Of FEMA and IE: Why are bloggers obsessed with the trivial?

As much as I like to talk about how blogging opens up new doors in citizen communication and how empowering all of us to be reporting on the news and analyzing the events of the day lets us take a significant step closer to an informed democracy and better world, it’s distressing to see how frequently the blogosphere is sidetracked by the stupid, mundane or trivial. We’re not just talking about not seeing the proverbial forest for the trees, we’re talking about running headlong into the tree while watching the ants march along the floor of the forest.
The latest example of this is the meme buzzing around about how the area of the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) where victims of Hurricane Katrina apply for aid and emergency loans apparently requires that the user have Microsoft’s popular Internet Explorer Web browser.

From the rabid Apple fans who swear up and down that it should be Safari compatible to the open source groupies who insist that if it doesn’t support Firefox that somehow the government is failing in its obligation to be “for the people”, it’s astonishing how much energy is being wasted on this debate.
Here, take a sec and click on this Technorati search on FEMA and Firefox or Safari or MSIE or IE. In the last few days, over 442 bloggers have written on this subject, twenty (now 21) in the last few hours.
I have the sense that this is the equivalent of the cliché about Nero fiddling while Rome burns: there are a lot of important and relevant discussions to have about FEMA and how it is structured and handles disasters and catastropies, but goodness sakes, fellow bloggers:
does it really matter one iota what browsers are or aren’t supported by their Web site?
There’s an interesting observation here about the unsung value of editorial direction, perhaps, that makes me wonder what a newspaper would look like if every reporter simply wrote about what caught their fancy without an editor and publisher molding all of that data and reporting into a coherent, thoughtful, and balanced whole too…
It’s also akin to a film without a director, isn’t it? Lots of vignettes, some of which might be brilliant, but put together, it’s not a movie.
For the blogosphere to really become an important venue for public discourse, I think it’s high time that bloggers started to try looking more at the big picture, weighing what’s important and what isn’t, and making some rudimentary editorial decisions about what to write about.
Otherwise, I fear that we’ll continue to be drowning in a sea of trivia, desperately searching for even one or two thoughtful essays from citizen journalists who just happen to be publishing blogs…

15 comments on “Of FEMA and IE: Why are bloggers obsessed with the trivial?

  1. Dave, there’s apparently an imposter posting on your site.
    While the points raised about trivial posts is valid, locking out a sizeable portion of your users, due to an arbitrary technology choice isn’t.
    The Dave Taylor I know understands this.

  2. Q: Does it really matter one iota what browsers are or aren’t supported by their Web site?
    A: Yes. Especially when it is the government (federal, state, or local) imposing arbitrary limits on its citizens from obtaining services.
    Let’s turn the situation around: What if the FEMA web site worked with every web browser out there EXCEPT for IE 6 for Windows?

  3. Interesting responses. While it may be the case that a “sizable portion” of users don’t use IE on a daily basis, I bet that it’s a darn small subset that don’t have it on their computer somewhere or other, but if you go and read the FEMA site, it has a section in its FAQ specifically stating “If you don’t have Microsoft Internet Explorer 6.0 or Above…” where they offer a toll-free phone number.
    Understand, I’m hardly an apologist for FEMA: I think it’s a very poorly run organization built upon a reactive, not proactive philosophy that’s incredibly short-sighted.
    I just think that issues of browser compatibility are interesting to the geek crowd, but completely irrelevant to the people who are actually trying to use the FEMA site to sign up for emergency aid or reconstruction loans.

  4. Why is it important? Because section 508 (see section508.com) dictates that it is important.
    FEMA is violating Federal Law.
    You are making the same arguments that pot smokers make. “I’m not hurting anyone.”
    But the truth is, it is hurting.

  5. Hi Dave,
    Standards and our Goverments use of them is a forest, not a tree issue. This is just one specific example, as was the issue that bloggers took with the Copyright Office’s proposal for an IE only submission system. This about our tax payer dollars being used to fund proprietary, unscalable and in the long run, costly software, that is only available to specific segments of society. I really can’t see how this is a trivial issue. This IE only stuff isnt being done to save time or money or make life easier. Its being done out of ignorance and lack of foresight.

  6. Dave, it matters that FEMA supports web standards because Microsoft does not even make Internet Explorer for Macs anymore. The last version available for the Mac is IE5 (not supported by FEMA), and is not even included on the standard Mac OS distribution. There are well established standards for Web sites. There is no excuse for not making an effort to adhere to these standards.
    As for the “fallback” phone number, it didn’t work: “the call to the FEMA number does not open a claim; it results in a package containing the claim form being mailed to the address of the evacuee. Since the evacuee is in a shelter, mail service has been suspended in many of the hardest hit areas and some of the homes are likely still under water, it seems clear that those claim forms won�t be mailed back any time soon.” (http://katrinablog.msnbc.com/2005/09/what_is_fema_th.html#below-fold)

  7. I’m torn on this, Dave.
    On the one hand, I completely agree with you that there are much more important things to complain about with regard to FEMA. Their IE-specific web design is pretty low on the radar screen for me. I honestly wonder how many people affected by Katrina use any other type of browser.
    On the other hand, regardless of the web site in question, designing for IE is just plain annoying to myself and to many people I know who use other browsers. I’m all for standards, particularly open ones.
    In either case, your point that bloggers complaining about this on the level you are describing certainly does seem out of proportion to the issue.
    That said, there’s no good reason for FEMA (or any other government agency) to be IE-only in their design.

  8. Dave (and the others poo-pooing this issue):
    This is, in fact, a massive issue in this very disaster situation, and if you’d taken the trouble to actually read a few of those posts you refer to as trivia, you would have found out why an IE-only site for the disaster victims is pretty moronic.
    Tom asks: “I honestly wonder how many people affected by Katrina use any other type of browser.”
    You say: “I bet that it’s a darn small subset that don’t have it on their computer somewhere or other.”
    You guys are thinking like civilians, not disaster relief experts. These people aren’t settling down at THEIR home PC’s to sign up for assistance, because they no longer have homes.
    How many people does this stupid decision affect? Potentially every single person at a shelter.
    The tech people who are trying so hard to get internet access set up quickly on a large scale for refugeees at the shelters need an extremely fast, CHEAP way to get systems securely on line. Their preferred method? Linux Live CD distros that can be active on a machine in a few minutes. Or Linux installations that can be set up and secured in a fraction of the time as for Windows (and for free instead of the cost of Windows for each machine).
    So a single tech can turn 20 donated machines (even of older vintage) into fully operational kiosks, at no cost for software, in about half an hour.
    Except the refugees can’t use them to register themselves on the FEMA site, because, of course, Linux doesn’t ‘do’ Microsoft proprietary tech.
    Still think it’s trivia?
    There are plenty of other reasons to be very concerned that a government body isn’t abiding by the standards necessary for its constituents to communicate with it, but this example is a show-stopper.
    See, that’s precisely what I love about the blogosphere. There aren’t people like you deciding what’s appropriate for the rest of us to be finding out about. (And I don’t mean that in a bitchy way aimed specifically at you. This is an example of a situation where your lack of knowledge about the significance of the situation would have resulted in that information not getting past your editing.)
    Yes, it means there’s a lot of chaff out there to wade through. But I like that a lot better than a potentially misinformed editor interfering with my ability to acquire and analyse information which I think is important. As the traditional media so amply demonstrates on a daily basis, editing usually leads to bias. I depend on the blogosphere to let me find both sides of the story, and make up my mind for myself. It’s a damn sight more work, but results in a helluva lot better information in the long run.

  9. Of all the responses, the issue of Section 508 compliance seems the most relevant, in my opinion. Again, let me be clear that I’m not endorsing the decision by FEMA to outsource and pay for a developer to build an online application process that has a rather lame and arbitrary constraint.
    The problem I’m trying to highlight is that the story has evolved beyond these thoughtful, important responses (esp. the excellent information you supply, Paul, with the Linux distro information, though every public library I’ve ever been in has Windows computers with MSIE as default browsers: and they’re a very common place to find public Internet access in a strange town) and become just a mindless knee-jerk “MSIE sucks, Microsoft sucks, FEMA requiring MSIE sucks” sort of shallow story.
    The story, then, is lack of compliance in the legal requirements for Web accessibility and the ramifications for FEMA applicants post-Katrina. But that’s not what a lot of the bloggers I’ve read are writing about or referencing at this point in the discussion…
    Btw, thanks for sharing all this great background information everyone. It’s adding depth to this story in a way that, as you point out, Paul, really helps reinforce the value of producing articles in an interactive environment.

  10. Dave:
    I agree with you about libraries and Windows, but I’d bet the chances are near zero that any refugees are going to get anywhere near a library in the first week or 2 after the disaster. And if they do, I’ll bet the lineup for the typical 3 or 4 stations will make them untenable for the sign-up process.
    Much better to have a couple of dozen old PII castoffs from some local company right in the shelters and available the moment the refugees arrive, both to access FEMA and to get word out to friends and family they’ve survived – even if they need to have a volunteer coach them in how to do it. I don’t see how libraries can possibly be much help with the thousands upon thousands of people who are going to need this kind of access.
    There are a lot of reasons why Microsoft sucks in this instance, but you’re right. The real story isn’t about bashing MS, it’s about why using proprietary tech (whether MS or others) is a terrible idea when universal access is essential.

  11. The thoughts that ran through my mind while going through the posts was, as Paul said. How many of these people are going to have access to any kind of computer in the near future. The open public access to any kind of couputer is limited and you add in the massive amounts of people that were displaced, this is at best a almost impossible request.
    I also agree that they should support the different browsers. I just don’t think that it is the main problem.

  12. I don’t have MSIE installed on ANY of my computers (I’m a pure Linux user), and for very obvious security reasons, I wouldn’t ever WANT to have MSIE installed on any of my computers.
    Websites should ALWAYS offer non-browser specific content. Especially taxpayer funded websites. This is all the more critical when taxpayer benefits or entitlements are being dispensed from those websites.
    Eligibility and access to government services should never depend on which web browser you use, or don’t use.
    This is simple common sense. We do not live in a “Windows Only” world. We never have, and we never will.

  13. As to the question of how many people will have access to a computer. Hopefully, lots. Some of them donated by local Silicon Valley companies like Sun, Apple, HP, Intel. Employes from these companies are setting up networks in shelters as we speak.
    Read a little about what Sun is doing.
    I hope FEMA does change things. Last time I checked, Internet Explorer didn’t run so well on JavaStations.

  14. I couldn’t agree more. But, the reason bloggers write about minutia is becuase the blogosphere rewards it.
    We’re trained to write about specifics, use keywords and maintain narrow focus in order to improve search results and establish our expertise. Why? Becuase the technology isn’t good enough to reward us for our big picture thinking. Natural language processing is coming along pretty slowly. The computers don’t know what we’re saying, they only know what words we use to say it. And with that, our laser-focus on the details persists out of necessity. Without it, we wouldn’t get found.
    The structural incentives of the blogosphere are partly the blame. The other part? Filling up the blogs. Gotta do it with something.

  15. Trivial??
    This is nothing to do with a website working on the Mac or whatever. It’s about designing a webpage to Web Standards, so disabled users (for example) can use it. What is trivial is making a basic website. The fact that they have chosen to restrict the use to IE6 simply demonstrates that the webmaster is incompetent, and has no idea about designing to Web Standards. It’s not as if it’s difficult.
    On top of which it may even be illegal as government website are required to be accessible to users with disabilities.

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