Three

It’s about three years since I started this blog with a post on the three things I hated that day. It’s not the most active blog, but nor the least: 60 posts over about three years is a bit more than one a month, and that’s probably about as much as I have to say.

So, in keeping with the threes:

1. Webstock ’10 (my third, as it happens), and as usual I cringed at the hype before the conference and then stumbled away afterward awash in its brilliance. Less technical this year, and more in the probably-intentional vein of TED talks, it was the big picture presentations I enjoyed the most; the presentations that remind us that what we’re doing isn’t really new, it’s just a new(ish) way of doing what society has always done.

Stand-out presentation was Adam Greenfield on the good and bad of the digital over- and underlay that’s weaving into reality – by us, and by others, but not always, or perhaps not even often, for us. Big challenge thrown out to reclaim and democratise the data that’s being “hovered into the network” (to quote Mark Pesce) .

Good talks too from Shelley Bernstein, Jeff Atwood and Regine Debatty with a common theme: make interaction meaningful or don’t bother making it.

2. Birds, and someone’s talk/book/podcast recently keeps coming back to me whenever I see a soaring or gliding bird. The idea is to always look beyond the obvious and find the truth underneath. What’s the connection with birds?

Once upon a time people looked at birds and saw them flap their wings and fly. So in an attempt to fly people took the obvious – the flapping wings – and attempted to do that with various contraptions. All failed. It wasn’t until someone stopped and saw how birds were really flying – by soaring and gliding on intricately designed wings sans-flap – that the invention of human flight through aircraft wing design became possible.

Who said it? If you know, please post the answer in the comments.

3. Introverts, a few things I learned today that they (we?):

  • tend to think vertically, or rather deeply into one idea or subject instead of more broadly across many
  • often don’t fill the spaces between words, so instead of an um and an ah, there’s this big gap between words just waiting to be filled (or interrupted) by an extrovert
  • don’t cope well with lots of stimuli and ideas coming in at once, and can often shut down when confronted by such a deluge
  • draw energy from solitude, unlike extroverts who tend to recharge through lots of interaction.

Interesting stuff, and (if true – I didn’t get the name of the psychologist – so, again, please post the answer below…) explains a lot about why introverts are seen as anti-social; they’re not but are simply processing things in a different manner, or indeed are baffled and unable to keep up with what’s happening in the now. Some other ideas from the same study suggest they think in the longer term, both past and future, and have poor short-term memory.

So, a joke about programmers from Jeff Atwood: How do you tell an extroverted programmer from an introverted one? The extroverted ones look at your shoes when they’re talking to you!

Do experts need a defence?

I’ve been meaning to write a post about crowdsourcing and experts for a while, so long in fact that I now feel inadequate to the task. Suffice then, to note a few things down.

Crowdsourcing is a fairly recently coined term and has opened up huge debates about the power and value in letting the crowd create new digital reference points. It’s also fundamentally challenged the role of experts in mediating information and knowledge. In short, it’s the Wikipedia model v. the Encyclopædia Brittanica model (though it’s maybe ironic that the Wikipedia entry for crowdsourcing is flagged as needing improvement, pointing to both the strength and weakness of the concept).

The term came up in a conversation I had recently with my Dad. He worked for years as an academic and editor – in short, an expert – and like me wants to know if the two approaches to knowledge, information, publishing, etc., can co-exist. Derek Powazek, speaking at Webstock ’09, said yes they can: the crowd can provide things while the experts can judge them. Similar in thought might be Jason Epstein’s optimism that, while Big Publishing may be failing thanks to the internet, good editors will never die. Further, it may be the nature of the internet – its sprawling uncontrolled and rapid growth – that’s making a decent editor more necessary than ever.

National Radio ran a Windows on the World piece about a month ago about transient lunar phenomenon (TLPs) and whether their existence (if they exist) is caused by gas escaping from underground cavities on the moon’s surface. Ergo, is the moon as dead as we think? It’s more complicated than I could summarise but one of the points made against the existence of TLPs is that much of the evidence comes from amateur photographers who tend to focus on common lunar features. This gives rise to observational bias and provides plenty of possible evidence at a handful of well-photographsed sites but none across the entire rest of the moon’s surface. That’s not to say amateur astro-photographers don’t have their place (check out what the National Maritime Museum and Royal Observatory is doing to harness their work, blogged about by Best-of-3 here), but perhaps the democratic nature of the crowd has a tendency toward a homogenised majority view.

One last example – again I haven’t got a reference for it and the details are hazy – is a study that compared the collection of a major US public library with that of a large US university library. The former, developed over time by generalist librarians, had a scope that was vast and comprehensive. The latter, determined by the interests of specialised and disparate academics, was patchy in scope but incredibly detailed in its depth, far more so than the public library’s collection.

If generalist librarians represent the crowd and academics are our experts then they’re creating very different views of the world. Academics look at the things that the rest of us don’t. To the cynics, yes, some of those things will be a waste of effort, but some of them might change the way the rest of us view something with effects far beyond the original question. We, the crowd, might even learn something.

Modal information

If nothing else Webstock inspired me – thanks to Liz Danzico’s presentation, The Framework Age – to start listening again to Miles Davis’ A Kind of Blue. Linking information architecture to modal jazz, rapping out to Davis, and reading Seamus Heaney’s On Poetry put web design back in the real world and in a real and wider context.

It wasn’t all theory but talked to the very real human response to what we see around ourselves: wherever we go we experience the world as a series of frameworks within which we choose to operate. We walk on footpaths, not roads; we act in certain ways when we get into elevators; we follow each other and group ourselves together. That’s just the way we are and web designers need to respond to this and provide clues to users as to how they should interact with a page.

Accessibility at Webstock


Shawn Henry demystified the accessbility world for me at her Webstock seminar and provided some good quotes along the way, highlights being “Google is a blind billionaire” and “Headings are the new alt text”. A lot of the confusion around accessibility seems to stem from the subjectivity of whether something passes WAI muster, which they’re attempted to address in the next release of the WAI guidelines with detailed ‘success criteria’. There’s plenty of info at W3C’s WAI Resources on Introducing Web Accessibility overview page.