That Old Anonymous Web

People are jerks.

At least you might think that if you ever spent any time reading through the comments section of any online article that have a decent readership. People harass one another, start arguments by nitpicking silly iota, and inevitably, someone brings up a comparison to Hitler.

I used to think folks were so crummy to one another because of a sociological phenomenon wherein people act worse when they feel anonymous – as though no one is going to catch them. As researcher Philip G. Zimbardo states:

You minimize social responsibility,” he explained. “Nobody knows who you are, so therefore you are not individually liable. There’s also a group effect when all of you are masked. It provides a fear in other people because they can’t see you, and you lose your humanity.

I reasoned that, since people are fairly anonymous on the Internet – I mean, who uses their real name for chat forums? – we all unleash some of our inner nasty.

And everyone used to talk about the web being an anonymous place – the Wild West. You can learn anything, do anything, be anybody. No one had to know what you were up to. It was amazing.

However, we no longer think of the web as anonymous. In fact, it is largely the opposite: the web is a gigantic big-government deployed tracking device. It is unstoppable, unrelenting, and everywhere. It knows where you are now, where you were yesterday, what you bought, what you wrote (or spoke!) to whom, and even does a fair job predicting what you will want and say and where you will be tomorrow.

Google Tracking me

That’s a tad unsettling. But we’ve digested it wholly because, hey, who doesn’t want a super computer in their pocket that can recommend the best carnitas taco within 1.3 miles of my current location!

The web has indeed transformed from this great big anonymous landscape into the all-knowing eye. That does not have to be bad, I guess? But knowing people and bureaucracy, it probably is.

Ongoing, the movement afoot is to opt out of the web – not cut the cord but to use only non-traceable, encrypted devices and software packages. It is doable, but difficult and cumbersome. And even that does not defeat the growing list of municipal “real world” cameras tracking vehicle license plates and pedestrian traffic. Sure, there is this wild jacket. But what about a warm sunny day? Is there photo bomb lotion so we can go without the coat?

Not everyone minds being tracked. But many will continue to stand firm in the effort against vastly well-funded resources – both private and federal – that bend towards knowing, hoarding, and tracking information.

All that data – about each of us on the granular level and meta level. Here we are, countless numbers of us without a plan or clue about who we are or what we want out of life. A little ironic.

The web is no longer wild and free. It is no longer anonymous, despite whatever efforts we deploy.

Oh, and you know, people writing about Hitler in the comment sections are still jerks. Now we just know who they are in real life.

How the Web Will Be Different

There is so much to think about. On a surface level, it’s important to acknowledge that the web — the way we access it, how we use it, and how we build for it — will all be dramatically different in five or ten years than what we have today. If you are looking, you can see fissures in the large platforms many people use now for websites, caused somewhat by our “grab-and-go” mentality, but also by some remarkable user-experience and design work on the part of this constantly churning ecosystem of new, web startup ventures.

And another piece is that people are moving away from the web being an archive or personal history, maybe in recognition that we all change as we grow older, or maybe because the web is becoming cluttered with outdated, incorrect information without any linear map to show the progression of knowledge. But for whatever reason folks are moving in the direction of a “forgetful web”. We will soon want the web to erase things we’ve posted a year, or five, or ten years ago, instead of keeping it online and searchable for the rest of our lives. Remember the heated political argument you engaged in with an old college classmate on Facebook during the second Bush campaign? Time for that to dissapear.

These big Content Management Systems that are popular today are going to be breaking apart for lack of use or consumer appetite, I think, or maybe spun out into smaller component divisions. Not everyone needs a large assembly line-CMS behind their two page website, potentially slowing down load time. In their place, we will probably see a host of tightly integrated, internet-based services that users can pull together for ad-hoc information displays.

I am not using the word “website” because that term won’t be as relevant in five or ten years. For example, the metaphor of a web “page” will transfer over for a little while, but I doubt it will linger as more and more people are viewing web information that is output through contact lenses, their car dashboard, 3-D printers, or virtual holo displays. A whole website? What’s that?

Instead, folks will be walking around with static Internet Protocol addresses being broadcast from tiny transmitters embedded in their necks or from a bracelet or other wearable. Information they capture from their phones or Google-glass-like product, and post or broadcast … will be indexed in a short-lived solid state cache memory system and viewable from that address, temporarily. Only items flagged permanent will be directed to an Amazon AWS server or similar for long-term storage. That will be their “website”. The DNS system will still function as it does today to continue providing memorable URLs.

These ad-hoc displays are already being put together by folks. They just are not as mobile-driven yet as they will become. Think about how some people today integrate Instagram and Twitter and Tumblr and AdSense and Giphy and Facebook Messenger and Soundcloud into a single platform accessible via a unique URL. All of these independent information services are coming together in a structure that the user demands; at any point, they can be pulled apart and disappear, be replaced, or left idle. Sure, it’s a web page, but … is it? Isn’t it already more than the traditional web page that we’ve come to know?

What that means for those in this front-end web development industry with me is that, well, the writing is on the wall. We either need to become skilled in handling the Application Protocol Interfaces (the APIs) that undergrid the ability of these tiny services to all seamlessly and (visually) beautifully communicate with each other, or we will be regulated to a footnoted “bump” in the Bureau of Labor & Statistics annual jobs report. Maybe some will move on to become managers of the new crop of web workers; of course the designers’ jobs will always be safe; but the front-end development folks, well, that work is not what I would lean on for a solid retirement plan.

Then there’s the layers of abstraction to think about. What used to be HTML became CSS, which became SASS or LESS, and at each stage there have emerged countless systems and frameworks meant to handle rapid prototyping and development, and each system has a learning curve and peculiar dependencies or supporting components. And that’s just one of the fundamental pieces — we can’t forget JavaScript and its offspring. With each new iteration of these pieces, we have seemed to move away from the core languages — each step is doing the job of the initial language cleaner, quicker, (messier?) faster … mostly in a good way. As we get deeper into each new layer, we are further removed from the original languages of the web.

Today, it is possible for a front-end developer to custom-build a website without really touching HTML, CSS, or JavaScript. They are working in ‘children’ of those languages like the aforementioned SASS or JQuery, and letting technology do the dirty work. I think it is really remarkable. In the same way that today’s TV repair service probably does not know a thing about a vacuum tube, the future web worker likely won’t know a thing about HTML or JavaScript or PHP. And that lack of trade knowledge will be totally appropriate.

That’s a really fun way to think about the future of the web — how we will broadcast to it and implications for the day-to-day laborers behind it.

There are some other, less fun but basic questions hanging in the air around the future of the web.

  • How are our cities preparing physical infrastructure to be ready to harness the future web? Are we relying on the likes of Comcast, the “world’s most hated company” to do it for us? While some cities are spinning up municipal broadband, most cities are not.
  • How are we preparing our human capital? Is the current public school curriculum sufficient to build the next generation of web technologists? Is there balance between the consumption of these new technology devices and an understanding in how they are put together and made, the hardware and programming behind them? Or is that all just magic?
  • How are we preparing to absorb the future impact of disasters relating to a massive “offline” event or the all-too-common wide scale cyber information theft from regional information hubs (hospitals, universities, city government offices, etc)?

Already, we may have popularized the concept of Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s “Internet of Things” running across the web — an entire host of dumb devices connected through the web, performing routine, maybe singular tasks on our behalf. We seem comfortable with the idea of being completely enmeshed within this “web” of information and services wrapped all around us.

The future of the web is going to be an amazing place. And it is coming faster than some have expected. My hope is that we stay informed through it all, more than simply being consumers with a “Tide Detergent” Amazon button that we press when we need more product. I hope we understand how all these transactions are occurring across the various protocols and wifi channels and banking interactions — from the moment we press or click or snap, to the moment the box is dropped off by the robot drone carrier on our front porch.

Why? Because it matters that we control the technology instead of being controlled by it. It isn’t magic. It’s real and while it is wonderful to feel awe from it, we need to also own it and keep it tamed.

Neighborhood Council Meeting

Last night, I went to our neighborhood community council meeting. It’s called the MACC (for Morningside).

I asked if the council would welcome the META MESH guys over to talk with us all about mesh networking and Pitt Mesh. They did, and it was really informative. It will cost a good bit of money ($10k) for the neighborhood to be fully covered in a mesh network, but I think we could at least get a start by blanketing our small business district.

A mesh network is a form of wireless, ad hoc networking. Folks can set up a series of nodes – or antennas – that connect to one another and create a small network. The network may or may not be connected to the larger World Wide Web. This particular network is now in a successful proof of concept test for solar powered battery backup.

Having such a network in Morningside would be useful fora number of reasons:

  • Business district can advertise, offer coupons to neighbors;
  • Community events, yard sales, council meeting notes, historic data can be served and shared;
  • Safety notices, disaster event news, backup information network if Comcast or Verizon went down;
  • Educational opportunities for Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and other youth organizations to learn to build and maintain network architecture;

Once the network is built, my guess is that other people smarter than I am will come along with a thousand cooler ideas of other applications for a hyper-local, solar-powered, redundant mesh network.

Updating The Google Password

Have you updated your Google password lately? It’s gotten a little crazy. It isn’t Google’s fault – it’s that we live in a goofy web of interconnected, insecure-trying-to-be-secure devices that falter when trying to communicate with one another.

I updated my Google password in my browser. It was pretty easy. Open a browser. Log into Google. Go to my account settings, click the security tab, change the password. Write the new password on a sticky note and put it on my monitor.

Then Google emailed me: “Did you want to change your password?” Yep.

Oops – oh yeah. My cell phone pulls down mail from GMail. I open up my GMail on my cell and, as expected, can no longer log in. “Do you want to change your password?” Yeppers.

And then Google asks me – “What is the Security Code we texted to your mobile device?” Well – this is my mobile device. The text appears a moment later and I enter the code. Now GMail on my phone works.

But that was some kind of weird double-authentication fail. The texted security code is supposed to show that I have access to a secondary device and therefore probably am who I am claiming to be (the account owner). But when I am “double” verifying ownership of the mobile device by providing a text code sent to the mobile device … I dunno. Seems like a breakdown in the system somewhere.

OK whew. Oh – desktop mail client. “Do you want to change your password?” *sigh*. Yes. “Invalid password.” Hey no way! That’s the right password! I have it right here on a sticky note on my monitor!

Ooooooh … Right. For the desktop client, I need to provide an Application-Specific Password. Which means I open up a new browser tab and log into Google, and generate a new application-specific password. I copy that to my clipboard (because I only need it once!). Then on my computer, I open my main system settings, and then navigate over to user accounts, find my mail accounts and … where am I? What was I doing? Oh hey – time for lunch.

WordPress 4.0 Released

There is a new version of WordPress being released today – codename Benny. There will be great new features, such as enhanced visual browsing of the media and plugin libraries.

Mostly, though, I was struck by a figure included in their launch post: there were 275 contributors to the release. Wow!

WordPress is open source. Folks from all levels of experience can chip in and contribute from their skill sets. To jump into the awesomeness yourself, check out the offical “Make” website and get started.

A New WordPress MeetUp

I work in WordPress a lot during the course of my day. I have been wanting to attend one of those “MeetUps” that are in the area, and they had one for WordPress. Seemed like a natural thing to check out.

I could never get to a meeting, though, for one reason or another. Evening meetings can be like that, right? Eventually, I think the group itself fizzed out and that was that. Well, I really wanted to go to one of those darn meetings.

So I started a new MeetUp group for WordPress here in Pittsburgh. We will see how things go, but there has been a nice response and I am really looking forward to the first event. Today, I met with two really gracious folks who agreed to help me out with planning the meeting. We had a great talk and they brought terrific ideas to the table, so there is now that much more enthusiasm.

Wish us all luck!

How Much Do I Charge Clients for a Website?

Whoa! Easy there, hard charger. Let’s take it step by step. Maybe you can buy me a cup of coffee first?

OK OK. You want to be a website builder person. But you don’t know how much to charge people. Let’s break it down a bit. You have to work backwards to find the project price point.

To start, you should ask: How much do I need to make per week/month/year?

Yes, you want to make $100,000 a year. Maybe you will! But to start, with your first client, let’s be a bit more modest. Think about your monthly living expenses, how much cash you need to fix your sweater, eat, have some fun, rent out a micro-apartment in NYC, etc.

Then you figure out: How many billable hours do I plan to work each week? ProTip: Many freelancers don’t hit 40 billable hours a week. Maybe you will! But listen, I know one guy who bills only 7 hours a week (and he is a great developer with lots of clients!). Usually, I am happy if I hit 20.

As a freelancer, you are not just working on projects. You are also doing marketing, networking, paying your own bills, buying manilla envelopes at the Office Box Store, driving your mom to her doctor’s appointment since-you-don’t-have-a-real-job. And so on. You can always adjust later.

Then you do simple division and come up with an hourly rate (Amount You Need to Make / Billable Hours = Hourly Rate).
i.e. I want to make $800 US a week / 20 hours = $40 Hourly Rate.

Next, you estimate how many hours it will take to complete a project. More math: (Estimated Hours x Hourly Rate = Project Cost). Your time includes all client meetings, managing resources or subcontractors, market research, testing, feedback cycles, and of yes, of course, doing the actual coding and programming work.
i.e. 50 hour project estimate x $40 - $2,000 Project Cost

OK not done yet! Now add in any additional costs, like special software licenses or resources (like the rights to use those great photographs you found online) or subcontractors (like a web designer) you must have to complete the project.
$2,000 project cost + $100 license fee for photographs + 600 web designer sub contractor = $2,700 Project Cost

Great. Now you have a perfect solution to a clean, perfect project in an awesome, perfect, heavenly world.

But then you must awake from your dream and realize we are in a broken world with real people who have all sorts of things whizzing around that can really. Complicate. Life.

At this point, some freelancers will take the Project Cost figure and just double it.

This helps them account for the inevitable unexpected things that life and clients toss at you. Should you do that? I dunno. You will have to examine your own skills at estimating costs and see if you are on target or sorely under target. Get a few projects under your belt to get a good sense of your project planning skills here.

If you realize later that you were sorely underpaid – look at the bright side: you made a client happy for cheap and they just might refer someone else to you! If you were overpaid – well … think about scaling costs down to remain competitive. Or just make it rain!

So, is $2,700 a realistic price for a website project? I can’t answer that. It all depends on the project requirements- it’s simplicity or complexity, the platform you are using to build (or time to build from scratch), how you value your time, the client’s project budget, the timeline (you betcha rush jobs cost more), existing assets (can you responsibly use components you already own?), and so on.

But Chris! Forget all that! Seriously. How much do I charge clients for a website!?

Well, in my experience, I’ve seen single website project price tags at $350,000 and $30,000 and $400 and free. You aren’t out there to rip anyone off (amirite?). You want to give clients a great product that you can be proud of, and you don’t want to burn any bridges. Until you are really established, it can be difficult to say, “this is my set price no matter your circumstance.” You can say that later, when you are at the point where you can pick and choose clients, and your overhead is stricter. But when you are just starting out, you will need to flex to the budget needs of the people coming to you because, most likely, they are friends of friends and referrals from cousins and neighbors and folks close to your personal network. If you need to do some $400 sites, then do them. Does that mean you are stuck in the $400 market? Not at all.

All that said, the ultimate factor is whether the client agrees that the price that works for you also works for them. If you’ve said, “this is the price” and the client said, “OK.” Then, go forth and build them some webby awesomeness!
Collision between two engines, Bay of Quinte Railway, ON, 1892

“Solar Roadways” Filmmaker Coming to Pittsburgh, PA

Mark Dixon, filmmaker, is coming to Pittsburgh this July 24th to speak at Green Drinks about his latest feature project, Solar Roadways. I think the Solar Roadways project is amazingly innovative. I have no credentials to support whether or not it would work, but thankfully, the project is being funded to be developed as a parking lot – so any kinks can be worked out before actual roads get built.

The July Green Drinks is at Blue Line Grill, 1014 Fifth Avenue, Pittsburgh, 15219. Appetizers and drink specials compliments of Blue Line Grill!