A Now-Extended Non-Sokratic Dialogue on Website Design: Hoisted from the Archives

1280px Sanzio 01 jpg 1 280×993 pixels

Hoisted from the Archives: A Now-Extended Non-Sokratic Dialogue on Website Design: What I, at least, regard as an interesting discussion in the comments to my A Very Brief Sokratic Dialogue on Website Redesign: From that post:

Platon: Five requirements?

Sokrates: Yes.... The stream... so... 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.... The front-end... to give each piece of content a visually-engaging and subhead-teaser informative welcome mat.... The syndication... to propagate the front-end cards out to Twitter and Facebook.... The stock... a pathway... by which people can pull things written in the past... relevant... to their concerns today.... The grammar: The visually-interesting and subhead-teaser front-end... needs to lead the people who would want to and enjoy engaging with the content to actually do so.... [But,] as William Goldman says, nobody knows anything.

Platon: Is there anybody whose degree of not-knowingness is even slightly less than the degree of not-knowingness of the rest of us?...

Sokrates: My guess... http://www.vox.com--Ezra Klein and Melissa Bell and company--are most likely to be slightly less not-knowing than the rest of us....

Platon: So, what are they doing?

Sokrates: I really do not know.... Somebody should... write up a 3000-word explainer on what Vox.com's internet strategy in this age of social media actually is, and what pieces of it have worked and what pieces have failed...

Ezra Klein: I have sat down a couple of times to write up what's worked and what's failed at Vox. I keep abandoning the project, because I keep realizing I am not yet sure what's failed and what's simply in the learning process still...

I will say of these five items, the one I worry about most for Vox--and for everything--is the stock. I think we are better at using stock than most, and we are particularly good at making stock useful to our writers. But I don't think our stock is sufficiently available to our readers.

Maynard Handley: Might I suggest, in the context of Vox and similar sites, that I see a strange blindness?

Web sites are willing to accept the contortions necessary for responsive design (ie flowing well across a range of screen sizes from phone to tablet to iMac), and some are even willing to provide some user-selected visual customization (like dark vs light themes).

What I DON'T see is a willingness to provide 'semantic' customization, by which I mean things like:

  • I ONLY want to see what's new since my last visit. I'm not interested in scanning your entire page to try to see what's changed. Traditional blogs of course handle this very well, and similarly structured sites like Ars Technica. Vox and similar sites (like TheVerge) handle this terribly, constantly repeating the same article in various places in the hope that, if I didn't view in context A, maybe I will view it in context B or C or D.

  • Article 'cards' that are based on text and tell me what I'm about to see, rather than this sort of 'You won't believe what Fox News is doing now' teaser crap. Once again, A blog like Brad's shows how to do this, and Ars Technica shows how to do it in a more 'commercial/flashy' environment. I can believe that the current style of Vox draws in the maximum number of viewers. BUT I also suspect that it repels the 'highest value' viewers, those with limited time and limited patience for manipulative headlines. Certainly the primary mechanism by which I view Vox stories is reading them via Brad's site--I have better things to do than put up with its front page's ridiculously low information density every day.

So what I don't understand is why Vox appreciates the need to vary its presentation for differently-sized screens, but NOT the need to vary its presentation for differently-abled minds.

Altoid: To be direct, in my limited experience Vox is like Talking Points Memo in that it lives on click bait. Click bait is in extreme inherent tension with 'grammar' (=non-misleading indication of content) and perhaps with 'stock' (=, as I get it, a combination of indexing and threading). I like Vox's maps and some features, but I think Maynard and I are on the same page in thinking that its packaging, like TPM's, tends to oversell the content. Unlike TPM (mostly) and our own gentle host, Vox continually moves, duplicates, and repositions the same story, presumably to generate clicks.

But then, I'm one of those who doesn't know anything. The intersection of what I--a reader and occasional commenter, and what Ezra--proprietor of a site that needs to generate money in order to exist, and what Brad--proprietor of a site that seeks to engage with targeted groups, want from this sort of interchange, may occur in a vastly different place than any of us would imagine.

Dan Kervick: Here's what I do on a conventional news website when I don't have enough background information to understand the piece fully, interpret the information it is providing in context, etc:

I open up a new browser tab, google in the relevant phrase and start hunting. Or maybe I go to Wikipedia. Or maybe I go to one of the many, many other web places I have gotten that I have come to know as archiving useful information on that topic. There are lots of tools, and I think most experienced web users have gotten handy at this kind of thing, and have their own ideas about how best to identify quality, and filter crud.

What Vox seems to want to do is turn itself into a one-stop shop for both the news and the contextual background. I'm not sure that is going to work: it seems a bit overly controlling and managerial for the new era of flexible user-directed information gathering. I'm not saying it can't develop an audience. There will be some brand-oriented consumers who like the Vox take on the world and want an ideologically closed, uniform perspective on their news and the knowledge base needed to make sense of the news. But I'm not sure how big that group will be.

Perhaps an alternative approach is to think about how to make the stock discoverable to outside users of other sites, independently of those who discover it via Vox's internal pathways. Maybe what they want is two main components: a 'Voxpedia' component and a 'VoxNews' component. The components would certainly be optimized to talk easily with each other, but would also each have an independent existence networked in different ways to the rest of the web.

Andrew Z: To be successful, a website needs to be usable and useful. The design is the expression of those characteristics. Sokrates' five requirements are simply the requirements for the website to be useful to him.

What I see Vox selling is context. Context requires a lot of work even with software helping. There is a limited market for context, especially on the internet where the expectation is free.

I believe Vox is likely to fail due to a limited, paying market for Vox's true product and strength. Until the industry leaves an ad-based revenue model, expensive things aren't going to be big financial successes.

Gene O'Grady: For extra credit, please translate "that really depends on implementation" into idiomatic Attic Greek.

I suppose, since Ezra has showed up here, that I should show up in my proper persona as well...

I think that http://vox.com has it absolutely nailed as far as syndication, grammar, and front-end are concerned. I agree with Ezra that it is weakest with respect to the stock. And I think that it has not quite managed to hit the sweet spot with respect to the stream...

Let me try to explain what I really mean, in the hope that if I try to explain it I will then be able to, myself, understand what I am thinking--because right now I do not think that I really understand my own thought about this...

Let us consider, first, the stream: A great number of people who come to any website want to engage with any website on the basis of: "what is new here?"

In so doing, they are looking for a heuristic for "most interesting": they are trying to figure out which parts of the firehose of content on the site they should select to read first. And simple reverse-chronological list of posts goes amazingly far toward performing that task of serving as a heuristic for "most interesting" because:

  1. New things are likely to be about news, which is new. Older things may well be about ideas, concepts, and events that the websurfer has already thought about and is not terribly interested in thinking about further.
  2. New things are things that by definition the websurfer has not read before. There is no risk of clicking, starting to read, and then realizing "I remember reading this exact same page last month. Why am I still reading this?..."
  3. New things may well allow you to gauge how the writer processes new information--how they mark their beliefs to market--and thus give the websurfer extra insight into how they think.

Now reverse-chronological "newness" is a remarkably good heuristic, but it is not a perfect heuristic for these forms of "interesting".

Ideally, the "new" items presented to a websurfer should be an appropriate combination of:

  1. things that are new, plus
  2. old things that are really good that the websurfer ought to be reminded of or missed the fist time through, plus
  3. old things that have a particular close fit with the websurfer's interests that they ought to be reminded of or missed the first time through, minus
  4. those new things that are below the reader's level of expertise on the topic considered.

It is thus possible to do a better job than a reverse-chronological list of posts, perhaps, when daily volume is large, organized by topic and by sub-topic so that the websurfer can click to focus in. But doing better requires some truly heavy user-interface design, some truly heavy database construction, and some truly heavy modeling of the cognitive state of the websurfer. Merely a small matter of programming? Perhaps. Right now the front page of http://vox.com is trying to do better than a reverse-chronological list of posts with filters by topic and subtopic. Melissa Bell appears fairly confident that they are doing a better job. I find that I am not--but they are getting an awful lot of clicks, page views, eyeballs sold to advertisers, and I am far from being even a semi-typical user or use case. So I see this as still a very open question...

Let me back up and consider dimension (3) of what I called "interesting": New things may well allow you to gauge how the writer processes new information--how they mark their beliefs to market--and thus give the websurfer extra insight into how they think. This is, I think, worth unpacking--in large part because I am not entirely sure what I mean, exactly. But there seems definitely to be a problem with the modern, social web here...

Ezra Klein says:

Ezra Klein: "Blogging is a conversation, and conversations don't go viral...

...People share things their friends will understand, not things that you need to have read six other posts to understand. Blogging encourages interjections into conversations, and it thrives off of familiarity. Social media encourages content that can travel all on its own.... As an editor, I miss blogging.... [But] I don't think blogs... work in... organizations [like Vox]. And I think this is a problem, or at least a manifestation of a problem.... The need to create content that 'travels' is at war with the fact that great work often needs to be rooted in a particular place and context--a place and context that the reader and the author already share.... We're getting better at serving a huge audience even as we're getting worse at serving a loyal one. At Vox, we have some cool ideas... but I don't think we're anywhere near a solution.

Matthew Yglesias says:

Matthew Yglesias: "[My] pieces [these days]... are all designed for the social web... in the winter of 2014-2015...

...to be viable as atomic pieces of content read and shared by people who have no idea who I am or what I've done before.... The contemporary social web... lacks... the sense of direct, continual engagement between author and audience.  My solution... is... this newsletter. Communication between myself and a self-selected audience of individuals who I hope will subscribe with the intention of reading regularly and coming back for more.... Like blogging, but for your inbox. Like a blog... frequently--but unpredictably. And like a Matthew Yglesias blog... plenty of typos and minimal editing.... http://www.vox.com is... way more polished and professional... and we are hard at work on making it even more polished and more professional. This newsletter may be, well, less polished. In a good way.

And Zeynep Tufekci says:

Zeynep Tufekci: "I want to go back to something you said to me... that I think is the heart of it...

We were discussing the need to preserve links, and have them under our control, and you said “because a link is a relationship.” That is exactly right. A link isn’t just a link, or a hit to be counted. A link is a relationship between people. Karl Marx... “commodity fetishism” as a key mechanism.... “Link fetishism” that obscures the true heart of a link: it’s a connection between people... this [is a] core fact about what is beautiful about the web we loved, and one we are trying not to lose. We are here for each other, not just through the fluffy, and the outrageously shareable, and the pleasant and the likable--but through it all. When we write, and link to each other, we are connecting to each other, not merely to content.... I... want to go forward to a web based on relationships, the flow of which is not manipulated on behalf of advertisers.... I don’t fear commercial platforms, per se, nor am I opposed to the intelligent use of appropriate and robust algorithms that can help enrich our experience. (I’m actually for it). The web we need to save is not this or that format, but our relationships, expressed in our links, our updates, our connections and more. There is much at stake.

If I can try to compress what I think all three of these people are saying that they miss down to its smallest core, it is that the old bloggy web allowed you to (i) watch individual webloggers think; (ii) watch a group of webloggers together worry an issue and so be, collectively, smarter than any of them were individually; and (iii) by following the web of links learn about the existence of other perspectives different enough from those you were currently reading to be interesting but similar enough to them to be comprehensible. The new social media viral-seeking autonomous-content net loses all of that.

Is that a big loss? Perhaps.

The loss of the easy reach to new perspectives is a definite loss. The fact that individuals are now, too often, thinking and reporting on their own rather than reacting to each other means that what you read is of only average intelligence, rather than maximum or hive-mind super-maximum intelligence, and that is also a definite loss.

The biggest loss, however, I think, is that the bloggy web allows and encourages you to build little sub-Turing instantiations of the thinkers you engage with and run them on your wetware. I am at my smartest when I confront a problem; think "what would John Maynard Keynes think of this?" "what would Andrei Shleifer think of this?" "what would Barry Eichengreen think of this?" and then answer these questions myself--more-or-less--by running my own personal sub-Turing instantiations of their minds on my wetware. The old bloggy web encouraged you--nay, made it inevitable that you would--learn how other smart people thought. The new social web did not.

And we are, I think, much wiser when we can do this. As you know if your own personal sub-Turing instantiation of my mind is any good, I am attached to Niccolo Machiavelli's letter to Vettori:

Niccolo Machiavelli: Letter to Francesco Vettori of 10 December 1513: "Florence, 10 December 1513...

To the Magnificent Francesco Vettori, His Patron and Benefactor, Florentine Ambassador to the Supreme Pontiff. In Rome.

Magnificent Ambassador. 'Divine favors were never late.' I say this because it seemed to me that I had lost--no, rather, strayed from--your favor.... I am reassured by your recent letter of the 23rd of last month.... I can tell you nothing else in this letter except what my life is like.... I am living on my farm, and since my latest disasters, I have not spent a total of twenty days in Florence. Until now, I have been catching thrushes with my own hands.... I eat what food this poor farm and my minuscule patrimony yield. When I have finished eating, I return to the inn, where there usually are the innkeeper, a butcher, a miller, and a couple of kilnworkers. I slum around with them for the rest of the day playing cricca and backgammon.... I get the mold out of my brain and let out the malice of my fate, content to be ridden over roughshod in this fashion if only to discover whether or not my fate is ashamed of treating me so.

When evening comes, I return home and enter my study; on the threshold I take off my workday clothes, covered with mud and dirt, and put on the garments of court and palace. Fitted out appropriately, I step inside the venerable courts of the ancients, where, solicitously received by them, I nourish myself on that food that alone is mine and for which I was born; where I am unashamed to converse with them and to question them about the motives for their actions, and they, out of their human kindness, answer me. And for four hours at a time I feel no boredom, I forget all my troubles, I do not dread poverty, and I am not terrified by death. I absorb myself into them completely. And because Dante says that no one understands anything unless he retains what he has understood, I have jotted down what I have profited from in their conversation...

In my estimation, Matthew Yglesias's and Ezra Klein's weblogs supplied that for which Machiavelli in his study desperately yearns, and supplied it in over-full measure. Matthew Yglesias and Ezra Klein writing on http://vox.com by and large do not. They hope to get it back: "we have some cool ideas..." But they do not have the stream nailed yet. And they need to, because nailing the stream that smart people provide is the way that a web designer can add the most value to society: via discussion, debate, and example, teaching others how to think as well and clearly as they can.

In a way, this conclusion of mine about the stream is both a refutation and an endorsement of Sokrates's--or is it Platon's--argument in the Phaedrus about the inferiority of writing (and the superiority, among forms of writing, of dialogue and dialectic over expository text):

SOCRATES: Thamus replied: "O most ingenious Theuth.... [Via writing] you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality."... I cannot help feeling, Phaedrus, that writing is unfortunately like painting; for the creations of the painter have the attitude of life, and yet if you ask them a question they preserve a solemn silence. And the same may be said of speeches. You would imagine that they had intelligence, but if you want to know anything and put a question to one of them, the speaker always gives one unvarying answer. And when they have been once written down they are tumbled about anywhere among those who may or may not understand them, and know not to whom they should reply, to whom not: and, if they are maltreated or abused, they have no parent to protect them; and they cannot protect or defend themselves.

PHAEDRUS: That again is most true.

SOCRATES: Is there not another kind of word or speech far better than this, and having far greater power—a son of the same family, but lawfully begotten?

PHAEDRUS: Whom do you mean, and what is his origin?

SOCRATES: I mean an intelligent word graven in the soul of the learner, which can defend itself, and knows when to speak and when to be silent.

PHAEDRUS: You mean the living word of knowledge which has a soul, and of which the written word is properly no more than an image?

SOCRATES: Yes, of course that is what I mean.... In the garden of letters... sow and plant, but only for the sake of recreation and amusement... [and] as memorials to be treasured against the forgetfulness of old age.... But nobler far is the serious pursuit of the dialectician, who, finding a congenial soul, by the help of science sows and plants therein words which are able to help themselves and him who planted them, and are not unfruitful, but have in them a seed which others brought up in different soils render immortal, making the possessors of it happy to the utmost extent of human happiness.... Even the best of writings are but a reminiscence of what we know, and that only in principles of justice and goodness and nobility taught and communicated orally for the sake of instruction and graven in the soul, which is the true way of writing, is there clearness and perfection and seriousness....

Go and tell Lysias that to the fountain and school of the Nymphs we went down, and were bidden by them to convey a message to him and to other composers of speeches... poems... political discourses.... If their compositions are based on knowledge of the truth, and they can defend or prove them, when they are put to the test, by spoken arguments, which leave their writings poor in comparison of them, then they are to be called, not only poets, orators, legislators, but are worthy of a higher name... philosophers...

Yes, I have now asserted that webloggers are the true philosophers. And I have asserted that this is the most important reason to work hard to get the stream right. Do you disagree?

What about the stock?

Here I, most regrettably, have very little to say. I have this picture in my mind's eye of stackable content: the 140-character tweet linking to a weblog post that is the 200-word nut paragraph, itself linking to the weblog post that is the 700-word op-ed-length statement of the position, linking then to both a more permanent 3000-word argument and to a 3000-word explainer, both then focusing back to a continually-updated 10,000-word paper, and behind that a 50,000-word (or more) book-length treatment. But how to arrange the link-crumb architecture so that readers are led painlessly and seamlessly to the treatment of the subject at the length and depth they want and at the level they can best handle is well beyond me...

Google was supposed to supply the stock. It was supposed to use the link-crumb trail of the web to direct us to the beset durable authoritative source to answer whatever our question is. But it turns out that is not what people link to in large quantity, and that Google cannot parcel out the chaff and send us to the wheat reliably.

It didn't.

So here all I can do is quote what Ezra said, in his comment already quoted above:

Of these five items, the one I worry about most for Vox--and for everything--is the stock. I think we are better at using stock than most, and we are particularly good at making stock useful to our writers. But I don't think our stock is sufficiently available to our readers.

Vox Voxsplains Vox.com

On explainer journalism: Vox Voxsplains Vox: "The media is excellent at reporting the news and pretty good at adding commentary...

...What’s lacking is an organization genuinely dedicated to explaining the news. That is to say, our end goal isn’t telling you what just happened, or how we feel about what just happened, it’s making sure you understand what just happened. We're going to deliver a lot of contextual information that traditional news stories aren't designed to carry, and we're hiring journalists who really know the topics they cover. There’s no way we’ll be able to help readers understand issues if we haven’t done the work to understand them ourselves.... This article is an example. It tries to identify the main questions you might have about Vox and answer them in a clear, logically structured way. At the beginning is the most obvious, most important thing people might want to know about Vox rather than the latest scoop. This article contains news--we’re announcing our name, Vox.... But the new information isn’t the point. The point is to leave you with a better understanding of what we’re trying to do with Vox.

On the persistent stock: Matthew Yglesias: Refreshing the Evergreen: "No one even seemed to notice that we were flooding the site with previously published content...

...Articles were enthusiastically shared by people who had shared them the first time around, too.... Which is great!... If we can use our archives as a way to deliver more great pieces to today's audiences, then that's a huge win.... Lots of important things are... longstanding patterns, structures, or systems.... We think well-executed evergreen journalism is often the very best kind of journalism there is. We want to be doing it regularly, and we also want to be doing it better than traditional formats have allowed.... We've asked our whole staff to do at least one refresh per week, and we're looking forward to seeing how it goes.... Hopefully we'll get a bit closer to building and surfacing the persistent news resource we're working towards.

On iteration: Ezra Klein, Melissa Bell, and Matt Yglesias: Welcome to Vox: A Work in Progress: "Today marks phase two.... At the core of this phase are the Vox Cards...

...inspired by the highlighters and index cards that some of us used in school to remember important information. You’ll find them attached to articles, where they add crucial context; behind highlighted words, where they allow us to offer deeper explanations of key concepts; and in their stacks.... But we're just starting to learn how to use them. We have been employees of Vox Media for less than 65 days.... We’re launching this fast for one simple reason: there is no better way to figure out the best way to do explanatory journalism on the web than to do explanatory journalism on the web. We have some exciting ideas about how to do a better job explaining the news. But right now, those ideas are untested.... And that's the only test that matters.... The quicker we can launch, the quicker we can start learning--and start improving.

On aggregation: Ezra Klein: How Vox Aggregates: "[When] I started... everything I wrote... in the hopes that someone else...

...would take it and try to use it... with a link back... a positive-sum endeavor.... [At the] Washington Post... I helped to create Know More... a big 'Know More' button that would lead people back to the original source to, well, learn more.... While aggregation has always been a clear service to readers, it can be enormously frustrating to writers.... But aggregation, when done correctly, offers value to the original source.... If you ever feel Vox isn't using your work in the way you'd want, email me at [email protected] and let me know. Our intention is always to do things in a way that is positive-sum, and if you ever feel we're failing that ideal, we want to know, and we'll work with you to change it...

On the homepage: Melissa Bell: Vox’s New Homepage, Explained: "If the slots look unusually tall...

...they're designed not for one headline, but for many.... We're able to offer both our newest story on the topic, but also the stories leading up to today.... I have no idea if this is going to work. It'll require a different type of curation and we need to build a robust taxonomy.... There's a basic latest news display.... There are some new permanent doorways into content we know you like to find... favorite writers... latest videos.... The layout algorithmically generates each time and the system may run through up to 1,000 different options to find the best one. (For more on the technical background, we took inspiration from some of the great work happening at Flipboard.)... There's been a lot of talk of late about whether or not homepages are dead. We're certainly not seeing that at Vox...

On first-person voices: Eleanor Barkhorn: First Person: "We've decided to devote a section...

...to thoughtful, in-depth, provocative personal narratives... First Person.... Here are a few pieces... that exemplify the style and range of pieces.... I'm a black ex-cop, and this is the real truth about race and policing. 9 things I wish I'd known before I became a stay-at-home mom. The internet is full of men who hate feminism. Here's what they're like in person. 9 things I wish people understood about anxiety. Confessions of a congressman...

#highlighted #hoistedfromthearchives #publicsphere #weblogs #weblogging #longform