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September 7, 2003

Wave of the future? Group weblogs have been around for a while—BoingBoing is a venerable example—but suddenly they’re popping up like botanical metaphors. The tricontinental and formidably learned Crooked Timber led off the current wave. In subsequent weeks, we’ve also noted the debuts of Jusiper, smart political commentary from a bunch of poli-sci types; Not Geniuses, ongoing observations on practical politics by activist twentysomethings in, mostly, the Rocky Mountain West; Corrente, from the crew that conned the U.S.S. Eschaton while its captain took a summer break; A Fistful of Euros, featuring actual Europeans discussing European political issues (imagine that); and Open Source Politics, bringing together an eyebrow-raising twenty-five political bloggers to “promote active discourse among progressives.”

The idea, of course, is that in a world of more and more weblogs, readers tend to hew to sites that post strong new material constantly, and a group is better able to provide that steady flow. Certain my own recent occasional posting habits have had a downward effect on my traffic, whereas Teresa’s greater productivity has driven hers up; Making Light is now well ahead of Electrolite in daily hits, despite being linked to by significantly fewer other blogs. This suggests that frequent posting, not linkage, is the important factor.

A danger of group blogs, of course, is that without strong writerly voices, the participants’ individual personalities can be somewhat hard to discern, which matters to those of us who read blogs for the “strong voices” (vernacular, unintermediated, you know the drill) that they often afford. The folks at Crooked Timber don’t have much to worry about on this score. I have a harder time remembering who’s who when I read some of the others. One thing both CT and Not Geniuses do that some others could stand to imitate is put the damn authorship credit at the beginning of the post, not at the end. Which means we go into reading the post with a name in mind, thus giving us a head start toward building our own sense of the personalities involved. (Of course, if your group blog’s ambition is to subsume all individuality into a single collective voice, that’s cool too, providing the voice has a tang of its own. I enjoy the group-written and unattributed Tapped, leaving aside their peculiar and, one would think, self-damaging decision to absorb Matthew Yglesias rather than make use of his well-established and popular “brand.” But that’s a different argument.)

As in so many areas of life, the really deadly temptation is to make it all too complicated. The simplity of the weblog is one of its glories: short and medium-sized pieces of writing, every so often, with the most recent stuff on top. I’m unfond of “continued on page X” jumps in magazines, and I’m not wild about them in weblogs, either; kinesthetically, whether I’m at a desktop or a laptop computer, it’s always easier to keep scrolling down than it is to reach for the pointing device and bring up a new page. When a weblog has five new posts each of which is continued on a separate page, that’s a bunch of extra work. Yes, granted, only in America in 2003 could you find an able-bodied adult male actually calling the effort of a few mouse clicks “a bunch of extra work,” but consider this. When I’m running through my daily blog trawl, which consists of several dozen of the things, I find, increasingly, that sites that demand extra mousing-around tend to slip to last. Which means that if I’m interrupted by more pressing matters, they don’t get read as regularly. Even when they’re as good as Crooked Timber. I doubt that I’m alone in this.

Of the new crew, by far the worst design offender is Open Source Politics. More like a magazine than a weblog, OSP offers up an elaborate proscenium arch, from which are linked each day’s several new posts. It’s like Slate, complete with the dismaying sense that there’s too much here and not enough of it is going to be good. You also know from the front-page presentation that every one of these new “posts,” each behind its own link, is going to aspire to the condition of a full-fledged “article.” No wiseass bloggy one-liners here. There are some smart people and fine writers listed among OSP’s contributors, and much of the material is definitely worth your time, but as a piece of weblog design it’s all throat-clearing and trumpery, the exact opposite of inviting. [11:30 AM]

Welcome to Electrolite's comments section.
Hard-Hitting Moderator: Teresa Nielsen Hayden.

Comments on Wave of the future?:

Guy Andrew Hall ::: (view all by) ::: September 07, 2003, 01:31 PM:

Thanks for the feedback. I've sent out an email to the crew alerting them. However, we are not looking at our website as a blog. At least, I don't look to it as a blog. I hope you came across our mission statement. It might explain things. Or maybe not.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 07, 2003, 01:45 PM:

"However, we are not looking at our website as a blog."

We're both talking about the site currently loaded into my browser at the URL http://www.ospolitics.org/blog/, right? Can't imagine why I might have thought of it as a "blog"...

Seriously, don't take my design comments as a full-throated attack on the site. Kevin Hayden is a great online entrepeneur and is to be commended for getting OSP going; and when I said there was good material on the site, I wasn't just being nice. (Just now I was being impressed by Mark Kleiman on the Valerie Plame affair.) What I'm suggesting is that you'll get more readers if your interface is less work to operate.

Laura Poyneer ::: (view all by) ::: September 07, 2003, 02:04 PM:

Your suggestion about putting the author names at the top is a good one and has been implemented. As Kevin indicated in one of his early posts to the front page, we intend to keep making improvements as we go along. It is, after all, less than a week since we launched.

You particularly criticized the "continue reading..." links. The reason we did it that way is that the design team felt that it was even more annoying to have to scroll and scroll and scroll past a long article before getting to the next one.

Guy said it, this is intended to be a place where people contribute longer articles. Each person contributes no more than three times a week so they have time to research and write something longer. We can certainly ask our readers if they would rather scroll, scroll, scroll than have to follow a link. If most people agree with you, then we can make the change. But if you don't like the idea of longer articles at all, I don't know what to say. That was the whole idea behind OSP. It is intended to be more of a blog-zine than a blog, directory names notwithstanding.

Patrick ::: (view all by) ::: September 07, 2003, 02:24 PM:

Patrick and Teresa -

You're absolutely right about putting posters' names up front, something we've talked about at JUSIPER and plan to do. We just happen to be experiencing some growth now, and are still adjusting to it!

Thanks for the link.

Patrick (at JUSIPER)

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 07, 2003, 02:26 PM:

I like the idea of longer articles just fine. I do think the "zine" model, despite its obvious advantages, is in some ways less inviting than a regular weblog. It depends on the tradeoffs you want to make. When I go to Slate I know I'm going to have to put work into figuring out what's new and what I want to invest time into reading, or even skimming. On its very surface it presents more "decisions per square inch" than, say, loading up Unqualified Offerings or Calpundit. Another virtue of regular weblogs, often underrated, is that it's very easy to know when you're caught up on them, and to figure out if you've missed anything. If an online "zine" is what you want to do, more power to you; what I'm talking about is how I interact with text on the web, and I'm venturing hypotheses that may or may not be useful to you and others.

As for link-continuations for longer pieces, I've had this discussion with Henry Farrell of Crooked Timber as well. All I can say is that whether I'm using a notebook or a laptop, having to reach for the pointer is a major interruption in flow, whereas scrolling down by repeatedly hitting the spacebar isn't. Reaching for a pointing device between different sites, or when going from (say) reading to posting a comment, doesn't feel as much like an interruption. Having to do so in the middle of a comment (ala Crooked Timber) definitely does. And having to separately load up each of a day's new posts (ala Open Source Politics) does as well.

These are small things---vanishingly small. But there's an enormous amount of worthwhile text to read on the web, and in such an economy of abundance, small kinesthetic differences are liable to to have disproportionately large effects.

Matt McIrvin ::: (view all by) ::: September 07, 2003, 02:50 PM:

My own blog is in the slightly insular, mostly teenage world of LiveJournal (how did I end up in that disreputable place, you ask? My wife pulled me in).

On LiveJournal there's an interesting tool called a "friends page" that effectively allows every user to assemble an ad hoc group blog consisting of people on their "friends list"; there's an intentional blurring of the distinction between group blogs, individual blogs and syndication aggregators. There are also "communities" that are more explicitly group blogs, and you can put a community on your friends page, too.

You mentioned that posts that require extra mousing bother you. On LJ, this is done with the "lj-cut" mechanism, and there's social pressure to put long posts behind the lj-cut because otherwise they'll clutter up the friends pages of other people unnecessarily. (There's more social pressure to do this with things like inline pictures and those stupid personality quizzes, that might actually consume extra bandwidth to a significant degree.)

So I've been very conscientious about lj-cutting everything. But as you point out, there's a usability cost to this as well, and perhaps I should take that into account.

(Or perhaps I should get the hell out of LiveJournal, but I've come to like the blurry-edged little community that I've settled into there, and I even managed to get my blog to validate most of the time, with great effort.)

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 07, 2003, 03:18 PM:

I'm somewhat familiar with LiveJournal. I actually have an ancient account. I've never posted to "my" journal there; I just use it to maintain a "friends" page in order to keep up with a couple of dozen friends and acquaintances who do in fact post there. (Some of whose LJs may be found linked over in the "friends and relations" section of my blogroll.) Of those people on my friends list, only one is actually a teenager, the son of a novelist friend who also posts to LJ...

Matt McIrvin ::: (view all by) ::: September 07, 2003, 04:18 PM:

Yeah, my friends list seems to be populated with a decidedly older-than-average population, too. (The service's median age is 20, but the mode is 18.)

LiveJournal blogs also have RSS feeds, though how complete they are depends on whether you paid for your account or not.

Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: September 07, 2003, 07:17 PM:

Patrick, didn't you mention a while ago that you were going to put the entirety of your blog posts in your RSS feeds, rather than blurbs and links? Whatever became of that?

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 07, 2003, 07:37 PM:

As I just remarked to Mitch in email, I believe both of my RSS feeds are in fact full-text. They sure look like it in NetNewsWire.

Kieran Healy ::: (view all by) ::: September 07, 2003, 07:55 PM:

Yes, granted, only in America in 2003 could you find an able-bodied adult male actually calling the effort of a few mouse clicks 93a bunch of extra work,94

Ha! One for the archives.

Joy ::: (view all by) ::: September 08, 2003, 08:54 AM:

Both Electrolite and Making Light show up in the "blurb plus link" format on my LiveJournal 'friends' list - but I know very little about how RSS/XML feeds work, so it may well be an artifact of how I've subscribed. I don't mind, as otherwise I'd be much less likely to wander over here and read the comments.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 08, 2003, 09:04 AM:

I think that's an artifact of how the LiveJournal Electrolite feed is set up. I didn't set it up, so I'm not sure.

Teresa, by the way, syndicates excerpts-only by choice. In case anyone's confused.

Marla Caldwell ::: (view all by) ::: September 08, 2003, 12:16 PM:

Patrick,
You might be interested in our new features page, which contains the full articles of each day's featured posts all on a single page. Because of the quantity of text and the fact that most articles have a graphic, it's bound to load slowly on dial-up connections, but it certainly reduces the necessary clicks to get to the material. Click on my name to see the page.

dwight meredith ::: (view all by) ::: September 08, 2003, 01:14 PM:

The point about group blogs lacking a recognizable "voice" is a good one. I also second the notion of putting the author's name up front. I always scroll to the end to see who is writing and then back up to read. That is annoying.

That small deficiency in group blogs may be balanced, however, by the ability to keep fresh material posted without reducing the quality of the work.

I shut down PLA because I was unhappy with the quality of the material I was posting. I could not seem to find a way maintain quality while also keeping the site fresh.

It is hard to find a balance of a distictive voice, quality material and freshness.

Kristjan Wager ::: (view all by) ::: September 08, 2003, 01:56 PM:

Dwight, speaking as one of your (many) fans, I hope you manage to find some way of managing that - if nothing else, one of the new group-blogs should invite you to participate.

Demosthenes ::: (view all by) ::: September 08, 2003, 03:07 PM:

Dwight, speaking as one of your other fans, I think you're barking. The quality was as good as ever.

I can respect the decision, but I have to admit to wishing you'd change your mind.

As to group blogs: I keep on getting the sneaking suspicion that one day I'm going to wake up and the Blogosphere will collectivize to the point that it looks pretty much like Usenet did back in the day.

Except without as much pron.

Maybe.

Realish ::: (view all by) ::: September 08, 2003, 04:40 PM:

PNH, this is an excellent piece of amateur usability analysis, and I hope it starts a conversation that continues.

It's worth noting that there are people who study this thing for a living, and have made quite a science of it. This guy is good at it, and this article is a good introduction.

I think it would be a laudable project for a blogger or group of bloggers to run some actual, bonafide usability tests, to see whether, for instance, people in general prefer scrolling or clicking the "more" link.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 08, 2003, 04:49 PM:

Maria, the features page helps a lot. Thanks for pointing it out!

Jeremy Leader ::: (view all by) ::: September 08, 2003, 05:08 PM:

Patrick, for what it's worth, I read Electrolite (and Making Light, even more so) as if the front page just consisted of teasers, with each full article a link away. That's because in many cases I learn as much from the comments as from the articles, which I see as great endorsement of your and Teresa's ability to start (and participate in) interesting conversations.

When there's a long article in a nielsenhayden.com blog, I often don't bother reading it on the front page; I immediately open a new tab from the permalink, where I can dig into the article and comments together. I generally open up a half dozen tabs from the front page, then go read each one in full with its comments, rather than reading all the articles first and then reading the comments seperately.

In fact, it just occurred to me that a blog with good comments can be viewed as an intermediate form between a solo blog and a group blog.

Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: September 11, 2003, 10:06 PM:

In case anyone is interested, I did some poking around and discovered that (1) Patrick DOES publish the entire text of each post in RSS. But each item is divided into a section for an excerpt, and one for the whole body. (2) The newsreader I'm now using, the excellent FeedDemon, only shows the excerpts. Still, it's excellent (did I say it's excellent?) and I recommend it highly. (3) FeedDemon is beta; the next beta will support displaying the whole body, at which point I will recommend it EVEN MORE HIGHLY.