Jargon hurts your website

You can’t have broad appeal and also use your darling specialist phases everywhere on your site. Getting rid of jargon is the safest bet. When you use specialist phrases, making sure that the vocabulary is common beyond a shadow of a doubt is difficult or almost impossible.

Among specialists a measure of common jargon can help convey precise meaning. That’s why specialist vocabulary emerges after all. However, it should never become a way to feel smart or part of an exclusive club. Obfuscation is part of the culture of some organizations and professions. Sometimes language is intentionally difficult like in French literary theory.

When your website needs to get as many people as possible to change their behaviour, register somewhere or buy something, you can’t afford to fall back on selective and divisive language.

On the public internet you never know who is reading. You don’t have any idea of their background, reading comprehension skills in your language, etc. The copy might very well need to convert an audience of professionals. Yet, it has to convert them even if they aren’t fluent in your language, if they are rushed and stressed, if their kids are yelling in the background or if they’re having a bad day.

Using plain language is important. It doesn’t have to make you sound like an overly familiar simpleton. Within plain language, there is a lot of room for nuance. You can even achieve a formal and academic tone without using jargon.

Produire toujours plus de contenu n’est pas une solution

«Tout évolue en permanence, nos contenus deviennent obsolètes très rapidement…». C’est un problème courant. La solution préconisée l’est malheureusement tout autant. «…il faut donc rédiger, rédiger, rédiger plus de contenu toujours plus vite pour rester à jour».

Là, je dis: «Une minute!»

Il est difficile de s’opposer à cette vision productiviste de manière crédible en tant que rédacteur sans avoir l’air paresseux. Pourtant, la multiplication sans fin d’ articles toujours meilleurs marchés n’est pas toujours la bonne formule.

Beaucoup d’organisations voient le contenu comme des paroles qu’on prononce et s’envolent. Seulement, le contenu numérique une fois créé, il peut rester en ligne pour toujours — si ce n’est sur votre propre site, dans le cache de Google, des services comme Instapaper, les archives d’archive.org ou ailleurs.

En voyant le contenu comme une denrée périssable, on renforce l’idée qu’il perd de la valeur dès l’instant où il est publié. Et, par conséquent, on pensera préférable de faire baisser son coût et augmenter son volume plutôt que d’investir dans la recherche et la réflexion pour créer les contenus dont notre public a besoin et faire une maintenance régulière.

Le coût des contenus ne peut jamais baisser jusqu’à les rendre jetables. Les processus éditoriaux sont coûteux en ressources cognitives et en temps pour les auteurs, les experts consultés au sein de l’organisation, et les éditeurs. Tout cela coûte cher. De plus, les managers (et, souvent, le service juridique) sont impliqués dans l’approbation de contenus. Augmenter la durée de vie des contenus n’est donc pas un luxe mais une nécessité pour augmenter leur impact sans dépenser plus.

Le contenu a une durée de vie bien plus longue qu’on ne le pense. En faisant attention à la façon dont il est produit, organisé, stocké et distribué on peut encore augmenter sa durée de vie et son impact. Si on budgète des révisions et des mises à jour régulières, on peut s’assurer qu’il reste profitable encore plus longtemps. Par exemple, la plupart des contenus du blog de Paper.li dont j’ai été l’un des auteurs conservent une valeur plusieurs années après leur publication et je m’y réfère encore.

Reading “On Being an Unemployed Arts Graduate”

Reading “On Being an Unemployed Arts Graduate“, I tend to agree with the diagnosis. Humanities departments should be less ambiguous about their raison d’être. However, you can’t exempt the graduates and the corporations that fail to hire them of any responsibility so easily. Not seeing exactly what something is or what it’s for and pushing through nonetheless is a useful and beautiful thing. It requires a lot of grit, willingness to make mistakes and learn from them.

What I find most disheartening in this article is the focus on monetary value and individualism (and the self-helpy vibe). Therapy and individual well-being can’t be the sole purpose of Humanities. If we go down that path in reorganising universities, we will encourage creeping individualism.

Colleges have also community missions: they help cities/states govern themselves, by informing and educating citizens. Humanities have a lot to offer in the domain of the political and the communal.

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How to move towards content ecosystems?

How to design a CMS for the modern newsroom in On Content by Lee Simpson describes how the Guardian develops content management as an ecosystem and not through a single specialized piece of software.

Creating ecosystems of smaller and interchangeable pieces joined by APIs instead of betting on a single integrated CMS seems to be the most robust solution. There are content exchange formats emerging and such an approach is not a utopia anymore. Lee Simpson describes the evolving ecosystem thus:

A standardised mechanism for handling content from draft to publish (and beyond) would allow us to take advantage of tools being built by other software houses dedicated to solving the problems at individual stages of the content publishing process. Similarities can be found in the bases of programming workflow — dedicated systems and tools for each step of the process.

The benefits of this approach are numerous. For one, it reduces the friction in the tools’ adoption. If you can offer collaborators options, you will get new procedures and systems adopted much faster. People who have already developed preferences for certain applications may use them. Others will have options. They’ll welcome this freedom and that will make them much more cooperative.

Such an approach will help encourage content creation in non-journalistic organisations as well. Lots of professionals do write. Simply not in their browsers. If you can let them have their writing app or their image manager, for example, that might make organisational changes less painful.

However, the centralized services and APIs necessary to make this vision a reality are shared resources. Organizations in which the power is distributed and where the departments enjoy, cherish and safeguard their autonomy tend to resist the complications of putting shared resources in place. Shared resources require common rules. Sorting this out is digital governance. These rules will be embodied both in policies and computer code. They will be — or at least appear — costly to change. All the negotiations between business units must happen up-front: requirements have to be defined, someone has to be empowered to enforce the rules, etc.  Even if the benefits are great, it takes tremendous amounts of power and goodwill to sell. And the organization must be ready.

10 steps to live-tweet debates

Live tweeting panels is hard. 140 characters is very little. The main goals when covering an event alone is to testify that the event has taken place and that people following either in-person or on a live stream have gotten something important out of it. This encourages attendance for the next events obviously and raises the profile of the organizer.

Go through the list of panelists and search their presence on social media. That maybe frustrating in an academic setting because you’ll often find that they don’t have one. However, you may be surprised! Some prominent figures in the academic world are pretty active on Twitter. Journalists and politicians are also often on social media. Try to memorize their twitter handles or make a list on your laptop. Panelists will retweet you if you show up in their notifications. Accidental subtweeting can be embarrassing but it’s bound to happen.

Announce the event, live-tweet and possible streaming a few days in advance. Give all the necessary details. If many or all of the participants are active online, prepare an announcement tweet featuring each of them. Schedule those tweets at regular intervals. Keep in mind that you might have to mention each of them for fairness’ sake.

Choose your #hashtag with care. Discuss hashtag with coworkers. Go for the obvious one. If the event is about current affairs, chances are there will be one already. Look at trending topics. Make a few searches about the subject of the event. The hashtag will come to you. If all this fails, invent one. If the topic is too controversial, try flying below the radars by using the name of the organizer and the date. Being roped into arguments about the event’s organisation and the choice of panelists during the live tweeting of the event is a nightmare. Try to avoid that even if it means loosing a little visibility.

Be there early. Find a good place. Next to the center aisle is good so you can get up to take pictures. Before the event, encourage people to join one last time and comment positively on the attendance. If there’s a live stream, add a link in those first tweets.

Be accurate. If you’re not sure that the tweet accurately conveys the things that have been said, don’t send it. It’s better to have a partial account than an inaccurate one. If you engage the responsibility of the event’s organizers, misrepresenting the guests could impact their ability to get guests in the future.

Focus on tiny statements. They might seem inconsequential in the grander scheme of the debate but that’s all you can count on. In fact, chances are the grander scheme of the debate will escape you because you’ll be busy trying to catch tweet-worthy soundbites. There’s no way you can follow, synthesize and live-tweet a debate at the same time. If you need a synthesis and live-tweets, take two different people. You can count on partners, especially if the panel has members of the press on it. There will be journalists in the audience. Follow them and publicize their content.

Describe the topic in general. If you can’t be accurate and focus on tiny statements, describe what is being discussed without conveying judgments or opinions. Tell who is speaking and what topics he focuses on without going into details that might introduce inaccuracies. This technique works especially well with pictures.

Post pictures. Pictures do well on Twitter and they don’t require detailed Sit in a place where no empty seats show. Enlist coworkers with phones to send you pictures during the event. You will be able to post pictures from various angles.

Be fair. Find a way to mention and represent every single panelist. Sometimes, this is going to be hard. Some people don’t make tiny statements especially if they get emotional. Use every trick in the books to give them the most equal possible air time. The casual observer of your live-tweet should be able to reconstruct the guest list from your tweets.

Do not make public comments on the quality of the coverage. It isn’t your place to comment on the quality of the partners’ work. You need them. You can count on your followers and the guests themselves to point things out and issue corrections. But do not like or comment on them. Interfere only to kick and ban assholes.

After the event. Round up pictures and take the good ones and put them in a Facebook album (if you got a page) as a long term testament of the event. Since it’s a public event that is publicized, you can tag people in it. If you tag the panelists, you have to tag all of them.

You can keep posting about your event until you announce the next one. Take advantage of transcripts, round-ups, video and audio as they come out.

Image credit: Vdovichenko Denis / Shutterstock.com

Stop trying to become a machine

We shouldn’t want to emulate the qualities of machines but rather go as far as possible in the other direction and develop uniquely human qualities like empathy and courage and kindness.

For all we know, they will remain uniquely human qualities — embodied and encrusted in the myriad complexities of the human experience. Even though we invent machines that appear to be intelligent, we won’t be able to know their minds. They will be others and we’ll need to build relationships with them.

As far as I know, we can’t have that relationship until we fully accept what we are and what we bring to the table.

Instead, we’re trying to become productive 24/7 never sleep properly. We’re trying to catch up with the algorithms and the robots who largely run our economies now. This strategy is bound to fail. So of course, we’re trying to cheat death and become machine-like by augmenting ourselves in ways that would make us as efficient as computers.

The fact is, we can use the tools without having to loose ourselves.

The fast and cheap curse

Cheap and fast usually bring friends to the party. Among their annoying friends is convenience. Cheap and fast websites are quickly considered an easy and self-evident commodity that isn’t worth any serious consideration. The first thing to fly out the window when you focus on cheap and fast are the arguments and questions that should precede any kick-off meeting and guide the creation of websites. “What is this website achieving for your department?” becomes an off-topic and time-consuming distraction. Everyone starts acting like it’s a rude question; as if the asker meddles with their private affairs.

“Just do the website!”, they’ll say. The word “just” insinuates itself into every sentence. It will soon be accompanied by weird semi-shrugs and sighs. It’ll spread in the team like a virus.

“Just” is toxic. It means that a half-assed website is acceptable as long as it’s cheap, fast and as long as you don’t bother people with questions. A CMS, templates and half-baked internal documents do not a website make because the job of a website is not just to exist. A website isn’t a testament to the power of the people who commissioned it. It isn’t a shrine to the cult of the emperor. Or, at least, it shouldn’t be. When websites are driven by organisational ego, things go awry quick.

Proper websites have goals and provide a service to visitors and guests. Visitors and guests, by the way, have their own motivations. Having to say it seems silly. Yet project leads who hesitate to address the website’s purpose tend to overlook visitors and their reasons to visit the website in the first place. Spending time discussing the organisation’s and the visitor’s goals to find the overlap is the heart of the matter.

IT-minded, deployment-obsessed, cost-shaving, and discussion-hating internal web teams are at risk. Technology makes it easier and easier to push words, images, videos and sounds to servers. Commoditized publishing platforms such as Medium, WordPress.com and Squarespace will reach into the enterprise very soon and put our website spinning teams out-of-business.

Instead of focusing on cheap, fast and convenient, we should steer our practices and culture towards thoughtful craftsmanship, accompany our internal clients in the shaping of their communication initiatives, think about visitors and address content. Such a change will ensure that our jobs are secure because no vendor or service provider can take that away. Moreover, it will make our organisations more in-tune with both employees and the outside world. And that will make us loads of cash.

Carousels work great but not for communications

Slideshows or carousels are wonderful. They provide ample space for everything to be on the homepage for weeks. There is no need to hold meetings about the website. All stakeholders think they are getting a fair deal and appropriate amounts of exposure for their content. You may even whisper to yourself that your visitors get a well-rounded idea of your organisation’s activities.

Since the space is unlimited in the carousel, it’s free and harmless. There is no need to argue over what’s more important. Everyone in the organisation can just phone the webmaster and order a new slide. Something comes up, the web gal puts an announcement online as fast as she can copy-paste and markup, adds a new slide. Peace is kept. We’re all happy.

Except. Messages don’t get through. Experts have written about the fact that carousels don’t get people to click and take action (a sequence of events otherwise known as “conversion“) and also about how carousels are a nightmare both in terms of search engine optimisation and in terms of your site’s ease of use. If effective communications are a real priority, that should be unacceptable.

Carousels are hurting your organisation. You assume it works without having checked. This creates a huge dead angle: it makes all discussions of web governance and due process irrelevant since everyone can request the creation of homepage content. Your web presence could accomplish so much more. You could rock.

Why do we refuse to? We fear tense discussions and accusations of insubordination. We don’t want everybody yelling in a meeting or, worse, agree and hold grudges. We all love peace but we have to weigh that against our need to get our messages across.

Carousels don’t work. You might be OK with that for peace’s sake. But if you’re convinced yours is an exception, at least, measure it and face the facts.


On inner-life and friendships

Being there for friends and family who have issues with their health – mental or otherwise is not easy. I do care and want to help further. On the one hand, overstepping their boundaries can be uncomfortable for them. On the other, helping without letting their suffering tear you down is challenging. A tore down friend is of little use. If I can learn to help more without wearing out or stepping over lines, I will be a better human. Hence, I am excited by this week’s discussions.

A mind is a delicate thing. My own gives me trouble sometimes. When I lock the door every morning to go to work, I check with one hand then the other. Despite of that, I feel an urge to go back and check again as soon as I turn the corner.

The most severe it ever got was when I was still new at my job and just got into my first flat. I’d check the windows and the stove as well as the door and needed to go back in and start over quite often. I talked about it to friends over dinner after a meetup — got some advice. It lasted a month or two. Thankfully, I am back to checking only the door.

You’d think that the absence of a door or work-related stress would make anxieties disappear. Well. No. They catch up with you pretty fast. I had been on holiday for three days. One morning, turning the corner after leaving my hotel, I heard “I flushed, right?” in my head. I almost burst out laughing on the street at the silliness.

Come on. I worry about the chambermaid liking me? Is that what’s happening? She hasn’t got the time or the energy to give me a single thought. Worrying if people like me. Fearing being rejected. Big on that. Being an anxious pleaser-type weighs on my ability to form and maintain relationships.

The internet and the web afforded me the luxury of staying at my desk and still have friends online.  With the rivers of abuse and harassment overflowing, people are more guarded than ever — with good reasons. Time was, you could form acquaintances and relationships online. I was on ICQ, and Caramail, “The Pretender” and “Dawson’s Creek” fan forums. Went on Jabber and then Twitter — it used to be such an idyllic place. Now, with the climate of rising suspicions, most of the people I follow online seem to no longer assume people’s intentions are good anymore. This barrier to forming acquaintances or friendships online becomes harder to overcome every hour. When I try to overcome them, errors are made — often by me. Misunderstandings occur. It gets strange and nobody’s satisfied.

Erin Kissane wrote a great piece called “Ditching Twitter” about changes in the use of the service and what shall be done to cope. It’s a great read. Perhaps, I’ll start writing e-mails to people I admire again. I used to be less crap at that than I seem to be at getting through to them on Twitter.

Apart from the dramatic changes occurring online, shame as well as the necessity to safeguard a reputation (to remain employed, for example) often stop people from discussing health – especially mental health – issues. One of the benefits of Geek Mental Help Week will be, I hope, to make these discussions even more common. Fortunately, I do have IRL friends with whom to realtalk about inner-life — even though few of them are social media enclined or geeky.

Finding such friends is difficult and requires great deals of courage. Confessions and disclosures are not a currency accepted by all people. Some respond very positively, listen without issuing a judgment and offer their own stories in response. Others do not want to hear of any kind of struggle whatsoever, offer lame advice or, worse, a morale to your story. Attitudes vary widely from individual to individual. You, therefore, have to try and see case by case which can also be awkward and strange. When they go over well, disclosures can bring people together in subtle and new ways. It’s often worth trying.

This is published for #GeekMentalHelp Week, an initiative announced by Andrew Clarke on his website. Authors facing more severe issues have written courageous pieces. I encourage you to read them.

Geek Mental Help Week

On the week of October 27th, we’re going to have a global discussion about mental health in the web industry through magazines, blogs and podcasts. You can read all about Geek Mental Help Week on Andrew Clarke’s website. Our industry is demanding, fast-paced and the fact that we work alone in front of a computer for long stretches of time puts us at risk. I can’t wait to learn more about how to help others even as I face my own mild anxiety.

If you have something to say about mental health and/or help, consider publishing your thoughts during the week of October 27th.