Benedict Evans has written a terrific piece walking through the evolution of Facebook’s News Feed. It’s also one of the clearest, most concise deconstructions I’ve read of the underlying mechanics of feeds in general and how they evolve as they scale. Put it all together and you get a clear roadmap of what Facebook’s near future looks like. And lest you think this is all-Facebook-all-the-time, there’s plenty here that applies to news and product design as well. Both are disciplines where the “feed” concept is a frequent and recurring organizing principle.
Several third-party app makers have banded together to protest the shutdown of Twitter’s streaming APIs, along with a required switch to a new “Account Activity API.”
The removal of streaming services is likely to alter these apps in fundamental ways, breaking them in some cases. As of early Friday none of the developers noted had access to an existing beta that would let them test how the switch might affect their apps at scale.
If this sounds familiar it’s because Twitter has been making clumsy, developer-hostile moves for years. Ever since 2012, when they posted a confounding advisory warning developers not to create apps that “mimic or reproduce the mainstream Twitter consumer client experience,” Twitter has stoked an air of uncertainty around their third-party ecosystem.
One can venture a guess as to their motivation. Twitter has shifted away from its origins as a “platform” to a more traditional ad-supported play, one that requires large audiences and constant growth to thrive. If that’s your business model, a free-wheeling API isn’t in your best interest because it makes it difficult to guarantee the consistent delivery of ads to every user. But that’s still a guess, because as a company Twitter is just plain terrible about broadcasting its intent.
Ironically, Twitter owes its initial success to third-party developers more than most products. Twitter launched during the pre-iPhone, pre-app Internet, and was nominally based on SMS. But the way enthusiastic early members interacted with it most was through desktop apps built by third parties. For years Twitter had none of its own.
Twitter was born during an era when having an API was seen as a virtue, and enabling third-party developers was a key to growth. They reaped the benefits of that—they even co-opted their brand from a desktop Mac application—becoming immensely popular along the way.
Fast-forward to the present day and things have changed. Twitter is a company driven by growth on mobile, specifically its native iOS and Android apps. Desktop is a comparatively small share of their overall audience, and certainly not where the action is. And their revenue comes from ads, increasing the importance of controlling the user experience.
That’s fine. It’s just that Twitter doesn’t say so.
In many ways, I would respect Twitter more if they just came out and said it or announced in clear and unequivocal terms that they’re shutting down outside developers and why. This tweet from Dieter Bohn nails it (the rest of Dieter’s thread is worth checking out too):
The infuriating part of all of this is if Twitter wants to just cut third party apps, it should say so and not hide behind obscure api policy changes.— Dieter Bohn (@backlon) April 6, 2018
Maybe this is part of a great product refocusing at Twitter. I should hope so, since they’ve been making puzzling moves lately, like abandoning native apps on major platforms. Maybe they’ve got a Big Plan. Who knows? And it’s that “Who knows?” that kills. The end result is Twitter comes off looking like a company that doesn’t know what it’s doing, generating uncertainty for its developers, and by extension, its users.
Fittingly, I switched over to using Twitter’s native app on my iOS devices last year because I thought it was a near certainty they would eventually screw over third-party developers. I wanted to start getting used to what that future might feel like if I wanted to stay connected to my friends and colleagues on their network. Not because they said that was what was going to happen, but because it felt like that was what was going to happen. (Perhaps more damning, I was also using it to break myself of an obsessive Twitter-checking habit. I found their native app interrupted the scroll so much it discouraged the kind of regular, diligent scanning I would do with Tweetbot. And it worked. I check in far less now than I did before.)
Update: Twitter has announced they are delaying the rollout of the Account Activity API, and have committed to giving developers 90 days before they deprecate the existing Site Streams and User Streams APIs. The thread announcing the change links to a migration guide and encourages developers to sign up for beta access, but many questions still remain.
I was back on the Big Web Show with Jeffrey Zeldman earlier this month, talking about designing the news in an age when the media is under constant attack.
We also discussed an approach to story design that’s more like product design and less like traditional layout work. That is, treating individual news stories as discrete products, each with a set of goals beyond simply getting the user to read them. That part of the conversation spawned a separate post from Jeffrey, discussing the need for both “design that is faster and design that is slower.”
A few shots from some afternoon walks around the office neighborhood, not far from the Manhattan side of the Holland Tunnel.
There’s something about the tunnel that feels very Old New York to me. It hails from an age of great public works and industrial ambitions, now strained by the city that keeps rising around it. Still, it remains stitched into the fabric of daily life in the city—subsumed into the bones of New York, nearly overrun but not outgrown.
There are a couple things that set Column Setter apart. First, you can use any grid proportions you want. Unlike some other tools, it doesn’t rely on a set of predefined grids you have to cram your content into. You get to pick what works best for your design. Even better, it’s not a framework, so you don’t have to junk up your page with lots of krufty markup. Lastly, layouts built with Column Setter work in older browsers. While the future of advanced layout on the web is clearly CSS Grid, Column Setter’s got you covered if you need to support the broadest possible audience without resorting to lots of hacks or workarounds.
We’ve been using Column Setter on the new ProPublica.org for several months. It’s internal code name was “Josef” (as in Josef Müller-Brockmann, naturally). If you’ve browsed our site or read one of our feature stories recently, you’ve already seen Column Setter layouts in action.
Like pretty much everyone else in journalism I’ve been thinking a lot about Facebook’s big News Feed announcement.
In case you missed it, content posted by publishers and institutional players will now be downplayed in the News Feed in favor of stuff your friends and family share and comment on. The result will be fewer articles from newsrooms and (shudder) brands, and more stuff from actual people like your Aunt Susie. Fair enough. It’s named after a face book for a reason, right?
Facebook says they’re doing this to address the “well-being” of their users. Mark Zuckerberg uses the word multiple times in his post about the announcement. What they don’t say is “fake news” or address how these changes might stop bad guys from manipulating their network like they did during the U.S. Presidential election and Brexit (and likely elsewhere, too). Which is odd because those are clearly the precipitating events that led to these changes. And there’s good reason for concern, because this update may do little to stop it all from happening again.
Under this new arrangement “engagement” becomes the key factor in determining what users see. Publishers will still be able to post their stories, but it will take comments, shares, and “likes” from friends and family on those posts for them to rise to the top. In Facebook’s own words, “Posts that inspire back-and-forth discussion in the comments and posts that you might want to share and react to.” That means Facebook will be basing their revamped feed on a process that responds to emotional reactions.
That’s a setup that talks straight to the lizard brain. Moreover, it has a weak correlation with value. I’m talking about the good-for-people-and-society kind of value, not good-for-Facebook’s-bottom-line value. Josh Benton nails it in his post on NiemanLab:
[A]t a more practical level, it seems to encourage precisely the sort of news (and “news”) that drives an emotional response in its readers — the same path to audience that hyperpartisan Facebook pages have used for the past couple of years to distribute misinformation. Those pages will no doubt take a hit with this new Facebook policy, but their methods are getting a boost.
Content that “starts conversation” isn’t automatically good content. Just because live videos “get six times as many interactions as regular videos” doesn’t mean they’re any better for us. It just means we’re reacting to them more. Facebook needs to know why we’re reacting, and incorporate more objective elements into their algorithms instead of relying on subjective emotional ones. Otherwise they’re leaving the door wide open to still more social poison.
Building those sorts of objective filters is precisely where Facebook has struggled in the past. Efforts to halt “engagement bait” have focused on cursory signals that have proved ineffective against more calculated efforts from troll farms and the like.
And then there are the unintended consequences. For that I’ll cite a very recent personal example.
Last week a member of my wife’s extended family passed away. She had been active on Facebook, and when she died someone updated her page to let us know what happened and when and where the funeral services would be. Because this post keeps getting “reactions” and comments it keeps appearing at the top of my feed, helpfully reminding me of her death over and over again, days after the fact.
Keep in mind this is a company that knows how often I log in, if I’ve seen this post and—yes—if I’ve “engaged” with it. Even with that information they aren’t getting it right. Why? Because engagement alone is too brittle a determining factor, and responds too easily to the wrong signals.
As for publishers, they’ll still be right in the thick of it, hunting for new ways to make their content popular under this latest set of conditions. It’s naive to think they’ll simply walk away. Even a reduced slice of billions of users is too rich a prize for them to ignore.
Institutional content will still get shared on Facebook. Virtuous publishers and ne’er-do-wells alike will still fight like hell for it to be their content that gets shared. Facebook has to get better at telling the good from the bad and incorporate tools that know the difference in order for this to work.
Shot from the side of the road about 15 minutes outside Springdale, Utah, on the way to Zion National Park. We spent a couple days hiking there this past summer. Zion is a gem, and a reminder of what a treasure the national parks system is. Seemed only fitting to post after last week’s news cycle.
A List Apart helped spark the Web Standards movement and introduced an entire generation of designer/developers to the pioneering, indie Web. It’s hard to imagine the modern Internet without them. Hats off to Jeffrey Zeldman and crew on its next big step. (Full disclosure: For awhile I had the pleasure of being one of their regular staff columnists.)
I was Jeffrey Zeldman’s guest on The Big Web Show podcast this week, and much nerdy fun was had. We talked about what it’s like being the design director at ProPublica, how “journalism in the public interest” differs from traditional reporting, and how the team at ProPublica approaches designing for it—and oh yeah, a little bit about that AMP thing, too. Check it out.
I get a lot of questions about my gig. Of those, the third most frequently asked is about swag: Have we got any? (No, really. I keep track. We’ll save Numbers One and Two for another time.)
Well, we’ve finally got something to answer that question with, and it’s pretty great:
The back story: Last week, a certain White House official was widely quoted saying the media should “keep its mouth shut.” My boss, editor-in-chief Steve Engelberg, told him (via the New York Times) the diplomatic equivalent of “NOPE.” I was away at a conference when I pulled out my laptop, saw all this, and thought, “Hey, I’ve got an idea…”
Several hours later, with the help of our crack social team, biz dev director Celeste LeCompte, and the fine folks at Cotton Bureau, we had ourselves a damn fine shirt. Roughly $10 from each sale goes towards funding ProPublica’s work, the rest lets Cotton Bureau cover their bills.
If you’re into it, go grab one (or several). And if you’re really into it, give us a shoutout or two on Facebook or Twitter and help spread the word, won’t you?
Widely reported last year, but in effect as of this week.
Worth keeping an eye on. I wouldn’t be surprised to see this penalty applied to desktop sites at some point down the road. As goes mobile, so typically goes the broader web.
Over at the day job we’ve published our very own Year in Review, highlighting some of ProPublica’s best visual and interactive stories from the year that was. To paraphrase a co-worker, it’s one of the nicer ways to look back at 2016.
For those keeping track, we also created and ran a Jekyll-powered microsite to cover the U.S. election, overhauled our iOS and Android apps, and helped redesign and relaunch ProPublica’s Data Store, among other things. It was a packed year!
It’s been a little over two years since I joined ProPublica to help oversee and sharpen its sense of UX, editorial design, photography and illustration, and I’m proud of this list and the progress we’ve made so far—and 2017 promises to bring still bigger steps on all fronts.
Morning commute, West Soho/Hudson Square, New York City. iPhone 7, black and white conversion via Darkroom.
The Freedom of the Press Foundation has published an open letter signed by over 150 photojournalists and documentary filmmakers asking manufacturers to build encryption into their cameras.
This is important. Consider what can be easily revealed about a confidential source when a government or hostile party seizes a journalist’s camera, and you begin to understand what’s at stake.
Android, iOS, and macOS all offer system-level encryption for their devices, but there’s nothing to stop someone from pulling the data card out of most any camera, plugging it into a reader, and freely reviewing its contents—and “inspecting” cameras is a favorite tactic of many a government, police force, or criminal antagonist. The Committee to Protect Journalists notes such incidents are so common they can’t “realistically track” all of them.
There are too many places in the world where a single photo can put a source or photographer in lethal danger, and that makes the current lack of hardware-level protection unacceptable. As someone who collaborates with and directs photojournalists’ efforts on a daily basis, I endorse the Foundation’s call.
Blockbuster reporting from the New York Times paints the fullest picture yet of the DNC email hack that influenced public opinion during this year’s presidential election. If you want to start wrapping your head around what happened, this is your best bet.
It’s Illustration Week in New York City, and with it comes the release of the 35th annual American Illustration “big book.” I’m particularly honored to have been a jury member for this year’s very special edition.
Every twelve months American Illustration (and it’s cleverly named photo counterpart, American Photography) gathers a small group of industry professionals to pick some of the year’s most intriguing illustration work. Selections are compiled into a massive hardcover tome that cuts across a wide gamut of work styles, industries, and project categories.
The resulting book’s only real organizing principle is alphabetical order (by artist name). Student work appears alongside the output of beloved, grizzled veterans. Even unpublished work is fair game. The raw mix makes it a great resource for discovering fresh angles and new voices, and a must for any art director’s desk.
This year’s edition was designed by fellow juror Matt Dorfman, and sports a wonderfully bonkers cover illustration by Benjamin Marra. There’s a lot to like, and a lot of fun work to take in. And with gilt-edged pages it’s downright swanky, too.
Metropolitan Lumber and Hardware mural on Spring Street in West Soho, New York City. Fujifilm X-T1, 23mm f/1.4, in-camera black and white.
Longer public interviews with Apple’s top leadership are less rare these days, but this one from former BusinessWeek colleague Lena McGregor covers a lot of ground, including Apple’s increased spending on R&D (more than the 14 largest auto manufacturers combined), Siri and AI, Apple’s interest in augmented reality vs virtual reality (“sort of a core technology”), and the overall size of the global smartphone market as it relates to Apple’s future growth (“It is the greatest market on Earth from a consumer electronics point of view […] and there is nothing that’s going to replace it in the short term or in the intermediate term, either”).
With its next major release, Chrome will start blocking Flash content by default.
The writing has been on the wall for an interminably long time, but the takeaway is unequivocal: Flash is truly dead. With Chrome joining the ranks of Safari and Firefox in blocking Flash content, there’s effectively no future for the once dominant multimedia plugin.
Tellingly, Google’s post announcing the shift focuses on “background” Flash content. It’s taken as a given that if you’re doing rich media work on the web you’ve already shifted to HTML5. What this post is dealing with is are the last few diehards and the oft-overlooked utility functions Flash sometimes served—if you’ve ever added copy-to-clipboard functionality to your website then you know what I’m talking about. With this change, even those uses are ending.
Val Head’s intro pretty much nails it: The more you think you know about SVG, the more you realize there is to discover. An increasingly important and ubiquitous piece of the modern responsive web, SVG is one those seemingly simple technologies that quickly reveals layers of useful—and occasionally maddening—features the more you work with it.
Chris takes a lot of information you might have encountered here and there across various tutorials and distills it into one concise, accessible volume. The result is a lightweight reference of the essential material everyone working with SVG should know. (The clear descriptions of
<use> are worth the price alone, and something I’ve already put into use on this site).