Web empathy

I was thinking about something Mike posted, and because my default reaction is to defend classes of people insulted, I had a realization: nearly everyone would have started Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, etc.

My thinking goes like this: the reason every site doesn't have RSS is because most people don't care. If they are using RSS to collect information, it isn't apparent to them. I know this, because over the last year every single one of my clients paid me money to set up posting their content to their social media accounts and mailing lists, and none of them know what a feed reader is (these are two separate questions, I suggest that folks follow their industry/passion/cause with tools that make it easy, but they are content with Twitter lists...).

This makes sense, the UI of modern operating systems are made so a person can use them without understanding what works underneath, and when a person doesn't know how something works, they describe it in terms of features they want. I deal with this all the time, and I have people who I think shouldn't be building websites, but they have ideas and they go for it. The web is dope, because it means they can. And this world discourages folks enough, I say go for it!

Some of the features a website can have are tracking, control and obfuscation. These seem like dumb ideas to me, but despite that, I get requests for this all the time. Folks are compulsive in tracking every little detail, despite most not being qualified to deduce what their stats mean. Equal is an obsession with controlling the behaviour of strangers, which is what a website is, just a bunch of people you don't know, looking for something.

I don't agree with the sentiment, "that the vast majority of web developers are ignorant, talentless hacks". I actually think most people are unconsciously acting on loss aversion, and don't know how to balance the power of an open publishing platform (the web). Most sites are not built by web developers, they are built by crews of people directing web developers, and most of those folks may not even particularly like the web. But if they had the choice, they would rather build Facebook than a free, open and standards-based site, because free, open and standards-based are hard to understand and means giving up power. Also, Facebook seems to makes people super rich.

We need more empathy, well, in general, but also in digital literacy. The first reason is because we need to understand where our most vulnerable people are coming from. And just as importantly, we need to instill that as a foundation in problem-solving and approaching technology. I am researching orgs and people that are working in digital literacy, and almost everyone wants to pump out a new generation of founders to build the next wave of proprietary platforms that do not respect the dignity of strangers (remember from earlier, that is what the web is). If we want RSS on every site and to stop all the tracking and to have a better experience overall on the web, we need to include some humanities along side our tech workshops.

Hmmm, I don’t always make a lot of sense (I hope I stop rambling as much these days…), but I can see a lot of my modus operandi being laid out here.

Today I build websites for city governments to interact with the public. It is a pandemic, and technology companies are far worse today than they were seven years ago, and yet all the of the websites I build include no external tracking at all, and all analytics are done with actual goals in place, such as predicting future computing resources or noticing bottlenecks in our survey workflows; keep in mind I’m able to do all these practical, measurable tasks, without keeping any Personal Identifiable Information on any users.

I think regulating the tech companies is one of many tactics we should take. Another is for web developers to start considering the world they want to live in, and building a web for it. As long as property is more valuable than people, our web will reflect that. And the way to value people is empathy.

I guess what I am trying to say is: the web is political, because it is code and it is culture and it is law and it is words and it is power. I want it to be just text files with funny brackets, but that is too simple for our needs, apparently, so we have to take a holistic approach to building the web. Empathy.

Digging around, I found an originating conversation, hosted by @mlinksva.

I microblogged an egregiously out of context snippet from Matthew’s comment, like a bad editor (not to besmirch another entire class; many good editors exist). maiki took the bait, and did well with it. Much insight in his blogged reply.

Part of it is that most organization websites aren’t directed by web developers. Related, bosses don’t see any value in RSS, but do in social media, correctly or incorrectly (maiki has some explanations). Maybe this is part of the reason the IndieWeb movement emphasizes web developers building their own sites, for themselves. It is early times, and web developers need to scratch their own itches, dogfood the results.


If one hasn’t, I suggest reading the post and comments. I quoted that specific comment, Mike, because I’d like to assert I have seven more years of experience, and anecdotally:

  • most websites are created via abstract committee, whose edicts are handed to the developers
  • most of those committee members explicitly value various “markets”/“platforms” over autonomy

I’ve struggled with this, because it means I’m out of sync with my clients. I want them to be around in 10, 20 years, and I want all this great web stuff to be there, too. But companies plan to profit, and therefore work from a point of view that exchanges long-term existence for profit.

Honestly, it’s gotten to the point for me that I rate companies by how “trendy” they are as a base level of distrust. And it comes from working with so many folks, all of which are getting suckered in by these mazes-disguised-as-platforms, it’s difficult to trust many people I would work with. Fortunately, government standards are a great way to rope in requests; I sometimes feel like I wield WCAG compliance to protect the public from poor design choices, and I don’t know why.

But that’s how it is, for me. I can’t know for sure, but I imagine working in a tech company one must face a relentless cascade of such bullshit, without any ideas to support them, if said company doesn’t endorse those ideas (such as accessibility, or not selling user data).

So, early November, 2020. This is what I’ve been thinking about. Whatcha’ll thinking about? :slight_smile:

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