep into these customizing features in order to save a few minutes here and there out of their busy schedules, but for most people, it’s just overkill. You don’t want work calls coming in on your cell phone? Then you probably just don’t give work people your cell phone number. Obviously some people don’t have that option, but then how much does GVoice really help in that case anyway? You can look and see who’s calling and decide not to answer. GVoice basically helps automate that, but takes away the discretion you usually have (regardless of whether or not you want that discretion). It further breaks down that barrier between home and work that some of us value fairly highly. Do you really want people from work reaching you by phone as easily as they can reach you by email?

Right now I basically use Google voice as my business phone line. When somebody calls it’ll ring all my phones and I pick up wherever I’m at, usually on my cell. What I’d really like though, is closer something that does the opposite and mostly exists already—kind of like call forwarding. Instead of one number to rule them all, I want to have a few different phone numbers—one for work, one for family/friends, and maybe one for all those places you have to give a number but don’t want to give your cell because of telemarketers—that all go to the same phone (cell or otherwise). This would be much rougher than the fine grained control you get from GVoice right now, but I think it’d be easier for me to deal with, because it’s basically what I do now. I don’t have any controls on GVoice, but if people are calling that number then I know it must be for work, because that’s pretty much the only time I give it out. So I can just decide not to answer. No other configuration needed.

This will probably never happen, because it would start to remove phone companies as a middleman. It would basically be a system where you own some phone numbers and then can assign those numbers yourself to one or more devices, rather than going through AT&T; or Verizon and asking them to do so, the way we do now. I can still hope though. In the meantime I may just accumulate a few numbers through Google Voice and figure out a way to implement my system.

My Money, My Life

I’m currently reading “Your Money or Your Life,” and I came across something in the book that bugged me enough that I felt compelled to write about it.

A quote from the book:

Here’s the riddle: Who is more financially independent—someone who can fix a leaky faucet, or someone who must pay another person to fix it? … Isn’t needing money to make it through life actually a form of dependence? If that is so, then asking the question “What would this expenditure look like if I had the time and skills to maintain my possessions myself?” will lead you toward less dependence on money to fill your needs.

That little section bothered me because it’s emblematic of a very light undercurrent going through the book. A large chunk of the first few chapters are about figuring out how much money you are taking in, figuring out how you are spending that money and your time, and deciding if your priorities align with your spending—both money and time (at least that’s what I’ve taken from it so far). My issue is that here and in other places throughout the book they stray away from their message of telling you to figure out your own values, and move too close to just telling you what your values should be. 

The reason this stuck out and bothered me is because at this point in the book, I’m already deep into thinking about how I spend my time and money, and whether I’m happy with that balance, and one of the more significant things I’m thinking about is home ownership. We’ve had our place for about 5 years now and we’re looking to move on, so an important decision is whether we want to buy another place or just rent. And I’m starting to come to terms with and embrace the fact that I don’t really care at all about owning a house. I consider time spent fixing things around the house to be completely wasted. So I’d be more than happy to pay somebody to fix something that breaks. That would be a part of financial independence for me

Basically I just hope that other people reading the book are able to make their own decisions about what they value rather than take some of the author’s values as gospel.

Blind Spot

Google released a new project into the wild a couple of days ago, it’s called Google Buzz and in the announcement, they describe it as “ a new way to start conversations about the things you find interesting,” and that’s essentially what it is. You can write a buzz about whatever is on your mind and your friends and family and whoever you’re connected to can see it and comment on it. There’s plenty of talk about them trying to compete with Twitter and Facebook, but that’s not really my point here. It’s an interesting service, but the problem with it is that the default setting of all of these updates and comments is to be Public. This has some potentially scary privacy implications that make it very problematic, since at some point it’s going to be automatically enabled in every gmail account. Google has tried to address some of those concerns, but I have my doubts about whether they’ll succeed.

I’m not really surprised that Google would make a mistake like this, because it seems like every tech company has a blind spot. That blind spot usually relates to anything that would interfere with the way they make the majority of their money. Microsoft and Apple don’t seem to get “cloud computing,” because they make their money selling desktop computers and electronic devices where everything you need is in your hand. A bunch of other companies don’t seem to understand good design, because they make their money selling cheap knockoffs that only compete on price, so paying to design something would cut into those razor-thin margins. But Google, they don’t seem to understand anything that deals with interacting with other people, especially not privacy. That’s because they make their money using computers running algorithms that index information and sell ads whenever you search for that particular piece of information you need.

The privacy problems with Buzz actually start with a system that it’s dependent on, Google Contacts. Google tried to unify the contact managers on several different products, like Gmail and Google Reader into one central place to manage your contacts. That was a good idea, but the problem was that they made the decision to add people to your address book and show them on your IM program just based on how often you email them. Unfortunately they chose not to make a distinction between people you want to email and people you have to email. So, if you use google chat then people that you email regularly, but aren’t really friends of yours, start IMing you. There are plenty of people I take pictures of when I go to weddings or other events, and I label their faces in Picasa Web Albums so that I can remember their names in the future, but that doesn’t mean I want them listed as a contact. And if you take a look through your contacts, all of a sudden a lot of names start appearing that you don’t recognize because you only emailed them once when replying to a joke your friend cc’d you on. In the case of your contact list you can’t even change that setting, you just have to deal with the pollution of your contact list.

Here’s a general rule for Google: rightly or wrongly, people generally think of the emails in their inbox as private. So you should not put new functionality that is, by default, public in that same inbox. People get confused about how to log into facebook, so how exactly do you think they’re going to be able to tell the difference between an email to their friend and a comment that gets immediately indexed and is available in search results around the world? Answer: they won’t be able to tell the difference, and once they realize that their coworkers and family and 5 billion other people can read that offensive joke they just made they’ll be pretty pissed, and they’ll be pissed at Google.

With Google already starting to have problems in Europe because of privacy concerns, they are going to have to start taking these issues seriously. But that sort of direction has to come from the top of the organization, so it doesn’t help much when your CEO says dumb things like, “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” It shows a fundamental lack of concern for these issues, and it might finally be enough to make me start reconsidering some of their services.

Update 2/15/09: Looks like they made a few more changes because of the response they were getting. It’ll likely be enough to get people to relax, but I still think these problems will pop up for them again and again.