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.
ProPublica Design & Production team member Rob Weychert has created a handy tool for building responsive, grid-based layouts in Sass. We’re calling it Column Setter.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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”).
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.
I just finished Chris Coyier’s Practical SVG, the latest installment in the A Book Apart series, and definitely recommend it if you’re a web designer or developer.
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 <symbol> and <use> are worth the price alone, and something I’ve already put into use on this site).
I remember a time when everyone thought it would be Google providing all this distributed infrastructure. But in the intervening years it’s become a lot clearer Google is fundamentally an advertising company, and Amazon is a services and logistics company—and becoming the de facto retailer of distributed storage and processing power becomes a lot more important if you’re the latter.
Amazon’s resulting cloud dominance has been fundamentally unchallenged for close to half a decade now. It’s hard to think of a project I’ve worked on during that time that didn’t involve their infrastructure in some way. It’s only recently that the very biggest consumer companies, like Dropbox and Apple, have undertaken the herculean task of spooling up distributed infrastructure of their own at a similar scale.