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The Website Obesity Crisis
"Let me start by saying that beautiful websites come in all sizes and page weights. I love big websites packed with images. I love high-resolution video. I love sprawling Javascript experiments or well-designed web apps.

This talk isn't about any of those. It's about mostly-text sites that, for unfathomable reasons, are growing bigger with every passing year.

While I'll be using examples to keep the talk from getting too abstract, I’m not here to shame anyone, except some companies (Medium) that should know better and are intentionally breaking the web.

The Crisis

What do I mean by a website obesity crisis?

Here’s an article on GigaOm from 2012 titled "The Growing Epidemic of Page Bloat". It warns that the average web page is over a megabyte in size.

The article itself is 1.8 megabytes long."


Here's an almost identical article from the same website two years later, called “The Overweight Web". This article warns that average page size is approaching 2 megabytes.

That article is 3 megabytes long.

If present trends continue, there is the real chance that articles warning about page bloat could exceed 5 megabytes in size by 2020.

The problem with picking any particular size as a threshold is that it encourages us to define deviancy down. Today’s egregiously bloated site becomes tomorrow’s typical page, and next year’s elegantly slim design.

I would like to anchor the discussion in something more timeless.

To repeat a suggestion I made on Twitter, I contend that text-based websites should not exceed in size the major works of Russian literature.

This is a generous yardstick. I could have picked French literature, full of slim little books, but I intentionally went with Russian novels and their reputation for ponderousness.

In Goncharov's Oblomov, for example, the title character spends the first hundred pages just getting out of bed.

If you open that tweet in a browser, you'll see the page is 900 KB big.
That's almost 100 KB more than the full text of The Master and Margarita, Bulgakov’s funny and enigmatic novel about the Devil visiting Moscow with his retinue (complete with a giant cat!) during the Great Purge of 1937, intercut with an odd vision of the life of Pontius Pilate, Jesus Christ, and the devoted but unreliable apostle Matthew.

For a single tweet.

Or consider this 400-word-long Medium article on bloat, which includes the sentence:

"Teams that don’t understand who they’re building for, and why, are prone to make bloated products."

The Medium team has somehow made this nugget of thought require 1.2 megabytes.

That's longer than Crime and Punishment, Dostoyevsky’s psychological thriller about an impoverished student who fills his head with thoughts of Napoleon and talks himself into murdering an elderly money lender.
Racked by guilt, so rattled by his crime that he even forgets to grab the money, Raskolnikov finds himself pursued in a cat-and-mouse game by a clever prosecutor and finds redemption in the unlikely love of a saintly prostitute.

Dostoevski wrote this all by hand, by candlelight, with a goddamned feather."



"Everyone admits there’s a problem. These pages are bad enough on a laptop (my fan spun for the entire three weeks I was preparing this talk), but they are hell on mobile devices. So publishers are taking action.

In May 2015, Facebook introduced ‘Instant Articles’, a special format for news stories designed to appear within the Facebook site, and to load nearly instantly.

Facebook made the announcement on a 6.8 megabyte webpage dominated by a giant headshot of some dude. He doesn’t even work for Facebook, he’s just the National Geographic photo editor.

Further down the page, you'll find a 41 megabyte video, the only way to find out more about the project. In the video, this editor rhapsodizes about exciting misfeatures of the new instant format like tilt-to-pan images, which means if you don't hold your phone steady, the photos will drift around like a Ken Burns documentary.

Facebook has also launched internet.org, an effort to expand Internet access. The stirring homepage includes stories of people from across the developing world, and what getting Internet access has meant for them.
You know what’s coming next. When I left the internet.org homepage open in Chrome over lunch, I came back to find it had transferred over a quarter gigabyte of data.

Surely, you'll say, there's no way the globe in the background of a page about providing universal web access could be a giant video file?

But I am here to tell you, oh yes it is. They load a huge movie just so the globe can spin.

This is Facebook's message to the world: "The internet is slow. Sit and spin."

And it's not like bad connectivity is a problem unique to the Third World! I've traveled enough here in Australia to know that in rural places in Tasmania and Queensland, vendors treat WiFi like hundred-year-old brandy.

You're welcome to buy as much of it as you want, but it costs a fortune and comes in tiny portions. And after the third or fourth purchase, people start to look at you funny.

Even in well-connected places like Sydney, we've all had the experience of having a poor connection, and almost no battery, while waiting for some huge production of a site to load so we can extract a morsel of information like a restaurant address.

The designers of pointless wank like that Facebook page deserve the ultimate penalty.
They should be forced to use the Apple hockey puck mouse for the remainder of their professional lives. [shouts of horror from the audience]

Google has rolled out a competitor to Instant Articles, which it calls Accelerated Mobile Pages. AMP is a special subset of HTML designed to be fast on mobile devices.

Why not just serve regular HTML without stuffing it full of useless crap? The question is left unanswered.

The AMP project is ostentatiously open source, and all kinds of publishers have signed on. Out of an abundance of love for the mobile web, Google has volunteered to run the infrastructure, especially the user tracking parts of it.

Jeremy Keith pointed out to me that the page describing AMP is technically infinite in size. If you open it in Chrome, it will keep downloading the same 3.4 megabyte carousel video forever.
If you open it in Safari, where the carousel is broken, the page still manages to fill 4 megabytes.

These comically huge homepages for projects designed to make the web faster are the equivalent of watching a fitness video where the presenter is just standing there, eating pizza and cookies.

The world's greatest tech companies can't even make these tiny text sites, describing their flagship projects to reduce page bloat, lightweight and fast on mobile.

I can't think of a more complete admission of defeat."



"The other vision is of the web as Call of Duty—an exquisitely produced, kind-of-but-not-really-participatory guided experience with breathtaking effects and lots of opportunities to make in-game purchases.

Creating this kind of Web requires a large team of specialists. No one person can understand the whole pipeline, nor is anyone expected to. Even if someone could master all the technologies in play, the production costs would be prohibitive.

The user experience in this kind of Web is that of being carried along, with the illusion of agency, within fairly strict limits. There's an obvious path you're supposed to follow, and disincentives to keep you straying from it. As a bonus, the game encodes a whole problematic political agenda. The only way to reject it is not to play.

Despite the lavish production values, there's a strange sameness to everything. You're always in the same brown war zone.

With great effort and skill, you might be able make minor modifications to this game world. But most people will end up playing exactly the way the publishers intend. It's passive entertainment with occasional button-mashing.

Everything we do to make it harder to create a website or edit a web page, and harder to learn to code by viewing source, promotes that consumerist vision of the web.

Pretending that one needs a team of professionals to put simple articles online will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Overcomplicating the web means lifting up the ladder that used to make it possible for people to teach themselves and surprise everyone with unexpected new ideas

Here's the hortatory part of the talk:

Let’s preserve the web as the hypertext medium it is, the only thing of its kind in the world, and not turn it into another medium for consumption, like we have so many examples of already.

Let’s commit to the idea that as computers get faster, and as networks get faster, the web should also get faster.

Let’s not allow the panicked dinosaurs of online publishing to trample us as they stampede away from the meteor. Instead, let's hide in our holes and watch nature take its beautiful course.

Most importantly, let’s break the back of the online surveillance establishment that threatens not just our livelihood, but our liberty. Not only here in Australia, but in America, Europe, the UK—in every free country where the idea of permanent, total surveillance sounded like bad science fiction even ten years ago.

The way to keep giant companies from sterilizing the Internet is to make their sites irrelevant. If all the cool stuff happens elsewhere, people will follow. We did this with AOL and Prodigy, and we can do it again.

For this to happen, it's vital that the web stay participatory. That means not just making sites small enough so the whole world can visit them, but small enough so that people can learn to build their own, by example.

I don't care about bloat because it's inefficient. I care about it because it makes the web inaccessible.

Keeping the Web simple keeps it awesome."
pagebloat  webdesign  maciejceglowski  2015  webdev  participatory  openweb  internet  web  online  minecraft  accessibility  efficiency  aesthetics  cloud  cloudcomputing  amazonwebservices  backend  paypal  google  docker  websites  wired  theverge  medium  javascript  advertising  ads  acceleratedmobilepages  mobile  html  facebook  freebasics  jeremykeith  timkadlec  internet.org  facebookinstantarticles  maciejcegłowski 
january 2016 by robertogreco

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