Archive for the 'Writing' Category

This is not transparency

A key factor in establishing authority on the internet is, as David Weinberger convincingly argued, transparency:

What we used to believe because we thought the author was objective we now believe because we can see through the author’s writings to the sources and values that brought her to that position. Transparency gives the reader information by which she can undo some of the unintended effects of the ever-present biases. Transparency brings us to reliability the way objectivity used to.

I agree with much most of it, and perhaps the point can be further illustrated by a quick example. If you take a look at the Wikipedia article on the epistemological sense of, well, Transparency, the contrast between then and now will be clear:

As you can see, there’s an explanation and a reference to an article by professor Paul Boghossian. The reference is the interesting part, because in academia this is perfectly sufficient for convincing readers that the material can be trusted. At least, it leaves you with an idea of what to do when you get to the library.

But the internet isn’t like the research library at all. Here, everybody could have made the claim that a certain Paul Boghossian said so and so about transparency, but, since links to resources supporting it (e.g. Wikipedias article on Paul Boghossian, for one) are extremly few, the article isn’t transparent and doesn’t meet Wikipedia’s requirements for verifiability, let alone follow conventions of the internet media.

Transparency is not the new objectivity, but comprehensiveness just might be

In a terrific post, Transparency is the new objectivity, David Weinberger argues that the hyperlink nature of the internet is reshaping our notions of authority. With everybody suddenly a potential author, the old claim to objectivity seems more and more trite and outworn:

Objectivity used to be presented as a stopping point for belief: If the source is objective and well-informed, you have sufficient reason to believe. The objectivity of the reporter is a stopping point for reader’s inquiry. That was part of high-end newspapers’ claimed value: You can’t believe what you read in a slanted tabloid, but our news is objective, so your inquiry can come to rest here. Credentialing systems had the same basic rhythm: You can stop your quest once you come to a credentialed authority who says, “I got this. You can believe it.” End of story.

Instead we demand transparency; to be able to “see through the author’s writings to the sources and values that brought her to that position.”

Transparency gives the reader information by which she can undo some of the unintended effects of the ever-present biases. Transparency brings us to reliability the way objectivity used to.

I think that this kind of “hyper-transparency” -where citing a book isn’t enough, but where a link has to point to the actual resource- may be an essential feature of the internet medium; but whereas it certainly is a necessary condition for establishing reliability, it’s hardly sufficient. After all, what leads to reliability is not the number of hyperlinks to the author’s sources, but trust in the fact that the relevant aspects of the matter have been adequately dealt with.

So, instead of objectivity, I’d suggest ‘comprehensiveness’ as a condition for reliability. And it’s a sufficient one too, because on the internet comprehensiveness seems more than ever to subsume transparency.

The Case for Content Strategy

Over the last couple of years I’ve come to appreciate the term content strategy. It began in 2007 with Rachel Lovinger‘s article Content Strategy: The Philosophy of Data. Here she urged readers to take a closer look at content itself, and then find out exactly who’s responsible for making it relevant, comprehensive, and efficient to produce.

I liked that, because it touches upon the very basics of communication, something which, I think, is somewhat neglected at the expense of design issues (keeping sentences short, using chunked text, putting action in verbs, etc.). Way too often, content is taken for granted. It’s what the customer brings to the agency, or something to be filled in later instead of the “lorem ipsum” gibberish, designers use.

Basically, content strategy adresses the issues of anyone trying to communicate anything, i.e. how to make your website function as:

  • a truthful representation of the sender’s intentions
  • a message relevant to the user
  • a correct use of language and imagery
  • an open channel between reader and author

And, of course, if you’re any good at writing, your text might even have an aesthetic value on its own.

Producing useful and useable web content on a daily basis isn’t a matter of being touched by the hand of god, or endowed with the perfect content from your client; it’s a matter of planning, and you need to be a part of it. Since internet communication involves quite a few disciplines, there’s a lot to plan for. A few things to consider:

  • Editorial strategy defines the guidelines by which all online content is governed: values, voice, tone, legal and regulatory concerns, user-generated content, and so on. This practice also defines an organization’s online editorial calendar, including content life cycles.
  • Web writing is the practice of writing useful, usable content specifically intended for online publication. This is a whole lot more than smart copywriting. An effective web writer must understand the basics of user experience design, be able to translate information architecture documentation, write effective metadata, and manage an ever-changing content inventory.
  • Metadata strategy identifies the type and structure of metadata, also known as “data about data” (or content). Smart, well-structured metadata helps publishers to identify, organize, use, and reuse content in ways that are meaningful to key audiences.
  • Search engine optimization is the process of editing and organizing the content on a page or across a website (including metadata) to increase its potential relevance to specific search engine keywords.
  • Content management strategy defines the technologies needed to capture, store, deliver, and preserve an organization’s content. Publishing infrastructures, content life cycles and workflows are key considerations of this strategy.
  • Content channel distribution strategy defines how and where content will be made available to users. (Side note: please consider e-mail marketing in the context of this practice; it’s a way to distribute content and drive people to find information on your website, not a standalone marketing tactic.)

I didn’t make that list (it comes from Kristina Halvorson, and it’s part of the article The Discipline of Content Strategy), but I agree. All of these branches are tools that help us create meaningful user experiences.

While there are obvious overlaps between content strategy and information architecture, I think that the two first disciplines on the list add something genuinely new. It’s not enough to structure and make the things on your website findable, you also need to make sure that the very content you’re providing is right for the occasion.

So, ultimately, it’s all about efficiency, and planning supports efficiency. Since creating content is both difficult and expensive (and always seems to be somebody else’s job), you want to make sure that every aspect of it performs at its best, and therefore there’s good reason to take the concept of content strategy (CS) seriously.

See also Jeffrey MacIntyre‘s eloquent Content-tious Strategy.

Update  (2010-04-27): In this video Rachel Lovinger, Jeffrey MacIntyre, and Karen McGrane share their view on CS at the Content Strategy, Manhattan Style event, in London, 13 April, 2010.