Book learning

As I’ve been reading and researching information about writing for the web, I realised that it will save me time to find a book on the topic by someone who already knows about it. After a bit of indecision and largely based on reviews on Amazon, I have chosen the book Writing for the Web by Crawford Kilian.

The author of this book spent 40 years teaching at community colleges and from what I’ve read so far appears to know what he is on about. In fact, just reading the introduction I learned a new concept for me, the difference between hypotaxis and parataxis, and the idea that hypertext relies more on parataxis in which ideas stand alone without being linked to the previous idea.

I’m wanting to learn without my existing biases getting in the way so it makes sense to carefully read through this book (and possibly others), putting what I learn into practise and also following through with further reading and research where I can.

More information about hypotaxis and parataxis:

Reading on the web

This is part of a series on Writing for the Web.

The famous answer by Jakob Nielson to “How do users read on the web?” is “They don’t.”

Very few web users read written web content word-for-word. Instead, they scan the page searching for the information they want.

However, I question this finding. The eye tracking study which showed people scanning for information on the page was conducted in such a way that participants were given the task of looking for specific information on the page. When a person is searching for something in particular they will scan written text looking for it, whether it is written on a screen, paper or the side of a building. But there are still plenty of people who like to read in order to learn, for entertainment or because it is enjoyable. These are the people I want to write for.

Reading behaviour for long articles

To me, a more interesting question is, how do people read an article on the internet when they are interested in what it has to say? Are there differences in how we read a 1,000 word magazine style article on a website compared to how we read it in a newspaper?

Farhad Manjoo wrote an article on Slate which looks at roughly this question. He asked a data scientist to analyse the scrolling behaviour on Slate articles to determine what proportion of users scroll all the way through their articles. Taking a very broad view it seems that only something like 10 to 20% of users scroll all the way to the bottom of an article. These figures do have some correlation with actual reading in that better quality articles tend to end up with a better proportion of people scrolling all the way to the end to see what is there.

Reading online takes longer

It takes people approximately 20-30% longer to read online than it takes to read on paper. (The effects of reading speed and reading patterns on the understanding of text read from screen. Mary Clare Dyson & Mark Haselgrove Journal of Research in Reading 23(2):210 – 223 · June 2000)

Multitasking is more likely online

In a study comparing on-screen and hard copy reading, 90% of students stated that they are more likely to multitask when reading from a screen. (Redefining reading: The impact of digital communication media. NS Baron – PMLA, 2013)

Reading from a screen is harder

Naomi Baron found that people consistently said it is harder to concentrate when reading from a screen, and that it is easier to focus when reading hard copy.

Physicality of books helps reading

Baron noted that in her studies there were significant preferences for the physical attributes of books, preferences which can inform how web writing could be made easier to read. These physical aspects of books include the ease of navigation and knowing where one is reading and how it relates to the overall text, the book cover and it’s visual imprint on memory, being able to easily annotate a book, and the ease of flipping from place to place in a paper book.

Short and scannable is not the only option

Despite the commonly held view that web readers prefer short, scannable content, there is evidence of an audience hungry for longer articles that engage and inform them. In fact, Jacqueline Marino found that even if an article is very text heavy, it can still be engaging if it is well structured and well written. Similarly, Chris Giliberti argues that Millennials are seeking out high quality long form content to counter the constant stream of short, shallow web content which has become the norm.

Challenges to web writing

From what I’ve discovered about how people read online, here are some of the challenges for a web writer:

  • Readers switch from linear reading to searching or skimming.
  • Reading online is slower.
  • Distraction is a problem for web readers.
  • Web readers often multitask.
  • Web writing needs to be well written and well structured.
  • Readers typically expect shorter content online.
  • It is assumed that reading should include instant access to other resources.
  • Help readers navigate through the text.
  • Visual markers are useful to readers.
  • Ease of annotation may help readers.
Link

On Editing Harshly

I came across an interesting little post about how to write (and edit) a blog post which is fairly realistic about how the process really happens. I’m not quite as rigorous on the editing now that I’m trying to put something out each day.

Randomly think of a thing. Let it bump around your head a bit. If the bumping gets too loud, start writing the words with the nearest writing device. See how far you get. The more words usually mean a higher degree of personal interest. Stop when it suits you.

How to Write a Blog Post by Michael Lopp (Rands)

Some reasons why I have my own website

Digging through my massive archive of Evernote clippings I came across one from a guy named Brett Slatkin in which he outlines some reasons why he chooses to have his own website. The reason I kept the note is to remind me to consider this question for myself and to write my thoughts on the topic.

In the past my typical response to this sort of topic has been to begin a draft with the intention of writing a comprehensive post drawing together all my thinking on the subject. I’m increasingly aware that it is much more constructive for me to throw together my thoughts at the time when I’m motivated by the topic and publish it, whether I feel it is complete or not. I can always circle back around at some later time to add more ideas or update my thinking in the light of experience.

So, I’m going to steal Brett’s major headings and start from there:

A home base

This blog is where I write first. I have tried various social media channels and failed at most of them. My blog is personal to me, it is where I automatically think to put anything I write, and I’m trying to make it the hub of whatever else I do online.

Self expression

Initially (back in 2010), I found it difficult to come out of my shell and ‘be myself’ in what and how I wrote on my blog. Gradually this has changed and although I do maintain boundaries as to what I share, nowadays what you read is generally likely to be what is on my heart at the time of publication. I’m also aiming to expand the ways in which I use my blog as a form of self-expression, varying the styles of my writing, including a range of posts from short status updates or random thoughts through to much longer articles. Don’t hold your breath Chris, but maybe even some poetry!

Something I’m interested to try is photography. I’m not a good photographer, but it is a good way to catch some things that can be difficult to put into words. In the past I used a lot of stock photos but have grown away from liking those as I’ve moved more into personal blogging rather than writing about faith as I used to. Instead I’d like to use more of my own photos to illustrate my life rather than just talking (well, writing) about it.

Internet citizenship

This heading would not have made it into my top three if I hadn’t stolen it! However, it is actually an important issue. As sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn have created their own ‘silos’ effects, locking user-generated content into their own systems, I’m becoming increasing bloody-minded about avoiding such silos and publishing to the ‘open web’. I do like what Brett had to say about linking and citing others, this is both and academic necessity in my view and also common courtesy. Unfortunately, some sites are making even this difficult, I noticed today when I scanned my site for broken links that all the links I have to articles from the New York Times are broken because of their pay wall – in my view this is just plain obnoxious.

Now a few headings of my own:

Freedom

This is a major factor for me. I greatly value the ability to create a backup or export of my entire site and move it to whatever web host or platform I want to. Over the years I’ve experimented with WordPress.org, WordPress.com, Ghost, Squarespace and a bunch of html files. All this is possible with your own website and the only limits are time, patience and technical prowess (I’m lacking in the third of those attributes).

The other aspect of freedom is being free to express my own views. I’m not a political writer so freedom of speech has not been a significant issue to me, but I do write about my faith in Christ and in some situations the freedom to do this could conceivably be curtailed. I just like knowing that I’m not unduly constrained by some company that ‘graciously’ lets me post stuff on their site for free.

Legacy

The longer I maintain my own website the more valuable it becomes to me, and potentially to my children. I want to continue building this legacy, and also to be able to ensure ongoing access to it. Even if I were to take the site offline, it could still be made into a local copy that could be accessed by my family. It can be exported into plain text files which theoretically should still be readable in 50 years time, or it could be printed onto good old paper for others to read. Some of these options would cause a loss in functionality, but the core content remains my own possession. Again, not left at the mercy of a company that allows me to put stuff on their platform for free.

Customisation

Being able to tinker with how my site looks is fun (and time consuming) and I do like being able to decide what extra functionality it has. However, this is not an especially significant item on my list. In reality I tend to opt for some sort of theme template that thousands of other sites probably use, and prefer a fairly simple layout so I can take or leave this particular aspect. It is nice to have the option open though.

A final link

While writing this I came across this article: Chopped up or Cloned: You Choose which gives a nice summary of how having your own website can act as an online hub, without having to forsake whatever other sites you happen to already use.

I have referred to and largely based this post on IndieWeb ideas, but really all I’m emphasising is the value of having your own blog or website. The more I have scratched around IndieWeb sites and their wiki the less inclined I am to fully embrace the whole thing because it seems vastly more complicated than what I want out of my own site.

I found some ‘lost’ blog posts

One of my goals with this blog is to keep a record of my thoughts, ideas, plans and actions for posterity (whatever form ‘posterity’ actually takes). In this sense there are some blog posts that I’m keeping primarily because they record something about my life at the time they were written rather than due to their literary quality. I’ve noticed as I pick through old Facebook status updates that there are things I want to keep simply because they are small incidents from actual life which are not particularly significant in themselves but strung together these snippets do tell a story of me and our family.

For this reason I was delighted to find an old blog backup file from January 2015 which contained about 30 points which were not already on this site so I’ve imported them and are working through them to keep the good stuff. As I look at each one I recall some were never published at the time and had sat in my drafts folder for months (I have a bad habit of half-writing blog posts, a habit I’m trying to break out of). I’ve already tidied a couple of these up (minor spelling and grammatical changes so they make sense) and published them with the dates when they were last saved (both in 2014). Some others were just ideas thrown into text which I am going to do some more work on and post soon. Those which had publication dates I’m posting with those original dates.

Another useful thing about this backup file is that it gives me another data point for a post I’m piecing together mapping out the various web hosts I’ve used over the years. I’ve made so many hops from one hosting company to another that I thought it would be useful to me at least to map these out and also include what I can remember of why I made the choices I did along the way.

Changing my writing routine

I’m trying to change my writing routine so that I get back to drafting my posts in a notebook and later transcribe this (with edits) into WordPress. Today’s post is currently en route to the notebook.

Another change I’m making is avoiding using a computer or screen after 10pm. As you can guess, this means that what I’m writing this evening will not be published until some time tomorrow. Once I get this routine established posts should be published on a more regular schedule.

Personal Blogging and Online Privacy

Continuing from my post yesterday about the IndieWeb, rel=me and anti-patterns, I’ve also been considering adding h-card information to my sidebar. Many blogs do this in effect by having an author photo and bio either in the sidebar or associated with each post. The h-card formats this into something that computers can interpret as well as humans.

My next question then becomes, “What information and how much detail should I put into such an h-card?” Which then brings up the issue of how safe is it to include personally identifying information on my website where anyone can see it?

The concern is that oversharing could leave me open to identity theft, which is an increasing problem worldwide. While this is an international problem, I am going to look at it from a New Zealand viewpoint.

Identity Theft

The fear I have is that some personal information in the hands of criminals can enable identity theft. This is where someone uses another person’s personal information in order to access money or services under their name. My gut reaction to this idea is that you would be a mug to want to be me! I don’t exactly have a dream life or loads of money so it’s not worth the trouble. Apparently this is a common reaction and leads many people to have a false sense of security that makes it even easier to steal from them.

How common is Identity Theft?

As many as 133,000 New Zealanders may be victims of identity theft annually. (NZ Department of Internal Affairs). An interesting comment I found on the Equifax site is that:

identity fraud victims typically know the person who uses, or tries to use, their identity.

The cost of this crime to New Zealanders may be as much as NZ$200,000,000 every year. Globally many millions of people are affected, with billions of usernames and passwords stolen in 2016.

What is Personal Information?

What is considered to be personally identifying information varies, but a consensus would be:

  • Full name
  • Date of birth
  • Place of birth
  • Current address
  • Previous residential addresses
  • Phone number(s)
  • IRD number
  • Credit card information (card number, expiry date, verification code)
  • Banking login information such as PIN or security codes
  • Email address (and password)
  • Driver’s licence number
  • Passport number
  • Birth certificate
  • Current location
  • Place of employment or study
  • Interests, activities and connections (movies you watch, where you went for a run this morning and who you are friends with or work alongside).

It can be deceptively easy to leave snippets of valuable information all over the internet (and real world) which if collected together could enable someone to steal your identity. This digital footprint includes browsing history, device usage patterns, interests, perceived loyalty to a service, marriage status, preferences and income level (see this article by Netsafe). Most commonly such information is used to target advertising, but could also be used to manipulate people into divulging other, more valuable, information.

Are Bloggers at More Risk?

So far I’ve not found any indication that bloggers are at any more risk than other groups of people. In fact the high risk groups tend to be teenagers (who think nothing will happen to them) and older people (who can be more trusting). While bloggers may share more of their lives online, they do make conscious choices of what to share so may be less likely to accidentally share sensitive information than someone who doesn’t understand their social media privacy settings.

What I discovered in researching this post is that identity theft can affect anyone and often it is information that is inadvertently made public, stolen or leaked by hackers that enables criminals to steal an identity. There is a massive black marked on the dark web for this sort of information and even ‘kits’ which enable miscreants to lure people into divulging the information the scammers want (phishing). The best protections seem to be using long, unique passwords for every site or account, guarding email carefully and being suspicious of anything that tries to wheedle login details out of you.

Be careful out there.

Sources of reliable information

Avoiding Anti-Patterns

At its heart the IndieWeb is a bunch of people taking back ownership and control of their web content from companies such as Facebook, Twitter, Medium and Google. Some of these folks are programmers who are making the task a bit easier for the rest of us, to the point that it is now easier to adopt this approach than it was a few years ago.

I am not a coder, so my focus is on keeping control of my web content and making it accessible. Part of this task involves avoiding practises which work against the principles of owning my own data, making information visible to people in priority to machines, ensuring a good user experience, documenting what I am doing, and building a site which will last for the long term. The term used to describe the things which impede the IndieWeb is ‘anti-patterns‘.

Antipatterns

Antipatterns are antithetical to a diverse and growing indieweb, often times the opposite, or at best a distraction from indieweb principles and building-blocks, yet persistently repeated despite their tendency to waste time and cause failures. (IndieWeb Wiki – Antipatterns)

Databases

For any content you care about it, don’t put the primary copy in a database. Databases are all a pain to maintain, and more fragile than the file system.  (IndieWeb Wiki – Antipatterns)

As a generalisation I would agree with this, but databases exist because they make accessing information much easier than digging through a folder full of files. One of my longer term goals is to transition my site to being a static site using a platform such as Jekyll but the learning curve is fairly steep for that and my current goal is to establish a good writing habit so WordPress suits me as I know it well. What I am doing is exporting my WordPress content as Markdown files so they can easily be integrated into other systems if necessary, and these are still readable outside of the database.

Invisible metadata

Invisible metadata is the general antipattern of storing information that is user-relevant in places users won’t see (i.e. users aren’t expected to “View Source” on every page).   (IndieWeb Wiki – Antipatterns)

This is what started me thinking about these anti-patterns, I want to include rel=me tags for links to my Facebook, Twitter and micro.blog accounts as a way to verify that I’m the same person writing on all of them. What I was going to do is include these in the <head> section of each page but that violates the principle of making metadata visible to humans so I’m having to reconsider my approach to this. Overall I agree with making information visible to people, this also seems to be something Google takes into account with it’s search engine assessments of what a web page is about. For years the SEO world has been stuffing keywords into meta tags in attempts to game the search rankings when what really matters is the content that users can see and interact with.

Silos

A silo, or web content hosting silo, in the context of the IndieWeb, is a centralized web site typically owned by a for-profit corporation that stakes some claim to content contributed to it and restricts access in some way. (IndieWeb Wiki – Silo)

I am actively avoiding the use of silos such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. I do currently have some stuff located primarily in these sites but am in the process of manual transferring it to this blog. Most of what is in Twitter I don’t care about, I’m working on transferring my Facebook status updates now (this will take a while), and have recently decided to host my CV/resume on my own site in preference to LinkedIn due to the use of devious techniques by LinkedIn to gain access to email address books and generally be creepy. There are some things such as ‘likes’, retweets and reposts that I don’t value enough to clutter my own site with.