Several bloggers I know have confessed to me that occasionally they’ll compose and publish articles or posts that they don’t feel especially passionate about, writing things that they aren’t particularly proud of or inspired by, simply because they know that certain topics, ideas, or opinions will give them an easy and predictable traffic boost.
For example, they may sometimes “dumb down” or oversimplify their normally nuanced perspective, or they will overly sensationalize their opinion, or maybe they will take a firm position on something they don’t actually feel very strongly about at all, almost out of a sense of obligation. They will do this to reach out to a broader web audience, to attract new readers, to fire up or inspire their regulars. They will, in short, “write down” to their audience.
I have no problem with this, by the way, since I do it myself now and then. It’s something every blogger has to grapple with: Write for myself? Or write for the people who I want to visit my site?
Jakob Nielsen’s latest AlertBox, “Write Articles, Not Blog Postings” (in which he suggests that a writer’s biggest audience consists largely of people dumber than they are) makes me wonder just where I stand with respect to you, my own reader. Do I want you to look up to me? Do I look up to you?
The Bell Curve
Nielsen’s essay opens with the following short summary:
To demonstrate world-class expertise, avoid quickly written, shallow postings. Instead, invest your time in thorough, value-added content that attracts paying customers.
(Okay, this is a perfectly nice and pithy insight, something to take into consideration when devising an editorial strategy, I suppose. Still I can’t help but laugh at the double irony that follows this abstract. First, Nielsen spends the next several thousand words defending this “no duh” thesis not only by violating Steve Krug’s elegant “Omit
needless words” web copywriting strategy, but also by trampling all over his own admonitions to online brevity. And in an almost comical measure of Nielsen’s attempt to avoid hypocrisy, this edition of the AlertBox seems to be packin’ a higher word count than many of his usual, shall we say, “quickly written” AlertBox postings.)
The essay also includes a diagram that seems to capture Nielsen’s core idea that a good content creator must look down on his or her readership. The diagram explicity suggests that bloggers should try to “dumb down” their ideas to reach the broadest possible audiences, the same big audiences that less qualified writers are reaching.
In this diagram, Jakob asks us to imagine that we are a leading expert in our field and that our content has immense value to our audience (an important assumption for any writer or publisher to make!!). He puts “You” at the head of the class, on the right side of the graph. He then plots out other writers — your competitors — and shows that many of those writers who are “less expert” than You clearly draw a far bigger audience than You do.
Notice how this diagram implicitly assumes that the most valuable audience (that is, the biggest audience) for any given content producer are those readers whose “expertise” is half that of You, the publisher/producer. If You want to reach the broadest possible audience then, according to Nielsen, You should aim not for the thin dimwit end of the scale on the far left, nor should You aim for your own immediate peers in the slender expert end on the right, but You instead should aim for the big fat mediocre center of the bell curve.
Of course those who are more expert than You simply don’t show up on Nielsen’s chart at all, which probably speaks volumes about Nielsen’s self-image. If you read between the lines, then it becomes clear that the more expert You are in the world of usability and user experience design, then the less useful Jakob Nielsen’s AlertBox will be to You, since presumably Nielsen is following his own advice and generally writing for an audience half as “expert” as he is. (Note: All of the following diagrams have been altered from Nielsen’s original.)
Bloggers and their Readers are Equals
But this is where I think Nielsen misses the mark the most: If there is any real social innovation to blogging, it is the fundamental destruction of the age-old (and IMHO baseless) assumption that simply by virtue of being a content publisher you are automatically superior to the people who merely consume what you publish. Now anyone can publish anything they want to a broad audience, and the lines have been blurred: between formal and informal writing, between fact and opinion, between institutional and personal perspectives.
Of course, many great blogs make deliberate decisions to gain or retain popularity by, for example, publishing often on topics their readers seem to enjoy most, or avoiding alienating readers with controversial content (when was the last time Signal vs. Noise posted something about politics?). But in the world of blogs this is the exception, not the rule. Bloggers generally have the freedom to publish primarily for themselves when they want to, and most of us exercise this freedom fairly often.
Bloggers Want to Reach Upwards
What’s more, bloggers publish aspirationally, hoping that people smarter than us will notice us and read what we have to say. This may not be how Nielsen sees his job, but that’s how I work: I write graphpaper.com assuming that readers of all kinds will reach my site, some less expert than I am, some more. I know that people at the “stupid” end will stumble into graphpaper.com now and then, but at the same time I am always hoping that people at the “expert” end will find something they enjoy here as well. Assuming that my audience is entirely “dumber” than me is not just arrogant, it’s simply not an option.
And because I have the freedom to publish on whatever subject I wish, from user experience design to art criticism, from politics to my personal life. The subjects of my posts will even sometimes land me way over my head on a subject I know little to nothing about (see “Me”, left, below), which can be at best amusing and at worst humiliating.
But this freedom also allows me to occasionally write about something I think my professional peers might find interesting and useful (see “Me”, right, below), something that I genuinely have “expertise” in. In other words, I can be all over the bell curve.
As is clear, there is no real “juicy center” to my audience at all. In all honesty, my audience, in my mind, is generally (a) me and (b) certain people I know and respect. My editorial capriciousness is hardly a good example of user-centered design, and it’s probably also bad business (in that it probably doesn’t help grow graphpaper.com’s loyal readership base). But it’s how blogs work, it’s an essential, fundamental dynamic of today’s user-generated/self-publishing culture.