Not much stays in one place for one long, especially when it comes to digital artifacts. When the Yahoo Groups archive was summarily deleted by parent company Verizon just a few years ago, fandom suffered massive losses, just as it had during the Livejournal purges of the late 02000s, and during the Tumblr porn ban in 02018. Fandom preservation, then, ties into the larger issue of digital preservation as a whole, and specifically the question of how individual and group emotions and experiences — which make up so much of what it means to be a fan — can be effectively documented, annotated, and saved.
Wednesday, July 20th, 2022
Wednesday, April 21st, 2021
Get the FLoC out
I’ve always liked the way that web browsers are called “user agents” in the world of web standards. It’s such a succinct summation of what browsers are for, or more accurately who browsers are for. Users.
The term makes sense when you consider that the internet is for end users. That’s not to be taken for granted. This assertion is now enshrined in the Internet Engineering Task Force’s RFC 8890—like Magna Carta for the network age. It’s also a great example of prioritisation in a design principle:
When there is a conflict between the interests of end users of the Internet and other parties, IETF decisions should favor end users.
So when a web browser—ostensibly an agent for the user—prioritises user-hostile third parties, we get upset.
Google Chrome—ostensibly an agent for the user—is running an origin trial for Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC). This is not a technology that serves the end user. It is a technology that serves third parties who want to target end users. The most common use case is behavioural advertising, but targetting could be applied for more nefarious purposes.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation wrote an explainer last month: Google Is Testing Its Controversial New Ad Targeting Tech in Millions of Browsers. Here’s What We Know.
Let’s back up a minute and look at why this is happening. End users are routinely targeted today (for behavioural advertising and other use cases) through third-party cookies. Some user agents like Apple’s Safari and Mozilla’s Firefox are stamping down on this, disabling third party cookies by default.
Seeing which way the wind is blowing, Google’s Chrome browser will also disable third-party cookies at some time in the future (they’re waiting to shut that barn door until the fire is good’n’raging). But Google isn’t just in the browser business. Google is also in the ad tech business. So they still want to advertisers to be able to target end users.
Yes, this is quite the cognitive dissonance: one part of the business is building a user agent while a different part of the company is working on ways of tracking end users. It’s almost as if one company shouldn’t simultaneously be the market leader in three separate industries: search, advertising, and web browsing. (Seriously though, I honestly think Google’s search engine would get better if it were split off from the parent company, and I think that Google’s web browser would also get better if it were a separate enterprise.)
Anyway, one possible way of tracking users without technically tracking individual users is to assign them to buckets, or cohorts of interest based on their browsing habits. Does that make you feel safer? Me neither.
That’s what Google is testing with the origin trial of FLoC.
If you, as an end user, don’t wish to be experimented on like this, there are a few things you can do:
- Don’t use Chrome. No other web browser is participating in this experiment. I recommend Firefox.
- If you want to continue to use Chrome, install the Duck Duck Go Chrome extension.
- Alternatively, if you manually disable third-party cookies, your Chrome browser won’t be included in the experiment.
- Or you could move to Europe. The origin trial won’t be enabled for users in the European Union, which is coincidentally where GDPR applies.
That last decision is interesting. On the one hand, the origin trial is supposed to be on a small scale, hence the lack of European countries. On the other hand, the origin trial is “opt out” instead of “opt in” so that they can gather a big enough data set. Weird.
The plan is that if and when FLoC launches, websites would have to opt in to it. And when I say “plan”, I mean “best guess.”
I, for one, am filled with confidence that Google would never pull a bait-and-switch with their technologies.
In the meantime, if you’re a website owner, you have to opt your website out of the origin trial. You can do this by sending a server header. A
meta element won’t do the trick, I’m afraid.
I’ve done it for my sites, which are served using Apache. I’ve got this in my
<IfModule mod_headers.c> Header always set Permissions-Policy "interest-cohort=()" </IfModule>
If you don’t have access to your server, tough luck. But if your site runs on Wordpress, there’s a proposal to opt out of FLoC by default.
Interestingly, none of the Chrome devs that I follow are saying anything about FLoC. They’re usually quite chatty about proposals for potential standards, but I suspect that this one might be embarrassing for them. It was a similar situation with AMP. In that case, Google abused its monopoly position in search to blackmail publishers into using Google’s format. Now Google’s monopoly in advertising is compromising the integrity of its browser. In both cases, it makes it hard for Chrome devs claiming to have the web’s best interests at heart.
But one of the advantages of having a huge share of the browser market is that Chrome can just plough ahead and unilaterily implement whatever it wants even if there’s no consensus from other browser makers. So that’s what Google is doing with FLoC. But their justification for doing this doesn’t really work unless other browsers play along.
- Third-party cookies are on their way out so advertisers will no longer be able to use that technology to target users.
- If we don’t provide an alternative, advertisers and other third parties will use fingerprinting, which we all agree is very bad.
- So let’s implement Federated Learning of Cohorts so that advertisers won’t use fingerprinting.
The problem is with step three. The theory is that if FLoC gives third parties what they need, then they won’t reach for fingerprinting. Even if there were any validity to that hypothesis, the only chance it has of working is if every browser joins in with FLoC. Otherwise ad tech companies are leaving money on the table. Can you seriously imagine third parties deciding that they just won’t target iPhone or iPad users any more? Remember that Safari is the only real browser on iOS so unless FLoC is implemented by Apple, third parties can’t reach those people …unless those third parties use fingerprinting instead.
Google have set up a situation where it looks like FLoC is going head-to-head with fingerprinting. But if FLoC becomes a reality, it won’t be instead of fingerprinting, it will be in addition to fingerprinting.
Google is quite right to point out that fingerprinting is A Very Bad Thing. But their concerns about fingerprinting sound very hollow when you see that Chrome is pushing ahead and implementing a raft of browser APIs that other browser makers quite rightly point out enable more fingerprinting: Battery Status, Proximity Sensor, Ambient Light Sensor and so on.
When it comes to those APIs, the message from Google is that fingerprinting is a solveable problem.
But when it comes to third party tracking, the message from Google is that fingerprinting is inevitable and so we must provide an alternative.
Which one is it?
Google’s flimsy logic for why FLoC is supposedly good for end users just doesn’t hold up. If they were honest and said that it’s to maintain the status quo of the ad tech industry, it would make much more sense.
The flaw in Google’s reasoning is the fundamental idea that tracking is necessary for advertising. That’s simply not true. Sacrificing user privacy is fundamental to behavioural advertising …but behavioural advertising is not the only kind of advertising. It isn’t even a very good kind of advertising.
FLoC seems to be Google’s way of saving a dying business. They are trying to keep targeted ads going by making them more “privacy-friendly” and “anonymous”. But behavioral profiling and targeted advertisement is not compatible with a privacy-respecting web.
What’s striking is that the very monopolies that make Google and Facebook the leaders in behavioural advertising would also make them the leaders in contextual advertising. Almost everyone uses Google’s search engine. Almost everyone uses Facebook’s social network. An advertising model based on what you’re currently looking at would keep Google and Facebook in their dominant positions.
Google made their first many billions exclusively on contextual advertising. Google now prefers to push the message that behavioral advertising based on personal data collection is superior but there is simply no trustworthy evidence to that.
I sincerely hope that Chrome will align with Safari, Firefox, Vivaldi, Brave, Edge and every other web browser. Everyone already agrees that fingerprinting is the real enemy. Imagine the combined brainpower that could be brought to bear on that problem if all browsers made user privacy a priority.
Until that day, I’m not sure that Google Chrome can be considered a user agent.
Friday, February 12th, 2021
Favicons are snitches.
Tuesday, February 2nd, 2021
Wednesday, August 12th, 2020
Design sprints on the Clearleft podcast
It comes in at just under 24 minutes, which feels just about right to me. Once again, it’s a dive into one topic that asks “What is this?”, “What does this mean?”, and “Where did this come from?”
I also asked ex-Clearleftie Jerlyn to have a chat. You’ll notice that’s been a bit of theme on the Clearleft podcast; asking people who used to work at Clearleft to share their thoughts. I’d quite like to do at least an episode—maybe even a whole season—featuring ex-Clearlefties exclusively. So many great people have worked at the agency of the years, Jerlyn being a prime example.
I’d also like to do an episode some time with the regular contractors we’ve worked with at Clearleft. On this episode, I asked the super-smart Tom Prior to join me.
I recorded those three chats over the past couple of weeks. And it was kind of funny how there was, of course, a looming presence over the topic of design sprints: Jake Knapp. I had sent him an email too but I got an auto-responder saying that he was super busy and would take a while to respond. So I kind of mentally wrote it off.
I spent last week assembling and editing the podcast with the excellent contributions from Jerlyn, Chris, and Tom. But it did feel a bit like Waiting For Godot the way that Jake’s book was being constantly referenced.
Then, on the weekend, Godot showed up.
Jake said he’d have time for a chat on Wednesday. Aargh! That’s the release date for the podcast! I don’t suppose Monday would work?
Very graciously, Jake agreed to a Monday chat (at an ungodly early hour in his time zone). I got an excellent half hour of material straight from the horse’s mouth—a very excitable and fast-talking horse, too.
That left me with just a day to work the material into the episode! I felt like a journalist banging on the keyboard at midnight, ready to run into the printing room shouting “Stop the press!” …although I’m sure the truth is that nobody but me would notice if an episode were released a little late.
Anyway, it all got done in the end and I think it turned out pretty great!
Have a listen for yourself and see what you make of it.
This was the final episode of the first season. I’ll now take a little break from podcasting as I plot and plan for the next season. Watch this space! …and, y’know, subscribe to the podcast.
Friday, November 22nd, 2019
A series of really nice CSS grid demos based on two-page magazine spreads.
Tuesday, November 19th, 2019
I’ve found that the older I get, the less I care about looking stupid. This is remarkably freeing. I no longer have any hesitancy about raising my hand in a meeting to ask “What’s that acronym you just mentioned?” This sometimes has the added benefit of clarifying something for others in the room who might have been to shy to ask.
I remember a few years back being really confused about
npm. Fortunately, someone who was working at
npm at the time came to Brighton for FFConf, so I asked them to explain it to me.
As I understood it,
npm was intended to be used for managing packages of code for Node. Wasn’t it actually called “Node Package Manager” at one point, or did I imagine that?
Anyway, the mental model I had of
npm is to Node as PEAR is to PHP. A central repository of open source code projects that you could easily add to your codebase …for your server-side code.
But then I saw people talking about using
It turns out that my confusion was somewhat warranted. The
npm project had indeed started life as a repo for server-side code but had since expanded to encompass client-side code too.
I understand how it happened, but it confirmed a worrying trend I had noticed. Developers were writing front-end code as though it were back-end code.
On the other hand, it makes no sense at all! If your code’s run-time is on the server, then the size of the codebase doesn’t matter that much. Whether it’s hundreds or thousands of lines of code, the execution happens more or less independentally of the network. But that’s not how front-end development works. Every byte matters. The more code you write that needs to be executed on the user’s device, the worse the experience is for that user. You need to limit how much you’re using the network. That means leaning on what the browser gives you by default (that’s your run-time environment) and keeping your code as lean as possible.
Dave echoes my concerns in his end-of-the-year piece called The Kind of Development I Like:
I now think about npm and wonder if it’s somewhat responsible for some of the pain points of modern web development today. Fact is, npm is a server-side technology that we’ve co-opted on the client and I think we’re feeling those repercussions in the browser.
The Unix Philosophy encourages us to write small micro libraries that do one thing and do it well. The Node.js Ecosystem did this in spades. This works great on the server where importing a small file has a very small cost. On the client, however, this has enormous costs.
In a funny way, this situation reminds me of something I saw happening over twenty years ago. Print designers were starting to do web design. They had a wealth of experience and knowledge around colour theory, typography, hierarchy and contrast. That was all very valuable to bring to the world of the web. But the web also has fundamental differences to print design. In print, you can use as many typefaces as you want, whereas on the web, to this day, you need to be judicious in the range of fonts you use. But in print, you might have to limit your colour palette for cost reasons (depending on the printing process), whereas on the web, colours are basically free. And then there’s the biggest difference of all: working within known dimensions of a fixed page in print compared to working within the unknowable dimensions of flexible viewports on the web.
Fast forward to today and we’ve got a lot of Computer Science graduates moving into front-end development. They’re bringing with them a treasure trove of experience in writing robust scalable code. But web browsers aren’t like web servers. If your back-end code is getting so big that it’s starting to run noticably slowly, you can throw more computing power at it by scaling up your server. That’s not an option on the front-end where you don’t really have one run-time environment—your end users have their own run-time environment with its own constraints around computing power and network connectivity.
That’s a very, very challenging world to get your head around. The safer option is to stick to the mental model you’re familiar with, whether you’re a print designer or a Computer Science graduate. But that does a disservice to end users who are relying on you to deliver a good experience on the World Wide Web.
Wednesday, July 24th, 2019
Jon’s ranting about Agile here, but it could equally apply to design systems:
Agile and design is like looking at a picture through a keyhole. By slicing big things into smaller things, designers must work incrementally. Its this incrementalism that can lead to what I call the ‘Frankensteining’ of a digital product or service.
Thursday, May 9th, 2019
Marcin explains why line height works differently in print and the web. Along the way, he hits upon this key insight about CSS:
Web also took away some of the control from typesetters. What in the print era were absolute rules, now became suggestions.
Remember that every line of CSS you write is a suggestion to the browser.
Thursday, April 11th, 2019
If you’re using Apple’s VoiceOver, both your phone and your computer will broadcast your assumed disability to the entire internet, unless and until you specifically tell it to stop.
Thursday, April 4th, 2019
I also discussed this accessibility events feature with my friend who is a screen reader user herself. She said it feels like it’s a first step towards a well-meant digital apartheid.
Thursday, February 21st, 2019
I’m going to say no.
On the surface, our project has all the hallmarks of a design sprint. A group of people who don’t normally work together were thrown into an instense week of problem-solving and building, culminating in a tangible testable output. But when you look closer, the journey itself was quite different. A design sprint is typical broken into five phases, each one mapped on to a day of work:
- Understand and Map
- Demos and Sketch
- Decide and Storyboard
There was certainly plenty of understanding, sketching, and prototyping involved in our hack week at CERN, but we knew going in what the output would be at the end of the week. That’s not the case with most design sprints: figuring out what you’re going to make is half the work. In our case, we knew what needed to be produced; we just had to figure out how. Our process looked more like this:
- Understand and Map
- Research and Sketch
Now you could say that it’s a kind of design sprint, but I think there’s value in reserving the term “design sprint” for the specific five-day process. As it is, there’s enough confusion between the term “sprint” in its agile sense and “design sprint”.
Sunday, January 13th, 2019
You know what I like? Print stylesheets!
I mean, I’m not a huge fan of trying to get the damn things to work consistently—thanks, browsers—but I love the fact that they exist (athough I’ve come across a worrying number of web developers who weren’t aware of their existence). Print stylesheets are one more example of the assumption-puncturing nature of the web: don’t assume that everyone will be reading your content on a screen. News articles, blog posts, recipes, lyrics …there are many situations where a well-considered print stylesheet can make all the difference to the overall experience.
You know what I don’t like? QR codes!
It’s not because they’re ugly, or because they’ve been over-used by the advertising industry in completely inapropriate ways. No, I don’t like QR codes because they aren’t an open standard. Still, I must grudgingly admit that they’re a convenient way of providing a shortcut to a URL (albeit a completely opaque one—you never know if it’s actually going to take you to the URL it promises or to a Rick Astley video). And now that the parsing of QR codes is built into iOS without the need for any additional application, the barrier to usage is lower than ever.
So much as I might grit my teeth, QR codes and print stylesheets make for good bedfellows.
I picked up a handy tip from a Smashing Magazine article about print stylesheets a few years back. You can the combination of a
@media print and generated content to provide a QR code for the URL of the page being printed out. Google’s Chart API provides a really handy shortcut for generating QR codes:
For now, I’ve got the QR code generation happening on The Session for individual discussions, events, recordings, sessions, and tunes. For the tunes, there’s also a separate URL for each setting of a tune, specifically for printing out. I’ve added a QR code there too.
I’ve been thinking about another potential use for QR codes. I’m preparing a new talk for An Event Apart Seattle. The talk is going to be quite practical—for a change—and I’m going to be encouraging people to visit some URLs. It might be fun to include the biggest possible QR code on a slide.
I’d better generate the images before Google shuts down that API.
Thursday, November 22nd, 2018
I just binge-listened to the six episodes of the first season of this podcast from Stephen Fry—it’s excellent!
It covers the history of communication from the emergence of language to the modern day. At first I was worried that it was going to rehash some of the more questionable ideas in the risible Sapiens, but it turned out to be far more like James Gleick’s The Information or Tom Standage’s The Victorian Internet (two of my favourite books on the history of technology).
There’s no annoying sponsorship interruptions and the whole series feels more like an audiobook than a podcast—an audiobook researched, written and read by Stephen Fry!
Monday, October 22nd, 2018
HTTPS session identifiers can be disabled in Mozilla products manually by setting ‘security.ssl.disablesessionidentifiers’ in about:config.
Monday, May 21st, 2018
Some ideas on the best of use of time in sprint zero of an agile project.
- Understand your context
- Identify risks
- Understand the business process
- Get testing infrastructure
- Understand quality attributes
- Get to know the people
- Prepare an initial product backlog
- Build a walking skeleton/spike
- Build a learning backlog
Wednesday, May 2nd, 2018
Good advice on print styles from Rachel. The browser support situation is frustrating; I suspect it’s because the people working on browsers would rather get stuck in on shinier stuff.
Wednesday, March 7th, 2018
Everything old is new again—sometimes the age-old technique of using a 1x1 pixel image to log requests is still the only way to get certain metrics.
While tracking pixels are far from a new idea, there are creative ways in which we can use them to collect data useful to developers. Once the data is gathered, we can begin to make much more informed decisions about how we work.
Monday, December 4th, 2017
Tuesday, April 4th, 2017