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Behind the Curtain

. Casey Rathunde

After my first full day at SXSW, I feel very much like Dorothy in 'The Wizard of Oz,' experiencing that famous moment when Toto pulls open the curtain hiding the man behind the machinery. Of course, if you're familiar with the film, the metaphor has two layers to it. We usually associate "pulling back the curtain" with a positive experience that satisfies our curiosity, however, let's not forget that the original allusion also carries with it a sense of betrayal. We want our "wizards" to be great and powerful, and finding out that they're only human can be disappointing. At the same time, this realization can also be freeing because it reminds us that the "correct" answers have not yet been settled upon, and that even the "experts" are often engaging in the same learning processes as the rest of us.

Running with the positive sense of the metaphor, I've peeked behind some amazing curtains today. At the morning's first panel, I was able to learn about the processes and logic behind the testing and development model behind "New" Twitter. As someone who watched the launch unfold (and personally adopted, abandoned, revisited, and finally embraced the changes), it was fascinating to hear about the way the new model of interaction was actually chosen. As a developer, I'm embarrassed to admit this, but until the presenter pointed it out, I hadn't thought about the fact that New Twitter's interaction model "breaks" our fundamental understanding of how the web works. Links open panels, not pages; layers and drawers present content, rather than page-turns refreshing information. Nothing does what you expect it to, and yet the final product works in a way that perfectly suits the data being presented. Still, after watching my timeline almost unanimously resist the changes, I have to think that the counter-intuitive behavior of the page contributed to the initial venom that the change inspired.

Do I agree with the choices? Yes, adamantly. No, vehemently. I can't commit to an answer. If I look at the question as a developer, then I can't quite stomach completely disregarding the value in respecting the system - links should behave as links. If I look at the choice with my anthropologist's hat on, then I suppose my answer boils down to the fact that all culture changes over time. As much as we like to place conventions and standards on a pedestal, they can become shackles if we allow them to become larger and more important than their practical purposes require. Links should behave like links when it helps our users; links should not behave like links simply because "that is how it is done."

When Twitter made the choice to break this model, it was done deliberately, and it was done because they saw a need to do things differently. I can't speak to it in any broad, official capacity, but based on my personal network, I think that after the initial shock wore off, people warmed up to the changes, and ultimately, the gamble was successful.

Another good example of having the curtains pulled back on a process that is usually opaque comes from listening to a panel on CSS3, given by people involved in developing the specifications. CSS3 will offer a whole new set of possibilities for web design, while simultaneously creating a whole new set of pitfalls, browser clashes, and headaches of backwards compatibility. While listening to the panel, I realized two things: that everyone there understood the problems, and that none of them necessarily had the answers. I feel okay about that fact, especially because I now know that the people developing the spec work with and for a variety of browsers, and that they're all going through this process collaboratively. No one browser is claiming to have the one unique solution, and hopefully this will make the transition to CSS3 run more smoothly than previous iterations have.

A lot of what I'm hearing at SXSW consists of some variation on, "This is really cool, and this is what we think it means, but we're not entirely sure just yet." The best panelists have been the people with interesting questions, rather than interesting answers. In a sense, these people are drawing back their own curtains. Not only do they make themselves transparent and honest by doing so, but they're allowing the conversation to flow in both directions. Twitter is learning from its users and developing new features based on what they perceive to be user needs. CSS3 is being defined by people who use and develop the web, and who are working together to make something that they hope will satisfy everyone. Even the man behind a popular zombie website spoke today about the value of letting your community shape your content, and of abandoning your own ideas when you perceive that they have become out of sync with the needs of your users.

So maybe it's best that we don't keep hoping that Oz begins and ends with the great and powerful facade. As it turned out for Dorothy, the man behind the curtain was much more accessible and helpful in the end. I believe the same premise holds true for our technological gurus, and that perhaps the reason I've yet to hear anyone claim that this isn't a messy, collaborative process might be the fact that those people have failed to thrive the way their more flexible contemporaries have.

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