Entries Tagged 'Web standards' ↓

Asynchronicity in the Internet Age

In the Fall of 2010, my husband and I decided to drop cable tv altogether, save the $9.99 monthly basic, basic plan so I could still have C-SPAN and BookTV while folding laundry on Sundays. I bought an Apple TV, and an HDMI dongle for my laptop, and we made our initial move to internet-based TV.

At the time, weaning myself from TV involved solving a few problems. I was an avid “All My Children” fan, a frequent watcher of John Stewart and Stephen Colbert, a DVR watcher of Dr. Phil (my idea of a guilty pleasure) and House (the one show my husband and I watched together). A $7.99/month Hulu Plus account took care of everything but Dr. Phil. After detoxing from Dr. Phil, I find I don’t miss it, although I have an occasional jonesing for some unresolvable family dysfunction, but that’s what Facebook is for (albeit, sans Octomom).

Then there were the kids. My daughter, Mihiret, came to our family from Ethiopia at the age of 4 in the fall of 2008. She became a Disney Channel watcher. I believe it was partially in the spirit of Disney being an accessible cultural touchstone for a kid who is new here and wanting so much to fit in. For her, Hannah Montana and Selena Gomez are like extended family. She cried when I surrendered the DVR, and I felt like the worst mom in the world. But, when I showed her how our PS3 could give her access to our $7.99 Netflix account and all the Disney shows she watched anytime at her convenience, she was all over it. Her envious friends wished THEY could pick that same stupid episode eleven times in a row.

So we ditched our $129 HD/DVR cable bill for a combined basic cable/internet TV bill of $25.97 and never looked back. We got Mihiret a Roku box for Christmas, and she is thrilled. (BTW, if I had it to do over again, I’d go for the Roku so I would not have to hook my laptop up to get Hulu).

We had always, in the past, been Netflix members, but at the time we made this switch, we also ditched the DVD part of our membership. Friends of mine used to checkout whole seasons of TV shows on DVD, but I found that to be unweildy as DVD’s in our house, with two small kids, two dogs, three cats, two fish, and a mouse, don’t stand much of a chance.  But now that I am forced into the online world for any variety in my TV viewing, I have taken to viewing entire seasons of shows I had never seen while they were still on the air. I started with “Lie to Me” because I love Tim Roth, and it was diverting, but didn’t really grab me much. I tried “Mad Men” and found the first episode to be utterly depressing and reminding me of the awful, mean, psychopathic people I met in NYC during my years in marketing and brand management there, so I turned it off mid-episode.

Then I saw my first episode of “24″ this year. It first aired in 2001 and I was watching it for the first time in 2012. The show had me hooked, and I became addicted to multiple-episode watching sessions after the kids went to bed. The first season was written in 2001 before 9/11, and the terrorists had to be dug up from the Clinton-era Bosnia campaign. Little did they know that they were entering on the most terrorist-obsessed, torture-lovin’ decade to come upon us yet.

But I’m not qualified to write a treatise on the cultural meanings and impact of the show “24.” In fact, from looking at both Google and Google Scholar, it appears as though writings on that topic have likely been annotated in more than one dissertation over the last 10 years.

Rather, this experience has made me wholly qualified to talk about what it’s like to experience a popular culture phenomenon out of synch with popular culture. And I’m not talking about trying to appreciate the genius of Charlie Chaplin or Andy Warhol in retrospect. I’m talking about popular culture that is freshly old, just yesterday, and not yet committed to antiquity. Internet TV FEELS like watching TV on a broadcast channel. That is, being a late boomer and having grown up in the TV age, my experience of TV is that everyone else is watching this while I’m watching this. But, with internet TV, I’m the only one I know of watching this at this point in time.

So, the usual ways of sharing popular cultural experiences on Twitter, Facebook and the like are not available to you. The hash tags are just slightly old and no one’s really using them anymore. There appears to be a window in popular culture, like suspended animation, when something’s relevance and aesthetic appeal lay dormant, like the career of Neil Sedaka during the years between the two releases of “Breaking up is Hard to Do.”

So, any Googling I do on the topic is just slightly out of date. The show was around recently enough to have been covered in all the current magazines, so you can actually read these articles and pretend it’s in real time, which is very, very strange. Unlike traditional online or library research, it feels much more like time travel — that you are occupying a few years ago rather than observing it. I didn’t need the wayback machine, or wikipedia, to find this stuff. It’s all out there live on the web, looking as fresh as this morning’s news releases, but bearing a date of 2005. Essentially, an article from seven years ago appears as new and relevant as the morning it was born.

This gives me shivers when I think about how the idea of permalinks, rdf, rss and xml are becoming more and more ubiquitous. When you search the New York Times for articles that pre-date these technologies, you are directed to archives, or scans, or articles in formats that are older, or clearly adapted. But, the separation of data from presentation, and the evolution of the semantic web, portend a future where the past can seem simultaneous. Stretch the seven years to 20, and combine it with augmented reality and you can pretty much gaslight ANYONE into thinking that they are, indeed, back in high school, failing that exam once again, in their pajamas.

A new form of torture. Which reminds me, I’m due to finish Season 7 of “24,” and not tweet about it.

Man, We Were Good

I know we are all looking forward to saying goodbye to our Contribute environment at UMW. But, before its imminent demise, I want to point out a few really good things about it.

Over 7 years ago, we put our hearts and souls into investigating and standing up a web environment that would be easier to manage than our previous environment was. At the time, Macromedia (now Adobe) Contribute was pretty much revolutionary: a low cost content management system that provided users with an easy interface to edit Web pages. It was a barrier remover in its time.

The unfortunate thing throughout the life of our “Contribute” environment was that Contribute wasn’t the amazing part of it. Calling it “in Contribute” is a misnomer. Our Web development team Blaine Donley,  Edward Gray, and myself created a PHP application on the backend that filled in the blanks that Contribute could not. Our application stored all the urls, their relationships, and their structure, in a database. It allowed people to create new pages and arrange them through a Web interface, something that Contribute could not do natively. Something that no one else was doing with Contribute at the time.

Then, the content itself lived within the familiar notion of a “page” which our highly distributed team of Web managers could understand and manipulate.

The result was a really fast-performing CMS that only had to retrieve urls instead of delivering and parsing all the content. Considering the speed of servers at the time, this was a great decision that allowed us to scale up to the creation of over 22,000 Web pages, with 8,000 active at any point in time, and very rarely has there been a performance issue. As a matter of fact, I can’t recall one time when performance was an issue.

But the interwebs have moved on from directory structures and stored collections of html files. I knew this was coming, but I also knew, back then, that the technology to deploy a real CMS was too expensive, immature, clunky, and overpromising. I knew that this system we were building would be an intermediate step while the Web got its act together, Web standards settled in a bit, XML grew up, browsers got a clue, and our folks became more Web savvy.

I chose Contribute because, unlike its predecessor Dreamweaver, it could lock out the user from marking up text with font tags, sizes, colors, and other non-standards-compliant markup that was just beginning its deprecation as CSS2 was looming on the horizon. A few people did not like that they couldn’t put big, green, ugly text on their home pages. But, it was a decision that had to be made to ensure the integrity of the markup. Always, in the back of my mind, was some notion of an XML dump of everything in the system, and that had to include standards-compliant markup or we’d be in a world of hurt with manual editing, copying, and pasting.

I think that I was a lot smarter back then than I remember being. Now, folks are able to import their content from our old environment to our new, amazing, beautiful, multi-network WordPress installation, with the click of a button. And only a few error messages in the bunch, which were easily addressed.

It wasn’t simply a script that I wrote that did this, although I wrote a script. It was all the thinking and foresight that we had years ago when we built that now ghastly Contribute system. I’ve always been fond of building and creating systems — it’s why I’m not very good as a one-off designer or Web developer. I like the larger context, the longer view, the seeing what’s around the corner, solving problems on a larger scale. It’s part of my narcissistic grandiosity.

So, before we say goodbye to Contribute, I’m patting myself, and my two former colleagues on the backs. Our system may be on the way out, but by thinking through the larger implications, we created the basis to enable an import thousands of standards-compliant Web pages into a state-of-the-art CMS so painlessly that all folks asked after training is “Now how do I make my site look good.” They are jazzed up, rather than overwhelmed, wanting more rather than less.

Part of that is the power of WordPress. But a big part of getting there is the power of our team back then. Blaine and Edward, we did good.