1. Drew Breunig about the creeping, corrupting allure of ‘content’

    Posted January 13, 2012 in ephemera  |  No Comments so far

    This article by Drew Breunig about the growing emphasis on “content” is worth a read.

    Lots of organisations today have stopped thinking about themselves as creating photography or literature or artworks or music or whatnot. Eclipsing these old categories is the notion of “content”, a more fungible substance whose value can be easily determined by a uniform set of metrics such as page views or revenue-per-impression:

    This is the allure of “content”: it allows comforting, structured data which simplifies the complexity of a large business and makes decisions less intimidating. Executives aren’t making qualitative picks regarding art or an artist, they’re merely signing off on whichever “content” produces more valuable metrics.

    Breunig’s central point is that good writing is good for reasons that are difficult to quantify – something that’s always been the case, but is especially pertinent now that we have modern metrics for determining content’s “effectiveness”. These modern metrics don’t tell us much about the content’s intrinsic quality, nor help us respond correctly when these metrics take a nosedive.

    It’s true that when we look at a piece of online content these days we’re like EEG-wired chimpanzees being given fruit in an experimental research lab. What feels to us like a simple transaction (you want the content, you ask for it, you’re given it) is in fact taking place under the bright glare of forensic analysis, with a dizzying array of analytics algorithms, advertising platforms and social networking hooks lurking underneath the source code watching our every move. What’s important to us – the content itself – is increasingly irrelevant to the content providers, who are more interested in the metrics we generate for them.

    Thankfully, though, this isn’t a fatalistic condemnation of a corrupted artless modern world:

    All this would be tremendously depressing if it wasn’t creating an enormous opportunity for people with the courage to look beyond the numbers, where it’s too messy to measure, and invest in journalism, videos, photography, and art people might actually enjoy.

    I agree with Drew here – people are able to tell the difference between SEO-gaming hackery and decent writing, and in the long run the smart money is on them choosing the latter. Read the full article here.

  2. Growing page views through ineptitude

    Posted November 10, 2010 in media  |  No Comments so far

    If you’re an online publisher that’s missing out on page views because people are consuming content with RSS readers, here’s a strategy that might help: break things.

    By breaking your RSS feed and screwing up its formatting, people like me will be forced to click on your links and leave our reader applications, giving you the ad revenue you crave. But you need to obey the following rules:

    • Only break things at the formatting & layout kind of level, nothing more fundamental. The feed still needs to actually work
    • Make sure all the content can be seen in the feed, even though the formatting is broken. This will give us the incentive we need to click on the link. (and no, the first paragraph alone won’t be enough to achieve this. The whole article should be visible, but broken)
    • Let some HTML code or something leak into the feed output so that we know it’s really broken and you’re not just making it deliberately hard to read.

    I’m writing this post because Fast Company seems to have followed these points and succeeded, at least where I’m concerned. Their RSS feed has broken and it’s led to me actually visiting their site (and generating ad revenue) for a change.

    Fast Company's broken RSS feed

    It works because the reading experience is so poor that you’d never go through the entire article, but your eye can flick up and down the block of broken text, getting a good sense of the content. Interest is pigued but satisfaction is withheld. Is this just ineptitude on Fast Company’s part, or is there a kind of evil genius at work over there?

  3. Readability of online text

    Posted November 10, 2009 in user centred design  |  No Comments so far

    I’ve been trying to codify some guidelines for writing for the web recently, and came across this study (PDF) by Wichita University’s Software Usability Research Laboratory in 2005.

    The study involved 66 graduate students with either normal or corrected vision being given a short story to read online. A preliminary reading test was carried out on participants so the study could predetermine their reading speed. Different text layouts were used, such as multiple column, full justification and so on. Study participants were tested for both reading speed and reading comprehension.

    • Reading speed: Multiple-column layouts impaired reading speed when text was left-justified. However, left-justified text was read more quickly in a single column layout than full-justified text. The highest reading speed was 269.33 words per minute for two-column, full-justified text.
    • Reading comprehension: No significant variation was found across the different text formats.
    • Fast versus slow readers: Faster readers benefited most from the 2-column, fully-justified layout. Slow readers benefited from 1-column, left-justified text.

    The study was perhaps limited by the fact that the participants, as undergraduates, were heavier readers of online text than the average member of the population. I’d be interested to see if any similar studies have been carried out with a larger sample size, broader age range and a more representative mix of internet ‘natives’ versus internet ‘newbies’. Does anyone know of any? If I find some I’ll post them here.