2011 has come and gone; parts of the world are already tiredly and tirelessly living in 2012, whilst some, like myself, are wrapping up the day in preparation of tonight’s festivities. 2011 has been quite an exciting year for me, but I’m even more excited about the upcoming one.
My 2011 started with a new U.S. work visa permitting me a more permanent return to America, where I started as Product Designer for Apture. Ten months and twobig releases later, Apture was acquired by Google. I left the company shortly beforehand, however, to work on the next big thing for myself. Early next year you’ll see what that’s all about.
This past year I also spoke at various conferences and events, and I hope to do even more of that in 2012. It’s been a fantastic year for the web industry at large, and I thoroughly enjoy helping people understand, as well as learn more myself about, all the new tools, tricks and techniques for building the next generation of websites and applications.
We of course aren’t sitting still, but I want to thank the team—Paul Irish, Alex Sexton, Ryan Seddon—and all of our many, many contributors for their great work on making the library better and better. What’s in store for next year is something you’ll find out eventually, but we have awesome plans for taking Modernizr to the next level again!
Those who follow me on Twitter or read this blog frequently already know that I’ve become very vocal about equality in our industry and society in 2011. I’ve always been passionate about it, but it wasn’t until this past year that I truly got to see how unacceptably unfair our society is structured, and took action.
Acknowledging and, consequently, combating the uncomfortable truths we ignore every day was not just an eye-opening experience. It was a journey that helped me become a significantly better person overall, and though I still have much to learn I consider myself lucky to have come this far already. For 2012, I plan to do even more work in this area, focusing in particular on resources to help our collective field further towards true equality.
Some highlights from my own writing about equality, women in tech and sexism this past year:
In his recent piece entitled “Gamification sucks”, Brent Simmons attempts to break down why “gamification” makes for bad software. He arrives at more or less the right conclusion, but not as a result of the right process. In the spirit of design—understanding the why of a process, and not just the end result—I’d like to elaborate a little on Brent’s piece to hopefully help software designers and developers make better decisions with regard to “gamification”.
First, let's assess what “gamification” entails. Gamification is the concept of applying game mechanics to non-game software and interfaces, in order to make them more appealing, memorable, engaging and/or addictive to the end user. In a nutshell, the idea can be summed up as “games are fun, people play games a lot, so let’s make our software more like games.”
Or you could look at this trend and say, “As software gets simpler, it gets dumbed-down — even toddlers can use iPads. Users are now on the mental level of children, and we should design accordingly. What do children like? Games.”
This is far too simple and big a leap to explain the proliferation of software that is “gamified”. Children like games, sure, but children are not the target audience for the type of software we’re talking about; that audience is adults. Do adults like the kind of games that children like? Not typically, so that would be a poor guiding metric, and would do nothing to explain why gamified software is having so much success. The type of games that adults play tend to be quite complex—sometimes more so than our productivity software.
No, the real science behind gamification is a far more perverse, depressing and manipulative one than Brent theorized. It is all about addictive substances and behaviors, human psychology, and taking advantage of the scientifically-verified knowledge we have of these topics.
Zynga is a great example of a company that has taken gamification to a perverse extreme; they have gamified free time itself, rather than just software. Worse, they have done it so successfully that not only do many of their users mistake time they should spend working, studying or doing otherwise productive things as free time, they have “validated” this entire approach as a viable business plan. Zynga is now just one player in a field of many, all of whom are creating games that survive solely on their gamification principles and completely lack any real gameplay, depth or rewarding satisfaction for the player.
So what is it that they do that is so objectionable? How does one “gamify free time” anyway? Let's look at what gamification really is all about.
Badges are an easily understandable example of game mechanics that have been taken out of their gaming environments and applied to other software, from social geolocation networks like Foursquare to learning resources like StackOverflow or Treehouse. Badges are both milestone and reward, elements found in many games. They are a common, but not exclusive, example of relatively superficial game mechanics that have been put in a different software context. They have a positive effect on end users because milestones give you a sense of achievement, and rewards are a positive reinforcement that we all know works well to motivate people.
So what is behind those game mechanics in the first place? Why do games have them? Now we’re exploring human psychology and how games have innocently made use of it throughout their history. It’s hard to pinpoint what the first games were that made use of milestones because they come in so many variants—levels, bosses, map areas, weapons, you name them—but what we can reasonably assume is that these early milestones in games were more related to technical limitations than psychological design. It is more likely that somewhere in the 30+ years of video game history that involves milestones, someone noticed that “finishing a level” was a remarkably satisfying and happiness-inducing experience, and began to study it. Now we have games that are built entirely around rewarding almost every individual action somehow, from the significant achievement to the downright minute.
While the video game industry at large continues unabated with complex games full of real challenges the player has to overcome, subsets of the industry are getting mired in analytical psycho-manipulation, producing games that play us more than we play them. We exchange our valuable time for the constant—if minuscule—dopamine* boosts these games offer, willfully ignorant of the long-term loss we feel when we stop playing and realize that we haven’t truly accomplished anything. We didn’t win a race or thwart an evil boss’s plot to take over a fictional world; we clicked or tapped around an interface designed to wear us down until we fork over some more dollars to speed up the process of losing interest in the game. Gameplay depth is as discernible here as morality is in the financial markets. Both Facebook and the Chrome Web App Store are rife with games like this; entire companies have sprouted from the tainted soil left behind from Zynga’s mad dash to its billion-dollar-plus valuation (and subsequent IPO).
It is no wonder that these principles have blown over to the adjacent industry of software development. It was an industry with little movement in terms of its own design, its own nature. Several factors have changed that, and gamification is one of them.
But simply saying “no” to gamification is not a great strategy; the human creature is a feeble one, easily manipulated by competitors less concerned with the implications of taking advantage of our understanding of human psychology and behavior. While a comparison to drug dealers is far too extreme, our obsession with commerce and profits pushes our field towards similar conduct and methodologies. Competing without at least understanding these principles is becoming harder and harder each day, perverse as it may be.
Most gamification sucks because it breaks down our humanity like it is no more than a computer program that needs to be understood and then rewritten for maximum reward—reward for the company behind it, rather than for the player. That's how gamification is disrespectful: because it no longer treats us like people.
Fortunately, we can remain self-aware and apply gamification’s principles without reducing our respect for our users. The aforementioned learning resources—Stack Overflow and Treehouse—are pretty good, if rather obvious, examples of this: they offer rewards for actual achievements as best they can, rather than for the sake of offering rewards. Interfaces and software can embed milestones in ways that correlate with real accomplishments, creating a sense of positive reinforcement that doesn’t disrespect the time or value of the user, but rather respects it and uses these methods to create a stronger bond between itself and the user. An emotional connection that helps us as people remember and appreciate the software we use.
There is no shame in this, as long as we maintain a strong awareness of how we apply these principles and methods. And if you have any doubt: even the company that people like Brent Simmons or JohnGruber would cite as an example that respects its customers the most, Apple, participates in these principles of positive reinforcement:
* Serotonin, as written previously, is not the chemical that deals with rewards. It relates to gamification in other ways. My thanks to Matthew Pennell for the correction.
American journalism is dumber than most journalists, who often share my sense of absurdity about these practices. A major reason we have a practice less intelligent than its practitioners is the prestige that the View from Nowhere still claims.
Yesterday, at the An Event Apart conference in San Francisco, one of the speakers made a remark that was instantly quoted widely on Twitter: “There are no stupid users, only stupid interaction designers.” The context in which this statement was made was lost, so for all those not in attendance it was anyone’s guess what the speaker was really talking about. How it came across, though, was both mean and shortsighted; it implied that any interaction designer whose work wasn’t immediately clear and obvious to any and all users, must therefore be stupid. Not “has done a stupid job”, mind you, but actually isstupid themselves.
The remark accomplished two things: for one, it showed a lack of understanding towards the field of Interaction Design, but more importantly, it bred hostility within our very own industry, for what seemed like nothing more than cheap laughs. Understandably, various people took toTwitter to address (or mock) it.
As an industry of progressive-leaning, forward-thinking designers and developers, we frequently like to pride ourselves on being socially liberal and modern in our views. Sexism obviously does not fit in that (just like racism, etc.) so we react with outrage whenever we—directly or indirectly—get accused of sexism. Some make claims of a meritocracy, ignorant of the different experiences the privileged and disenfranchised groups have in our field. Much as we may not want to admit it, it needs saying: our industry’s culture does not offer equal opportunities for all. This is not an accusation; this is the start of a larger debate.
A culture with true equality has to be an inclusive culture, one where every individual member has a sense of belonging: a feeling of being respected and valued for who they are and what they do—not for what they look like or believe in. What our culture is like is defined by the way we communicate with one another both online and in person, like at the myriad events we organize and attend to discuss matters of our field. Every conference, meetup, dinner get-together or coffee chat that we partake in, contributes to the kind of message we send outwards about the culture of our industry. Conferences in particular play an important role in this, because they are large events where a significant number of people all get together in person and participate in the culture we put forth.
Since our culture is the collective result of our words and our actions, it negatively affects us all when presenters at an event put up slides featuring a naked woman [UPDATE: the author has since pulled the offending slide, but there is a NSFW backup for posterity], or a cartoon of a naked woman, or a bunch of dildos. Does that say “inclusive culture” to you? No, it says that apparently enough of us think that this is acceptable, or a least don’t openly speak out against it to establish that this is something we do not want in our culture. And that’s a shame, because ask almost any individual member of our industry and they would very clearly (and often genuinely) express support for fair and equal treatment of minorities and women, and favor an inclusive culture with equal opportunity for all. But because we currently don’t have such a culture, nor one of strong self-moderation for that matter, small harmful acts by a limited number of people become representative of our culture. They stand out, and they send a much stronger signal than the combined silence of everyone else. And that signal is: we think sexual imagery is acceptable or appropriate in our line of work.
This is absolutely not an accurate reflection of the views held by many—and hopefully most—individuals of our industry, but, it is how our culture is perceived as a result.
What we’re dealing with is known as microinequity: a system with many small events “which are often ephemeral and hard-to-prove, events which are covert, often unintentional, frequently unrecognized by the perpetrator, which occur wherever people are perceived to be ‘different.’” Eric Ries explained a similar systemic problem recently, but in the context of racial diversity. Some of these events are overt, like inappropriate imagery at conferences, but many smaller ones establish the culture just as much, if not more so. The research data I linked to earlier discusses how 52% of women in the STEM fields—Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths—switch industries due to the hostile, macho cultures and isolation they face in STEM, two factors heavily stimulated by things like pornographic imagery in presentations.
By now we’ve determined that we are still a field of overwhelmingly well-meaning individuals, who would like for this to be a meritocracy, but through a combination of lack of awareness, inaction, and silence, we send the occasional—but clear—message that this is not a welcoming and equal-opportunity industry right now. So how do we fix that?
Solutions towards inclusivity
We can cultivate a more inclusive culture by a variety of methods, all of which we should apply wherever possible.
First, we need to speak up for ourselves and others, as often as we have the energy and willingness to do so. Silence brings with it a tacit approval of the wrongdoing before us; we need to all feel comfortable and safe to voice our discontent, but until we get there we have to be courageous and speak out loudly—also to show others that it is okay to do so. For those situations where speaking up may involve a personal risk—and this is a frequent reality, whether you believe it or not—we should reach out to others who are willing to speak out for us. My contact form is always available for this, and your privacy is guaranteed.
Second, we need to learn how to better empathize with others. This applies to all of us, men and women alike. Yes, this obviously also applies to me. I often use a provocative tone (mostly on Twitter), which some appreciate but others find off-putting and incendiary. To the latter group it becomes unhelpful and unwelcoming, so in order for my message to become more inclusive I am learning to tone myself down. It may lose some identity, but that’s a sacrifice well worth making when it means we all collectively get better in the long term.
Lastly, we should avoid finger-pointing and placing blame, except for overt and/or egregious offenders. We all shoulder the responsibilities here, and we should all put in an effort to be more conscious and aware of the subtleties and complexities of these issues. This is a big thing to ask for, because it takes years to really learn the ins and outs, but small steps here can make a big difference for our culture. Specifically, we should try to adopt more inclusive debate techniques when talking about this issue.
Certain sub-communities within our industry can wax poetically about code or startups, but alienate most women (and plenty of men) the instant they try to discuss the topic of gender. Discussing sexism (or, say, abortion) should be done with women, not about them. That also means listening respectfully to what they have to contribute. It means not dismissing their views simply because they’re women, and paying attention to your own behavior very carefully while discussing these issues.
The greatest challenge that non-feminists have to overcome is the inner conflict they face once they start acknowledging that (subtle and overt) sexism is still pervasive in our society, or even just our industry, because it requires them to admit that they may have implicitly contributed to it in the past via small, unintentional actions. It’s similarly difficult for men (white men in particular) to acknowledge that they’re highly privileged in today’s society, because doing so means admitting that they have enjoyed the advantages of those privileges. This can lead to a somewhat existential crisis, perhaps, but suck it up: you don’t have to be ashamed of having enjoyed privileges. In fact, it is courageous to admit to yourself and others that you have, but it is even more important that you don’t flout or deny them, and that you become more aware of them—and a little more respectful to the opinions of those who did not have those privileges.
And yes, a lot of these suggestions involve making some sacrifices. But I consider that a good thing, as not furiously clinging on to your beliefs, rightly or wrongly, makes you a stronger, better and more respectable person in life. I’m working towards being a better person, making ours a better community. What are you working towards?
I want to thank Cori Johnson, Cindy Li and Dot Richards for their contributions and feedback for this article.
You can criminalize commonplace activities from law-abiding people, but eventually, something has to give.
Well, yes and no. We need to be more specific here; in the eyes of copyright holders, these people aren’t law-abiding. And just because a large group of people does something presumed legal, doesn’t mean we should legalize it. Think of it this way: substitute “remixing copyrighted material for non-commercial purposes” with “theft” in the material sense. We wouldn’t want to legitimize theft altogether.
The challenge with the remix-culture is that it has no visible or noticeable regard for copyright at all, as far as lawmakers are concerned. New laws in this area should make very clear distinctions between commercial and non-commercial use, as well as non-commercial use with commercial gain as a side-effect, e.g. if a non-commercial video goes viral, the creator may get commercial offerings—jobs, sponsorships, etc.—as a result thereof. In that circumstance, should the original artists whose work was remixed be rewarded now?
What’s definitely true is that remixing is not going to stop, and won’t be legislated away either. Best we can do is work towards a future where the majority of artists themselves don’t feel unfairly taken advantage of.
So far, the greatest quote I've heard in my 34 years is this: "Hatred never ceases by hatred in this world. By love alone it ceases; this is eternal law." Gotama the Buddha said that about 2,500 years ago.
Make sure to listen to the This American Life segment at the bottom, too.
Last week, Marco Arment wrote a small piece about Firefox’s uncertain future, a result of Google ostensibly reconsidering their partnership terms that provide roughly 84% of Mozilla’s income; then MG Siegler chimed in and offered the wild idea of Mozilla doing a Firefox phone, solely to secure its place on a mobile platform.
I first made a one-tweet response to MG Siegler’s wild idea, but my response warrants elaboration. Here’s what I said:
You know what would be wild? Separating the browser from the browser engine. Web standards beyond just HTML, CSS and JS.
But the community that builds websites and web applications for the rest of the world to use doesn't care so much about those distinguishing features as they do about the browsers implementing and supporting the latest new web technologies—HTML5 and related, CSS3, ECMAscript 5, and so forth—in a consistent and reliably testable manner. Shortly after I first launched Modernizr I wrote about the discoveries made during its development—notably about how browsers lie quite frequently—and although the situation is a little bit better now, it is far from where it ought to be. Browsers still frequently implement features in inconsistent or unverifiable manners.
It should be noted that the idea I tweeted is not a particularly realistic one; it involves all browser vendors to replace their internal engine with one that is owned and developed by contributors from the W3C as well as their competitors, all the while building their own browser product on top of this centralized engine. In case this isn’t clear enough, right now that would almost certainly mean adopting WebKit as the engine for all browsers: IE, Firefox and Opera. This will not happen, as each vendor believes (rightly or wrongly) that their engine is unique and compelling enough to compete with the others. Also, it would significantly set back all but Apple and Google, and thus be a rather unfair step to take.
Which brings us to the question: why do they compete in this realm? For Microsoft and Google it is simple: market share means driving traffic to their search engine, which brings in revenue, and thus market share is a closely-associated proxy to money. For Apple, it is about having control over the full stack, the end-to-end experience of the user, and that means having a best-of-breed browser on their platforms. Again, money, but by offering the best possible experience for the user and selling products on that promise. For Opera, its approach is to be universal and fast, with a notable dedication to older or simpler devices—including very basic feature phones. They don’t have a strong correlation between revenue and (desktop, in particular) market share as the bulk of their revenues are derived from partnerships with various vendors.
That leaves Firefox, the browser once heralded as the savior of the open web as we know it. For Firefox, market share gain used to mean “less market share dominance for IE”, which strongly encouraged web standards adoption amongst developers as well as Microsoft.
However, Firefox, to me, was as much about counter-culture as it was about standards. “Providing a better user experience” was understood, by Mozilla, to mean a standards-compliant browser. But that’s also where it ended, and as soon as other major players entered the field with standards-compliant browsers of their own, Firefox lost its defining edge. Its core value, the thing it stood for, was not “a better user experience”; it was “a standards-compliant experience”. It just happened to be the case that back when the alternatives didn’t offer something as fundamentally baseline as that, a standards-compliant experience was a better user experience. But now all the major browsers are pretty standards-compliant, and Firefox is losing momentum almost as fast as IE is losing market share.
Part of this is a shame, because if Firefox starts falling behind Chrome, the two dominant browsers on the web will be owned by vendors who, in their own way, would love nothing more than to “own” the web platform: Google and Microsoft. It should be noted that Microsoft has had a pretty worthwhile about-face in recent years, and are now committing strongly to open standards. Google, on the other hand, is behaving more and more like the Microsoft of the late ’90s, especially with its introductions of semi-proprietary extensions like Dart. ChromeOS, in this regard, can be seen as equal parts Google showing an encouraging belief that the web will be the platform of the future, as well as Google simply trying to carve out a portion of the web platform that they can then own to themselves.
This may seem innocuous, a common scenario of capitalism and markets. But the web is different; it isn’t a platform or ecosystem that any one party can cultivate on their own. In fact, it is more like the opposite of that. The web will only thrive as long as the web is not owned by any one entity; not owned, not controlled, and not defined.
So when one company uses its market share, ecosystem or whatever leverage it has, to try and “own” the web, I get a little worried. For years, Microsoft almost owned the web, and it nearly killed progress on the web for that time. Mozilla played an integral part in making sure it wasn’t going to be that way, and we are all grateful to them for that. But Webkit is now the new Firefox, and with every iteration in this cycle, we learn from past experiences—our own and others’—and we get smarter in our approach. Google is being smarter with Chrome than Mozilla was with Firefox. They are also less idealistic than Mozilla, what with being a corporate behemoth versus the quirky, open-source “browser of the people”.
Now Google is in a position where they could significantly threaten or debilitate Mozilla, some legal antitrust concerns notwithstanding. Microsoft is no longer trying to own the web—perhaps because they’re no longer in a position where that is even remotely feasible—but their influence is dwindling the more IE’s market share keeps dropping. If Mozilla becomes a sideline player, much like Opera—whom I greatly respect, but let’s be honest here—then there is only one strong player standing in the way between Google and dominance over the web.
Now, I know that many people will disagree with me on this, but I sincerely believe that Apple is the only dominant player in this game who has enough confidence in their own software, platforms and ecosystem, to truly have no interest in “owning” the web one way or another. Rather, I believe Apple would love nothing more than to see the web continue to thrive as long as no one gets to own it—including themselves. And, lastly, with Apple being somewhat in control of WebKit, the same engine that powers Google’s Chrome browser, it may very well be in the perfect position to safeguard that open, democratic future of the web that has made it become the world’s most interesting, exciting and powerful communications platform.
Just like Tim Berners-Lee envisioned it to be.
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In my two years on OkCupid, I’ve gone on a handful of dates and been treated to hundreds more hilarious, offensive and often bizarre messages. I’ve noticed the same themes playing out among the worst online daters. Some men have learned to obscure the ugliest parts of their personalities on online dating sites, hoping you won’t notice their jealousy issues, racism, or stupidity. But they’re never that good.
If ever there was an event to justify the darkest, most conspiratorial view held by many that the alliance of big money on Wall Street and big government produces nothing but secret deals that profit insiders—this is it.