July 14, 2008

Writing Once, Publishing Many Times, Makes Context Critical

Whether Web services leverage RSS, send e-mail confirmations or are indexed by keywords in specialized search engines, it's not too uncommon for any activity you make online to set off a series of actions. When taken out of context, something you said in one place won't make as much sense somewhere else. A sentence fragment or a response might be completely confusing to one audience or at a certain time. With this in mind, best practices would suggest writing in full sentences where possible, and offering context.

Two Examples:

Sending replies in Twitter

Often, I will be following "Person A" and they will be following "Person B", but I won't be. If Person A sends a note to Person B, Twitter may often catch that as a reply, and clicking through the "in reply to" link will give you Twitter's best guess as to what Person A was responding to. But this doesn't always work.

Here's how it often happens:
Tweet 1: Person B: "@persona, are you up for seeing Wall-E at the Metreon?"
Tweet 2: Person B: "AFK for 15 minutes, got to get dog food."
Tweet 3: Person A: "@personb, I'd love to go. See you at six."
To the Twitter user following Person A, clicking the "in reply to" would make it sound like the pair were off to consume some Kibbles 'N' Bits, as Twitter usually grabs the latest tweet from the person to whom the tweet was sent as the message.

What would have been better is if that 3rd Tweet had read:
Person A: "@personb, I'd love to go see Wall-E. The movie sounds great. I'll see you at six."
Now, if I'm following only half the conversation, I get the idea, even without having to click through, and I won't think you are a huge Alpo fan.

Also, Tweets are read in more places than just Twitter these days. If I had set up a Summize search for "Wall-E", I would have seen Person B's initial tweet, but not the second one, from Person A, unless they put Wall-E in the response. And if I were following Person A on FriendFeed, the tweet with details would make a lot more sense, when jumbled in the rest of their activity.

The idea of writing in full sentences or giving context is to understand the audience for your messages is larger than you realize, and you should write for the followers on the periphery.

Making comments using Disqus

When I make a comment in Disqus, at least five things can happen:
  • A comment is added to the originating blog.
  • An e-mail can be sent to the blog owner saying a new comment has published.
  • An e-mail can be sent to the person I am replying to if I am in a thread.
  • A copy of that Disqus comment is added to my personal Disqus page.
  • The full copy of that comment goes to aggregators like FriendFeed, Profilactic and SocialThing.
Because the Disqus comments can go in so many places, it is especially important to try and highlight the name of the person I am responding to, give context to the reply and to write in full sentences. This way, the comment, wherever it may be seen, can make sense. When I make a comment in Disqus, I am thinking about the fact it's not just publishing to the blog author and commenter, but to those people who have not yet been part of the conversation. This you can see from my Disqus stream on FriendFeed or my profile on Disqus.

For a good idea of how the world uses Disqus, check FriendFeed's public stream of Disqus comments:

Here's one that has no context:
Svartling:"No sorry. But you can look here: Link"
Here's one that works well:
Svetlana Gladkova: "Very true Shey, I have seen it pretty often that a post from Profy receives, say, 30 likes on FriendFeed and a dozen of comments, and our server stats only shows a dozen of people actually visiting the post to read it and leave a comment on FF (if that is the place they prefer to leave comments). It is annoying when I realize that people only use FF to create some presence for themselves by liking and commenting titles instead of actually consuming the content they pretend to like - I think it is even worse than fragmentation of comments that FF initiates."
As aggregators play an increasing role in how we gather information on the Web, it's now possible for our comments on Digg, StumbleUpon and Google Reader shared items, as well as those from other services, to become part of our lifestream. In addition to Twitter and Disqus, two of the major examples, we should know that every time we say "LOL! I totally agree!" when we could have said, "Wow, thanks for sending me to this YouTube video of Conan O'Brien's Friday monologue. You're right, John McCain is old!", you're losing the opportunity for readers who find you in a different place to be part of the conversation.

Much of the time, one-sided conversations without context are called noise. You can actually reduce noise through carefully crafting the signal around the noise. It takes a little bit extra work, but it's well worth it.