Weekend Reading: A Historical Document: John Maynard Keynes to Franklin Delano Roosevelt at the End of 1933

Assignment Desk: Website (Re)design and The Road to Xanadu

Note: I will collect stuff relevant to this assignment desk here: http://www.bradford-delong.com/stream-the-road-to-xanaduthe-invisible-college.html

Assignment Desk: http://www.bradford-delong.com/assignment-desk.html

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I am looking for somebody to write something to tell me what I should think—these days about website (re)design, and the assorted and related topics that I think of as "The Road to Xanadu" and "The Invisible College".

It is a truth universally acknowledged that any organization with a website that has not been redesigned in two years will find itself thinking about starting yet another website redesign process. Hence my throat clearing for http://www.bradford-delong.com/2017/07/what-you-need-to-read-today-reading-reihan-salams-why-i-signed-up-for-obamacare-hoisted-from-my-archives.html yesterday and my hoisting of http://www.bradford-delong.com/2017/07/should-read-well-its-been-two-more-years-ezra-klein-2015-i-have-sat-down-a-couple-of-times-to-write-up-what.html today...

Thinking about it, I find myself thinking that two years ago I had strong but contradictory and inchoate views on these issues. But I do not think I have tried to think seriously about these issues for the last two years. Surely somebody has, or could, and could write, or has written something to bring me up to speed...

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Some Food for Thought from the Past

The Fivefold Web Design Way

A website needs five things: the flowing stream, the front-end teasers, the syndication, the grammar, and the stock:

  • The flowing stream: It is needed so that people who want to either read what is new or to treat the site as a weblog--that is, have a sustained engagement and conversation with the website considered as a Turing-class hivemind--can do so. Almost everybody values newness. Some people value engagement-over-time. The flowing stream is the only way to get that. You have that.

  • The front-end teasers: The front-end cards need to be set up to give each piece of content a visually-engaging and subhead-teaser informative welcome mat. People need to look at the link to the piece of content, and be able to immediately grasp both at the verbal-subhead and the visual-gut level whether this is something they would enjoy diving deeper into. You have that.

  • The syndication: The syndication needs to propagate the front-end cards out to Twitter and Facebook and The One Who Is-only-know what else next year so that social media knows you exist. These days, just tweeting out 140 characters from the headline and subhead as a boring line of text does not do it anymore. If it ever did. You have that.

  • The grammar: The visually-interesting and subhead-teaser front-end to each piece of content needs to tell the truth about the piece, and tell it well and quickly. The front-end needs to lead the people who would want to and enjoy engaging with the content to actually do so--and it needs to keep others who would not benefit and not enjoy away. This requires a grammar, or perhaps a descriptive language, or perhaps an ontology, the function of which is both to direct people's attention to the relevant flow in real time and also provide the with a pathway to the stock.

  • The stock: The website has a stock of past things written. But nobody can find anything in the stock. The website needs a pathway--a pathway that actually works--by which people can pull things written in the past, and in the distant past, out of the stream's archives and see how shiny they are and how relevant they are to their concerns today.

I would now add that the website needs to have stackable content: the content management system needs one-button generation—or as close as can be attained—of all forms and levels: the tweet, the teaser, the blog post, the op-ed, the talking points, the 4000-word long-form, the proper article, the "further reading" list, and the book—and if any of those things cannot be quickly and automatically generated, the stack of content needs to link to the next best thing on the internet available at all levels...

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The Dream of Xanadu:

Xanadu is, of course, Ted Nelson's dream of what distributed hypertext systems really ought to be--his attempt to at least think about how one might make real Vannevar Bush's dreams of the Memex, a kind of global intellectual distributed... Talmud... may be the best thing to call it.

Tim Berners-Lee's World-Wide Web--.html and http://--is a magnificent and very lightweight approximation to what Xanadu might, in some alternate decohered branch of the multiverse, have been or someday be.

But we should be able to do better.

I think we ought to do better in four dimensions:

  1. Links, even with tooltips, do not provide us with enough of the context we need to see to understand if we want to follow them now, follow them later, reserve them in our long list of things we might want to check out someday, or ignore.
  2. Web documents do not easily and properly adapt themselves from desktop to mobile device presentation.
  3. Content is not properly stackable--there is no easy and straightforward way for the server to figure out whether the incoming websurfer wants (or needs!) the 140-character tweet, the one-paragraph abstract, the weblog-post elevator pitch, the 750-word op-ed, the 2000-word presentation, the 7000-word longform article, the 40,000-word short book, or something even longer. The inverted pyramid simply does not do it.
  4. Newness is a surprisingly-good heuristic for what a visitor to a website probably wants to see, but by now we should be able to come up with a better statistic--one that makes much better use of the stock of accumulated past work on a website.

It would be nice to figure out how to fix these...

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The Road to Xanadu/The Invisible College

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Perhaps Worth Reading...