Eric A. Meyer
Eric A. Meyer has been a burger flipper, a college webmaster, an early blogger, one of the original CSS Samurai, a member of the CSS WG, a consultant and trainer, and a Standards Evangelist at Netscape. He wrote CSS: The Definitive Guide for O’Reilly, wrote the first official W3C test suite, assisted in the creation of microformats, and co-founded An Event Apart with Jeffrey Zeldman. In 2006, he was inducted into the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences for “international recognition on the topics of HTML and CSS” and helping to “inform excellence and efficiency on the Web.”
Eric blogs at meyerweb.com; tweets at @meyerweb; and lives with his family in Cleveland, Ohio, which is a much nicer city than you’ve been led to believe. He’s a staunch defender of the Oxford comma, the hard G in “GIF”, and the right of everyone everywhere to follow a sentence with however many spaces they deem proper. He enjoys a good meal whenever he can and considers almost every form of music to be worthwhile.
By most measures, I’ve had a pretty damn successful career. I’m not at “I can retire today” money and nobody’s erecting statues with my visage on them, but only the first of those holds any interest for me, and I’m not expecting it any time soon. (At current rates of saving and investment return, I should reach that state… right around the traditional age of retirement, actually.)
Of course, I’ve written a bunch of books that earned me some royalties, but books are not a way to become wealthy, unless you’re crazy lucky. Yes, you have to put in the work to write the book, but in the end, whether your book makes you coffee money or high-end-chrome coffee machine money is down to forces entirely outside your control. Certainly outside mine. When I wrote my first CSS book, nobody expected CSS to be more than a slowly dying niche technology. When I wrote the second, CSS had been declared dead twice over. When I wrote the third and fourth, it was just starting to revive.
I invested tons of effort and time into understanding CSS, and then to explaining it. Because I was lucky enough to put that work toward a technology that turned out to be not just successful, but deeply important to the web, the work paid off. But think of the people who put that same kind of time and effort into understanding and explaining DSSSL. “Into what, now?” you say. Exactly.
Similarly, when Jeffrey and I set out to create An Event Apart, there was no assurance that there was a viable market there. Nearly all the old web conferences had died, and those few that remained were focused on audience very much unlike the one we had in mind. Luckily for us, the audience existed. We worked really hard—still work really hard—to find and speak to that audience with the topics and speakers we present, but it would all have come to nothing if not for the sheer luck of having an audience for the kind of show we wanted to create.
For most of my adult life, I’ve been keenly aware of the incredible amount of luck that goes into success, and the awareness only grows as the years pass by. Just putting in a lot of hard work isn’t enough. You also have to have the sheer good fortune to have that hard work pay off. You can sink everything you have, money and soul, into building a place in life, only to have it all sabotaged and swept away by random chance. You can invest very bit of your life and fortune into an outcome that blind fate renders impossible.
So yes, I worked hard to understand the web, and to explain the web, and to write books and talks, and to create a conference series, and everything else I’ve done over the years—but I was supremely lucky to have that work come to something. An incredible combination of time and place and interest and birth and a million million other things made that possible.
More to the point, the existence of people interested in what I have to say made that possible. So I thank you, one and all, for all that and still more. Thank you for rewarding and redeeming the work I’ve done. Thank you for being of like mind. Thank you for your support. Thank you for listening. Thank you.
I’m Probably Wrong
If there’s one thing that’s made it possible for me to learn as much as I have, and create as much as I have, it’s that my default attitude about things, especially technical things, is that I’m probably wrong about them.
When I first took up CSS and it didn’t do what I expected from reading the spec, I started creating simple, focused tests of each property and its values, to figure out what I was getting wrong. Because I wanted to be sure, I built tests for all the properties, even the ones I was confident about understanding—and, in places, found out my confidence was misplaced. Eventually, those tests became the CSS1 Test Suite. Since I had discovered that, in a lot of cases, the browsers were actually wrong, I decided to document CSS support in browsers. That became the CSS Mastergrid (long since gone). On the strength of that resource, I started writing articles to explain how things worked, or didn’t, which led to writing my first book. And so on.
But it all started because I assumed I was wrong about how CSS should work, not that the browsers were fundamentally broken. Simple test cases seemed like the best way to find out. One thing led to another. In a lot of ways, you could say that my career was made possible by me assuming I was wrong, and setting out to determine exactly how wrong I was.
It’s not that I want to be wrong; in fact, I dislike being wrong. But I dislike continuing to be wrong much more, so I try to find out how I’m wrong, in hopes of becoming less wrong. It’s not even “strong opinions, weakly held”—it’s more “strong suspicion of error, strongly pursued”. In public, when necessary. (This is where it helps to be willing to look like a dork, or even a fool, as Kitt wrote about yesterday.)
When asking for help, this is the approach I take. When I post to mailing lists or forums, it usually comes out as, “Here’s what I think is so, but results don’t match that understanding. What am I missing? Please help me get it right.”
How am I wrong? Because I’m probably wrong.
The Stages of Fear
How many talks have I given over the years? How many times have I stood at the front of a room, on a stage or in front of a chalkboard or otherwise before an audience, and talked at them for an hour or so?
Lanyrd says 72 as I write this, with two more coming this year. But Lanyrd only goes back to 2003, so I already know it’s missing some of my past appearances. Everything from 1995 (or was it 1996?) through 2003, for example. The talks I’ve done for college classes and user groups in Cleveland. Probably others as well. So let’s round it off to an even one hundred, and pretend like that’s a meaningful milestone or something.
I used to talk about code, style, standards, all that stuff. It was all, as the cliché goes, subjects for which I had prepared not my talk, but myself. I knew the subject so thoroughly, I pretty much never wrote out a script. I wrote an outline, assembled slides or demos or whatever to support that outline, and then mostly improvised my way through the talk. The closest I got to rehearsal was back in 2007, I think, when my talk was two slides in Keynote and then a bunch of pre-created style snippets that I dropped into a live web page, saving and reloading, talking about the changes as I went. Live-coding, except without relying on my sloppy typing skills.
(That one was called “Secrets of the CSS Jedi”, where I took a table of data, marked up as such, and turned it into a bar graph live on stage, the summary line of which I still remember: “CSS does not care what you think an element should look or act like. You have far more power than you realize.” That was a revolutionary thing to say back then. We were coders once, and young.)
These days, my talks are nearly or entirely code-free, as I explore topics like compassion in design, and the ways that our coding has a profound influence on society now and into the future. The talks generally start life as 9,000-word essays that I edit, rearrange, patch up, re-edit, polish, and then rehearse. After the first two rehearsals, I re-re-edit and re-polish. Then I rehearse several more times.
The point of all this being:
I stumble through my rehearsals, getting more and more incoherent, getting more frustrated every time I have to start over, certain I’ll never get the words to work, increasingly convinced it means the ideas behind them have no merit at all, until I want to curl up in a cushion fort and never come out. I grapple with the fear that even if by some miracle I do have one or two worthwhile things to say, they’ll be buried in a flood of stuttered half-sentences and self-protective rhetorical tricks.
So I get nervous before my talks. Adrenaline surges through me, elevating my pulse and making my palms sweat as they get prickly, the cold fire washing up my arms and into my cheeks. I pace and fidget, concentrating on my breathing so I don’t hyperventilate. Or hypoventilate, for that matter.
I do this before every talk I give at An Event Apart, even when I’ve given the talk half a dozen times previously. I did it before I hit the stage at XOXO 2015. I did it before I started my talks at Rustbelt Refresh.
A hundred public talks or more, and it’s still not easy. I’m not sure it ever will be easy. I’m not sure it ever should be easy.
The further point being:
Every speaker I know feels pretty much exactly the same. We don’t all get the same nervous tics, but we all get nervous. We struggle with our fears and doubts. We all feel like we have no idea what we’re doing.
So if you’re afraid to get up in front of people and share what you know: you’re in very, very good company. I know this, because I am too.
If you have something to share—and you do—try not to let the fear stop you.
We’re all afraid up there.
The Shape of Things to Come
Software may be eating the world, but we are shaping it. What we do now—what we build, how we act, what we tolerate—will profoundly influence how society develops over the next few generations.
That’s not because what happens now will change you or me. We’re unlikely to change much, if at all. We’re set in our ways, most of us.
Our children are not.
What they see online will seem normal to them, just as what we saw growing up seemed normal to us. And because there is no meaningful distinction between online and offline, what they come to accept as normal online will be seen as normal offline.
So the way we build our networks matters in the most profound possible way. If we build networks that make it easy to abuse and harass, and make it difficult to defend against abuse and harassment, our children will come to see that as normal, even desirable. Similarly, if we build networks where it’s hard to abuse and harass, and easy to defend against such attempts, that will become the norm.
System design is social design. The question is, what kind of society do we want to design?
And the more important question is, when are we going to start?
I’m typing this as North America slowly unwinds below me, fleeing the rising sun that will still overtake us, light-headed and a touch giddy from a sustained shortness of sleep. If this all sounds a little bit familiar, you’re right, and thank you for following my meanderings over so many months. Anyone can write, but not everyone is read, and it’s always an honor.
I’m not going to write about my obsessions this time, at least not directly. But as it happens, I’m watching a movie about someone else’s obsession: Tim’s Vermeer. In short, it’s about the inventor of Video Toaster and Lightwave, Tim Jenison, and his quest to figure out how Johannes Vermeer did what he did so incredibly well. Tim hypothesizes that Vermeer used high 16th-Century technology in a novel and long-forgotten fashion.
In the process of making his case, Tim not only reverse-engineers the technique, he decides to recreate Vermeer’s studio, employing 3D CAD modeling and visualization, not to mention computer-driven lathes and mills and routers to build the furniture to exacting precision. It’s a fascinating contrast to the constraint he sets himself of only using materials that would have been available in the 16th century for the room and the painting itself. He puts a piece of wood into an industrial tool the size of a 1970s DEC mainframe and sends it commands to fashion a chair leg in the style of 16th-Century Europe, and then picks up a pestle to grind the pigments for his paint by hand.
In the end, he produces a painting that bears all the hallmarks of a Vermeer, a very close copy of The Music Lesson, even though Tim has never studied or even practiced painting of any kind. In the process, he uncovers a clue in Vermeer’s original, something not noticed in the 350 years since its production, that provides very strong evidence he’s gotten it right. It’s a really fascinating story.
And there I sat, seven miles above the earth, moving at a significant fraction of the speed of sound, watching the whole story unfold on my iPhone 4S plugged into a compact charging device, the movie streaming over wifi from a media server stowed away somewhere in the airframe. Far above me, a constellation of beacons circled in polar orbit, helping to keep the plane on course and on time as it hurled itself through the thin air.
Bathed in marvels, I watched a man who had birthed or helped birth some of those marvels resurrect a forgotten marvel and produce a marvel of his own.
Then I cued up Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, because the antics of an anarchic sentient raccoon are never not funny.
Everything Looks Like a Nail
I have recently, perhaps inevitably, taken up woodworking as a hobby. It’s just clichéd enough to be credible, isn’t it? Web, wood, maybe it’s in the leading “w”.
A programmer friend and I get together Wednesday evenings to try our hand at what is currently best described as rough carpentry. The usual reason to take up a “physical-world” hobby like woodworking is to “get away from the computer for a while, man!” But of course we pull out our iPhones to use as calculators, look up techniques, or find online tools that can help us. The laptops stay indoors, but computers and the internet still smooth our way.
In web terms, we’re past “hello world” and at about the point where we understand the basics of HTML and have set a few colors and faces with beginner CSS. We could put up a single-column fan site if that were the goal, but not much more than that. We’re still at the stage of making a lot of mistakes and not knowing if our problems spring entirely from not knowing how to use our tools, or also from not knowing enough to realize the tools themselves are deficient. We’re figuring things out as we go, hitting up YouTube for how-to guides on just about everything. Wikipedia may aspire to be the site of record for Things of Import, but YouTube holds the sum total of humanity’s practical knowledge, hidden amongst all the pop-star and cat videos.
A lot of the best practices map back and forth, too. Planning ahead is a core competency, and the more you practice, the better you get at it. Measurement is vital, and cleverness is as useful as it is dangerous. The importance of quality tools can’t be overstated. There are a lot of (very) specialized tools available, but you can get really far with the core set of flexible, time-honored basics. As long as you have a boatload of clamps, that is.
The one major difference is that there is no versioning in woodworking. It’s like building a project with only the “Save” command—no milestones, no repositories, no undo. When you do something, you’re committing to altering the project with no take-backs. If you get it wrong, you have to find a way to patch over the problem. If you get it really wrong, you have to scrap what you just did and replace the botched part. And if you get it really, really wrong, all you can do is scrap the whole thing and start over.
So far we haven’t had to scrap anything. Our first couple of projects were the classic starters: a simple bookshelf, a firewood box, a more complex bookshelf. For each, we’ve intentionally stepped up the complexity, a bit at a time. The first bookshelf was just screwed together, but the pieces were all pretty much the right size and properly aligned. The firewood box was also screwed together, but it involved angled cuts and hinges and sealant. The second bookshelf involved a wood router in a variety of ways, both structural and decorative.
As in networking, we swore a lot at the router, but it got us where we needed to be. Eventually, that is, once we figured out how to properly configure it and deal with its quirks.
I can’t deny that there’s a visceral satisfaction in picking up a hammer and whacking on a thing until it’s properly assembled, or disassembled, as the case may be. There’s definitely a triumph in finding out you did all the measuring and cutting and aligning just right, much like the rush you get when your first major coding project does what you meant it to do, except more so because you’ve wrestled atoms into doing your bidding. That’s literal orders of magnitude beyond wrangling electrons.
Our next steps are what I assume is the usual second phase: building a wood shop in order to learn how to use a wood shop. We’re moving up to building fold-down work surfaces with tool storage, custom-fitted wood storage, and braced shelves. That experience will enable us to move into other, more complicated projects. Some we already have in mind. Others will suggest themselves to us. At every step, we’ll look for new skills to try and practice.
And that, I think, is the real ultimate goal here: to teach ourselves new things, to enrich our skill sets and create useful objects thereby.
So it’s pretty much like working on the web.
Well, except for all the staining.
If you do something you love for long enough, it gets into your bones. But more than that, the things adjacent to it do as well.
Since I got started on the web, very nearly 22 years ago now, I’ve never really seen myself as a designer. Granted, I did some visual design in the early days, because anyone who set up a web site back then had to be the designer: there was nobody else. No graphic designers would deign to look at the web, and no “web designers” yet existed. We were Web Masters because we had to be, drawing buttons and laying out content along with writing code and doing UX and UI and IA and everything else.
So I did design when I had to, but I always knew I wasn’t a capital-D Designer. I knew this in the same way I knew I was not a boulder nor an odor: it wasn’t a failing or even a lack, but just what was true and even unremarkable. I was a code monkey who knew his way around Photoshop and could mimic what he saw around him decently enough, but I didn’t have the creative vision or training or, really, inclination to generate my own, unique work.
As we passed out of that epoch of the web, I was more than content to stop trying to design and instead be an enabler of design. My efforts to teach HTML and CSS had twinned, helical aims: to help anyone who wanted to create a web site share their thoughts, and to help any designer who wanted to create a visual effect share their vision. I was a technical author, a developer, a sometime observer of design, but never a Designer. I knew Designers by then, and I knew they possessed a skill and focus I did not.
Which was okay. After all, I possessed a skill and focus they did not. Our work was complementary.
What I didn’t realize was that, over all those years, as the knowledge I shared seeped into their bones and became second nature, the same thing was happening in reverse.
For the past few months, I’ve been managing a design project, getting a ton of help from Jason Santa Maria; but I’ve also been the annoying client, making unreasonable demands of everyone involved. I insisted on changes of direction partway through, and coped with changes of understanding at other points in the process. I refused to listen to reason at one point, and yielded to reality at another. For most of it, I compared font faces and sizing, trying to decide which I liked best, telling Jason I wished I could have a little of option A, a little of option B, a dash of option C, struggling to put into words what I could almost see.
Among my friends, I’m vaguely infamous for not being able to tell, at a glance, the difference between Helvetica and Arial. I’ve seen the detailed analyses of the two, and if I had the exact same run of text in each face, sitting side by side, I could probably do a credible job of figuring out which was which, but give me a standalone block of sans-serif text in Ariatica or Helvetial and my odds of knowing which it is are literally no better than a coin flip.
And yet, there I was, staring at the same layout set in various font faces, feeling the sense of each, obsessed with spacing and intervals and kerning, examining which had the best italics while trying to decide if italics should even be used, if their use conveyed the right message. I scrutinized the spacing between blocks of text, the alignment of fragments of information, the rhythm of the entire piece, every bit of content. It wasn’t enough that it be passable, or decent, or even good; it had to be right. I focused on all the details as well as the overall picture with a will and intensity I had never felt before.
It wasn’t easy. I massaged my temples as the stress of needing to make exactly the right choice overwhelmed me; I paced around my office, glaring at the alternatives on the monitor every time I passed by; I felt tears of frustration rise as I ran into yet another setback and knew that the final result would not be everything I had originally wanted it to be. I stood in someone else’s office and rode herd on their archaic software setup, literally telling them where and how many times to click, because that’s what was necessary to get the job done properly. I wrote and rewrote emails to the various parties in the project, masking my battered spirit as best I could while still being clear about where things stood and where I wanted them to go.
Not, as I say, by myself: Jason was invaluable to getting me off to the right start, keeping me on the right track, and helping me through the setbacks. I doubt I could have done a tenth as well without him. But as we progressed, I increasingly felt like I knew what his answers to my questions would be. My inexperience and fear of error and just plain fear meant I kept checking in with him, but with every iteration, I felt more confident that I already knew the right answers. In a lot of cases, I made the changes I was already sure he would make, and Jason’s feedback confirmed that I had done right.
Over two decades, I had slowly, unwittingly absorbed everything I needed for this project. It had seeped into me, creeping out of a thousand Keynote slides and a million words, written and spoken, from my friends and their friends and all the people they looked up to and quoted.
Gradually, I had become a capital-D Designer. I had a very specific intent to render, and with help and focus, I made the end product as reflective of my intent as possible. I knew when the design felt wrong, but more importantly, I knew when the design felt right. And I could see, at first with Jason’s help but increasingly on my own, how to get from one to the other.
This morning, the result was unveiled—literally unveiled, ritually, at the direction of our congregation’s rabbi. A block of sparkling silver-blue granite carved with a few words of English and Hebrew. A compact arrangement of text bearing more emotion and meaning than anything I have ever done, horrifying and beautiful, set flush into the earth of Cleveland Heights, where similar markers will one day be set for me and for my wife.
Everything I absorbed over all those years, everything I learned by choice or by chance, and most of all the help I received from everyone who’d ever shared their knowledge and insights with me, all made that possible. Made me a Designer.
Thank you all.
Time and Emotion
This coming Monday, as has become tradition, a significant fraction of the Twitter user base will send out Star-Wars-themed tweets tagged
#maythefourthbewithyou, because saying the day in that way makes for a handy bit of wordplay. There will be cosplay pictures, Yoda-esque inversions of sentence structure, and probably (this year) a fair bit of squeeing about the upcoming sequel and its brilliantly fan-service trailer.
Also this coming Monday, as has become tradition for me, I will send out a tweet containing the opening lines of “Ohio” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, tagged
#maythe4th, because it was on May 4th, 1970 that National Guardsmen fired a volley into a crowd of Kent State college students, wounding nine and killing four.
Anniversaries are potent psychological markers. We reflect on historical events, both global and personal, that have particular meaning to us. We celebrate the days of our birth, of first meeting our loved ones, of all manner of wonderful life-changing moments. We mourn the days of our losses, of our betrayals, of all manner of terrible life-changing moments. In every heart, a secret calendar.
There are only so many days in the year; pile enough things together on a calendar, and some of them will coincide. Some of those alignments will coalesce into rays of remembered joy, warming us from the past. Others will form spears of relived pain, lodging afresh in our hearts. A few may do both, comforting and piercing all at once.
The longer we spend online, the more traces of those secret calendars will take public shape. The dates of my first marriage and divorce are not, to the best of my recollection, recorded anywhere online, but the date of my second (and current) marriage is there, thanks to some early blog posts. The date of my first professional award is there. The dates of our children’s placements and adoptions are there. The dates of my daughter’s illness and death are there.
The more we build online networks, not physical networks but social and emotional networks, the more pieces we leave lying around for algorithms to gather together and present to us with no real thought for what those pieces actually mean, or for how they should or shouldn’t fit together. A human can glance through a pile of photos and tell which are emotionally or even narratively out of place. Code cannot. A human can quickly determine which scraps of text and pixels were happy at the moment of their creation, only to be transformed into talismans of sorrow by later events. Code cannot.
We’re collectively creating strata of data, adorned with easy bits of metadata like time and date and sometimes place, but lacking all the truly important metadata like feeling and meaning. As we share with each other, we share with the future. We share with the companies that help us share with each other, because it’s easy to store it all. Content in the old network was ephemeral, and in the older networks was tangible but private. In the new networks, everything we create is easy to retrieve—if not for us, as users of the network, then at least for the code that runs on the same machines which accept all that we share.
And so, more and more with every passing day, code is written to reach back into everything we’ve created, assembling it along easily-identified axes like Likes or Faves or geographic coordinates or the day of the year, in order to show it to us again. Sometimes it’s code we invite into our lives, but not always. Sometimes we find the code that drives the networks we use resurrecting our past without warning.
This will not always be welcome.
There are things we can do to make our remorselessly remembering routines more humane, and most of those things are rooted in experience design. We can design compassionate consent requests ahead of introducing new functionality, and easy ways to mark which dates and memories and bits of data should be avoided, and even design thoughtful expressions of remorse and apology. We can and should add this very human layer of thoughtfulness to cushion us from literally unthinking code that yields results which may harm as easily as they may heal.
It won’t be easy, and we’ll make mistakes no matter how hard we try. Our very attempts to be thoughtful may backfire and make things worse, but we’ll learn from those mistakes and do better the next time.
Nothing could be more human than that.
I’m typing this, sandy-eyed and a little light-headed, as the Eastern Seaboard slowly scrolls beneath me. It’s the second of two flights today; the first took off from Seattle at not quite 3am, at least considered from the Eastern (U.S.) time zone. To those in Seattle, of course, I left shortly before midnight yesterday.
I’m headed for Boston by way of Dulles, there to land, roll off the plane, grab a cab, and get to the conference hotel on the harbor. This afternoon, I’ll deliver a 25-minute talk in hopes of advancing the state of medical and health care design. It’s a much cut-down version of the talk I gave not 18 hours ago (as I type this) at An Event Apart Seattle. Basically, I just took my AEA talk and cut out all the parts that aren’t about health-care-centered design, then compressed a bit the parts that were. The goal is to leave time for a question or two from the audience.
I left home this past Friday for the Pacific Northwest, and won’t get home until tomorrow—well, today, if you’re reading this on its publication date. But then, if you are doing that, then everything I’m saying happened yesterday.
I may be a little sleep deprived.
Six days is a long time to be away from my family, at least by my standards, and it’s an especially long time to be away after no significant work travel for almost two years. The punishing schedule makes it seem even longer to me.
I do it because I’m obsessed.
Time was, I was obsessed about HTML and CSS and the myriad possibilities of the web. I still have all that, but it’s now almost an echo of what it was. Apparently, I only have room in my life for one professional obsession.
Now I’m obsessed over the idea of designing with compassion, designing with empathy, designing with care. It’s hard to articulate exactly what I mean in a compact manner. The idea doesn’t have an accurate, obvious label yet, the way responsive web design does. I’m trying to figure it out with Sara Wachter-Boettcher. We’ll get there.
Writers talk of a muse that drives them, that tasks them. They become obsessed with writing. I assume that a muse is basically just an anthropomorphized obsession. Maybe so. I’ve never been that kind of writer, but now I have that kind of obsession. It drives me to present two versions of one talk in successive days on opposite coasts. It drives me to branch out in unexpected ways, pushing into areas of web design that I had never thought myself qualified to comment on, pushing beyond web design into the wider field of design in all its forms. It will soon drive me to write in a way I never have before, for audiences I never expected to address.
I would have given a great deal to have never had this obsession, but I do. Now I hope I can rise to exceed the demands it places on me.
If this all sounds a little grim, well, part of it is. After all, it springs from a grim place and time. But then, a big part of that grim tone is probably due to my physical weariness—the flight from Seattle to Dulles was only long enough for me to catch three hours of sleep. Ordinarily, I’d be micro-napping on this flight to Boston, but instead I’m typing, pushed by my obsession to articulate it so that I can look at the words I’ve written and take them as a commitment, layering another thin stratum of determination on top of the obsession, adorning my muse with a plate of conceptual armor.
There might be more to this metaphor, but if so, the lack of sleep is clouding my ability to see it.
The plane has begun its initial descent into Boston.
Time to see where my obsession pushes me today.
Not too long ago, I got Step Nined on Facebook.
If that didn’t parse as regular English for you, Step Nine is part of the twelve-step program offered by Alcoholics Anonymous. It states, with edits for out-of-context clarity:
“[Make] direct amends to [people you have harmed] wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”
And so someone I knew back in the town where I grew up, a classmate all throughout my pre-college education who I’ll call John, sent me a private message on Facebook apologizing for how he’d treated me, stating that he’d had no reason other than just having been a mean kid, and hoping that things were going well for me and my family.
I’ve pondered this message quite a bit in the interim. The message brought me neither upset nor relief, though I can well imagine that many people in such a situation would feel one or both. I bore no mental or physical scars with his signature upon them. There was no need of closure, or of re-opening, or really of anything, at least from my point of view. He and his actions toward me, positive or negative, are one thin thread in the complex skein that was my childhood, lost in the overall pattern.
In truth, John’s message aroused more pity in me than anything else. I thought as I read it, What must he have endured as a child, that hurting other people seemed normal to him? And in that thought, I felt an echo from the past, as though the question had come to me before. Perhaps my parents made the observation, as I struggled through growing up, and I was finally able to hear it now. I’m not sure. It doesn’t really matter. If his message is anything to go by, whatever John did has been far more damaging to him than it ever might have been to me.
Still, I keep coming back to John’s message and pondering it further. What I’ve thought about, far more than its contents or the history it references, has been the simple fact of how it happened, and what that means.
Had John wanted to offer amends in, say, the late 1990s, he would have had to actively seek me out. It would have taken the effort of calling my parents to ask for contact information, or other people he thought might have it, and then making that call to me. The social distance would have been a barrier to contact, one whose surmounting signified the importance of the act to him. And then, when he did make that call, he would have talked to me, able to gauge my reaction. There would have been a feedback loop to tell him whether or not his amends were injurious in some way.
And yes, of course, John could have done exactly that today. He could have kept his process entirely off Facebook and gone through those efforts, as an act of personal penance or just as a useful social signifier. Or, perhaps, he could have contacted me on Facebook to ask for my phone number, with a brief statement as to why he was asking for it, and then let my decision to allow the contact or not be a measure of whether it would in fact be injurious.
But he didn’t. Because the internet has disintermediated social effort.
What I wonder about, as I ponder this small signal, is the depth of his remorse. How much does John really mean it, and how much is he going through the motions, trying to get through Step Nine as quickly as possible so that he can reach Step Twelve sooner? Is he working through his personal pain, or is he grinding the leveling process? It’s impossible for me to say. I know it’s a lot easier to send a bunch of “sorry” messages to your contacts than it is to talk to each person you feel you’ve wronged, one on one, one by one, and go through that painful process over and over and over again.
I wonder if that simple ease of contact has robbed him of a critical component of his healing process.
Or, if you want to be more accurate, I wonder if that simple ease of contact lured him into a course of action that was harmful to his healing process.
The things we build are almost always meant to make things faster, more efficient, easier. Perhaps, sometimes, they should be harder.
This genie will not go back into the bottle. The internet isn’t going away and Facebook still has a long way to go before its fall. Even then, something will have replaced it. There’s no reason to think these sorts of connections will become more difficult to make, technologically speaking.
I wonder if they will become more difficult, socially speaking—if an act like that will become frowned upon, as we might frown upon a form letter condolence note. I wonder what sort of protocols and expectations, what social mores, will emerge over time in response to the disruptions our work has caused and will cause, and how they will shape personal interactions at all levels.
I wonder how much effort we should be putting into influencing the evolution of those emergent social constructs, whether through our work or our personal interactions, and how much of that effort would be ultimately fruitless.
I wonder how intentional people are about what they do, online as well as off; and how intentional they should be.
I wonder what I should say to John.
R: “What are you playing at?”
G: “Words, words. They’re all we have to go on.”
—Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz & Guildernstern Are Dead
My recent-inbox counter incremented by one, and I was between tasks, so I went to take a look. It was a notification from Facebook:
Jesse Gardner commented on a link you shared. "*gets some popcorn*" Thanks, The Facebook Team
I couldn’t figure out what would have provoked that sort of comment, so I went to look at the link I’d shared and came away even more confused. What about the link was popcorn-worthy? It wasn’t even a case of being an inappropriate response: it was so out of left field, it seemed literally disconnected from the post. I seriously wondered whether it was a reply meant for some other post, accidentally dropped onto mine by some combination of multiple browser tabs and mental distraction.
So I asked, and it turned out Jesse was actually replying to an earlier comment on that link. Once he clarified, his comment made perfect sense, and it was in fact quite funny. What had seemed like a complete non sequitur was revealed to fit seamlessly into the conversation.
Words have such power, but none of it their own. The words “commented on a link you shared” are so neutral, they make the Swiss look hyperpartisan, and yet they were sufficient to fit into my mental state in such a way that I was led completely astray. I was so taken in by the idea that Jesse was commenting on the link, I never stopped to ask if he was participating in a conversation.
It wasn’t the words that led me astray, but my interpretation of them. I led me astray. Everything I brought to that moment of reading, all my experiences and biases, took the incredibly banal concepts encoded in those arbitrary marks and came to a conclusion that had nothing to do with Jesse’s original intent. An entire flowering construct of incorrect, misleading assumptions grew out of that simple moment of unconscious interpretation.
No matter how hard we work to be clear, no matter how many words we spend on precision, no matter how carefully we choose our words, what people find in our words is more a product of their views than our efforts.
This is the dilemma of communication: we cannot control how people hear us, and yet cannot declaim all responsibility for what they hear. If we express ourselves badly, or in a way that is misinterpreted by many, that is on us.
This is the dilemma of communication: we cannot control how people speak to us, and yet cannot declaim all responsibility for what we hear. If we misinterpret another’s intent, or listen in bad faith, that is on us.
Words have such power, but none of it their own. We invest them with all the power they have, each in our own way. We rarely think about it, rarely make conscious decisions about what power we invest in which words. I think we think far less about what we hear than what we say, and still less about why we hear what we hear.
Nothing about communication can be entirely one-sided. We bring ourselves to the words that pass between us, every node in the network running on a unique protocol, striving for clarity in a landscape that seems built for confusion.
This is dilemma of communication: words. Words.
Everything begins, and everything ends. Sometimes the beginnings are hard to define, and the endings are hard to accept. Other times the beginnings are clear, and the endings are welcome.
We have a lot of beginnings and endings in our lives. Beginnings are usually easier than endings. In fact, some of us dislike endings so much that we avoid them by any means possible. How many projects have you started, and then let fade from attention, denying them a proper finish? I’ve done that so many times, I should be ashamed.
This is so common to our industry, though. Plenty of projects and even programming languages get launched, gain favor, start a buzz, and then gradually fall by the wayside, but they never really end. There are still people making a living writing COBOL. There are so few of them left, in fact, they’re probably making a better living than you and me. COBOL will only die when the last machine shuts down, or else when the last COBOL programmer does.
We see the same dynamics at play in design. Remember drop shadows? Some day, we’ll say the same thing about flat design, even responsive design as we now understand it. Something will build from them, whether as a reaction or an evolution, be given a snappy new name (snappy names are critical to the adoption of design trends), and we’ll look back and say, “Remember…?”
But there is no standard definition of what constitutes the end of a trend. It’s probably just as well, since in the absence of such a definition, we can support a thriving industry of thinkpieces on The Death Of whatever the thinkpiecer wants to declare dead. They’re never definitive, but they do generate traffic, which generates ad revenue, which generates higher stock prices for Google.
That is, until some confluence of factors causes Google’s stock to drop, which will in turn launch a thousand breathless thinkpieces on The Death of Google. They’ll sail off toward the intellectual horizon, questionable axioms and unquestioned assumptions fluttering gaily in the hot air, following in the wakes of the fleets of thinkpieces on The Death of Apple, The Death of Microsoft, The Death of Dell, The Death of IBM, The Death of Kodak, and The Death of Digital Equipment Corporation.
If you live long enough, you start to get a sense that it’s all just a little bit of history repeating, as Shirley Bassey once put it. The towering crises of youth, both the personal and global, are eventually seen to be iterations on a long-running theme. When our elders say that youth is wasted on the young, a big part of that observation is the realization that the time of life at which you are the most energetic is also the time in which you’re most likely to expend all that energy taking everything so damn seriously, as if the world is coming to an end.
Which it will, at some point. Everything does.
The best we can hope for is that an ending comes at the right time, for the right reasons. We don’t always have the ability to make that happen. Other times, we do.
Here’s to the last year of The Pastry Box.