Essays on Technology and Culture

Some Thoughts on the Nature of Blogs via Kottke

Within a few years, a self-identifying group of people called webloggers realized the power of that “What’s New” page, especially through the lens of a personal POV… Those weblogs were idiosyncratic, about a little bit of everything, and sent people away to keep them coming back — a stark contrast to the late-’90s portal strategy of “stickiness.”

Jason Kottke on the Nature of Blogs and Writing Your Own World Book Encyclopedia

My first exposure to blogging as a concept came around in the days of what were termed “E/N sites,” which was an abbreviation for “Everything / Nothing”—an apt description of the content. It’s a concept that lives on, most prominently on Tumblr, but it’s moved into the social network space. The blog, as I came to know it in the late 90s and early 2000s was a public journal, a place to put your thoughts in front of what you hoped would be a sympathetic audience. Nothing exemplified this more than LiveJournal. A microcosmic Internet in its prime, LiveJournal made its bones as being a place where you could write your deepest, darkest thoughts and share them with either the world, or just a small circle of friends. [1]

It may be a function of the innate writer in me, but I rarely shared links in the way a lot of the early bloggers did (and still do). I’d rather sit and bang out five hundred words or more about how I’m feeling and what I’m thinking than just link to something. [2] And I rarely can think about one thing for very long. Neither, it seems, can Jason. “Funny to say that about new media, but if you look at other blogs… they cover narrow beats… By contrast, is still written mostly in first person by me and ranges from essays on human extinction to videos of competitive wood planing in Japan.” When I registered this domain over a decade ago, the name was chosen with the mindset that I wouldn’t have a narrow focus. [3]

Kottke notes that the blogs that cover narrow beats “are amenable to advertising,” which may explain the proliferation thereof. Still, when I think of blogging with more focus, my mind goes towards John Gruber and Merlin Mann’s famous SXSW talk on blogging. Four years later, Obsession + Topic + Voice is still a winning formula—in as much as succeeding at anything can be reduced to a formula—for creating a successful blog. Though this, of course, depends on your definition of success. There’s never a one-size-fits-all strategy for doing anything, anywhere. I hope I’m not putting words in Kottke’s mouth when I say that I doubt he blogs for money. He blogs to share his obsessions. I do too, just opting to share a smaller subset thereof.

We share cool stuff with our friends, and we share banal stuff with our friends. For most people, however, that sharing has moved from personal blogs to a space that is both more and less public. These are spaces like Tumblr, Facebook, and Twitter where, with the default settings, anyone can see what you’re sharing, but you know there’s a built-in, and defined audience of people you know and care about. It’s a space where feedback is immediate, if a bit less shallow than back in the old, golden days. What works for us may not work for them. Certainly, the barrier to entry is a lot lower now.

There’s always going to be a place for people who want to write and share their voice. There’s always going to be a place for people who want to create, as Jason says, “their own World Book Encyclopedia.” These places will overlap, though maybe not quite as much as they used to when this whole thing was getting started. Everyone has a voice, and everyone wants to be heard by someone. Now, they can, and we’re all the better for it.

  1. Naturally, in the era of Facebook and living in public, LiveJournal is an anachronism.  ↩

  2. Which is why I barely have a presence on Tumblr nowadays.  ↩

  3. I thought the name Sanspoint was oh-so-clever as a teenager, but I soon realized that I’d be spelling it out for people for a long, long time.  ↩

Some Thoughts on Corporate Communication

Part of my job involves creating copy and press release for our company—as well as reading other companies’s PR and communications. It has me thinking about things that make for good communication from a company, and things that don’t. In the interest of positivity, I’ll phrase these as “Dos” rather than “Don’ts,” because nobody likes to be told what not to do.

1. Keep it short and simple

This is essential. Reading a long, drawn out, rambly, and complex story about anything is a recipe for losing a reader. In any communication to a wide audience, keep it short, snappy, and simple. While I’m prone to lexicographical whimsy and complicated prosody on my personal site, that’s my voice. The ten-dollar words, and complex sentences go out the window when I’m writing something for work.

Use short sentences, short paragraphs, and simple terminology (where appropriate). I’m not saying to go all Dick and Jane on your reader, but sometimes an exercise in simple language like XKCD’s “Up Goer Five” can help clarify your message. Instead of “We’ve refactored our technological processes to increase user engagement,” try “We updated our website to make it easier to use.”

2. Use the active tense

Is there anything worse than reading something from a company that’s in the passive voice?

“WidgetCo would like to express its regret over the industrial accident that spilled one-hundred gallons of marshmallow fluff last week. WidgetCo has been made aware of the causes of the accident, and has sought to address them.”

Yes, I’m sure WidgetCo would like to express its regret, but it’s not. It’s only expressing its wish to express it. They “have been” made aware, though they may not still be.

Let’s recast this with the active tense:

“WidgetCo apologizes for last week’s industrial accident that spilled one-hundred gallons of marshmallow fluff. We know the causes of the accident and are addressing them.”

It’s not great, but this shows WidgetCo is being direct and active in apologizing and addressing what caused all that marshmallow fluff to spill.

On the web, when asking a user to do something, a short, imperative statement is critical. For example, our product rolled out a feature to help users complete their profiles, in the form of a progress bar and suggested actions. The section on the page was originally titled “Your profile completeness”. Aside from being complex, it didn’t exactly call anyone to action. It was simply: “how complete is your profile.” By changing it to “Complete Your Profile,” the action was clear, as was the intent behind the progress bar.

3. Be personable

This ties in a lot with two, but there’s a difference between boring corporate-speak that ignores the reader, and interesting copy that interests the reader. For example:

“WidgetCo’s SystemX allows users to communicate effectively across multiple platforms and networks.”

Snore. Nobody talks like that, and while it’s moderately direct and clear, it’s talking about a user instead of to a user.

“WidgetCo’s SystemX lets you reach out to your friends no matter what software they use.”

Boom. It’s longer, but the words are shorter and it speaks directly to the reader. “This lets you do that.” is a good formula to use, assuming “This” is clear, and “that” is simple.

4. Have a personality

Don’t be afraid to lighten things up. Many great new technology companies have elements of their communication and presentation that are playful and fun, which is a huge improvement on the personality-free, faceless communications we associate with big, personality-free, faceless corporations. Sadly, when those big personality-free, faceless corporations decide to try having a personality, it’s when they’re trying to sell you something.

You don’t need to sell something to have a little fun and make your customers smile. A little bit of informality, a little bit of humor, and a little bit of cleverness all go a long way to defining how you communicate and how people respond to it. This is a balancing act, of course. When telling someone bad news, surrounding it with jugglers and clowns is only going to hurt you. Context is key with everything.

These are just a few thoughts from my experience writing for a business. All of these take time and practice. All of these, too, can be wrung out by any sort of bureaucratic structure that isn’t all on the same page about how you communicate. [1] This goes beyond writing well from a technical standpoint. These are matters of voice and presentation that often get lost in attempts to be either all things to all people, or cover-your-ass desperation. If you trust your own ability to communicate, and do so honestly, and clearly, the ideas in this post extend naturally.

  1. See, for example, banks and government agencies.  ↩