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How Do We Make Blogs More User-Friendly?

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Have you read the Catalyst Group study about blog usability called Net Rage? (PDF) If not, you should.

Those of us who spend inordinate amounts of time using, evangelizing, and otherwise doting over these things seem to forget (at least I do) that most people still don’t have a clue as to what a blog is or how they should react to it. In fact, most people probably couldn’t care less. They just want information.

David Coursey has written an op-ed about the Catalyst Group’s study and provides an executive summary of the findings. I won’t take time to outline the bullet points here since you can read his article to see them. Nevertheless it’s apparent, despite the small sample the Catalyst Group used, that there is a vast chasm between the initiated and the uninitiated. It makes people who blog sound almost like a cult!

My point in this post is to ask the question, how can we make blogs more user-friendly? Better yet, how can we initiate the uninitiated to a point where we create an environment in which blogs have ubiquity? Should we even try?

Months ago, when doing a series on the future of blogging, Doc Searls told me blogs are “not mainstream, and most people aren’t reading blogs yet. But race car driving, farming and espressos aren’t mainstream either, and all matter to our culture.”

If what Doc says still holds true, and the Catalyst Group report seems to indicate that it does, how can we change that perception? Do we even need to? Let me offer a couple of ideas.

First, we could go on a massive educational campaign to teach people what blogs are, what purpose they seek to serve, and how to understand the nomenclature. (I even know some bloggers who haven’t a clue what a trackback is!) That’s one of the things I try to do at Allbusiness.com with my Why Blog? blog.

Another approach may be to let knowledge about blogs propogate on its own. The new internet is becoming much more peer-to-peer and it stands to reason that even the most nascent of internet users will eventually come around. After all, according to Technorati, more blogs are being created each day – some 80,000 – than existed even a couple of years ago.

I tend to agree with a conjecture made in another of Coursey’s columns where he states that blogs (along with RSS and podcasts) will become so melded into the warf and woof of the internet that these odd sounding names won’t really be of consequence. Though the names lose their ubiquity, the technology won’t. Blogs become just another form of content publishing, albeit one with a certain “style” and set of unique features. RSS becomes simply a way to subscribe to content and organize the web. Podcasts become a way to transmit audio/video.

Speaking from a purely technological standpoint, that’s what they already do. It’s just that we’ve become our own worst enemies by putting so much emphasis on the nomenclature, we’ve ostracized ourselves from the average internet user. (Maybe we ARE a cult!)

Coursey intimates that the term RSS will be replaced with the word “subscribe.” Blog “posts” will be called “articles” and so on. It is the technology that’s important, and how well it serves mankind, not what you call it.

This goes back to my assertion that we early adopters get very giddy about new tech toys, and things like blogs, RSS, podcasts and wikis certainly fire our jets. But to the “common man” the real issue is not what you call these tools, but how well they serve to scratch an itch by providing needed information.

Thanks to the likes of Yahoo! and MSN, this technology is becoming accessible and recognizable so maybe I’m fretting over nothing. It takes time for transition to occur. But, that transition won’t be so much in the direction of people adapting themselves to the technology as the technology adapting itself to people. (Does that make sense?)

One of the best examples of this is what I see happening with the new blog “channels.” Take for example Allbusiness.com. They have a well-established, highly-trafficked website that provides great value to readers, and has for years without the presence of blogs. Now they’ve incorporated a blog channel into the overall architecture of the site and brought on a team of experts to, in blog-style, provide more useful information. Visitors to the site see the term “blogs” incorporated into the main navigation so they gain some familiarity with it.

I bet if you ask the average Allbusiness.com reader, however, they really don’t care what you call the things. The real issue is not the form but the function of being providing even more valuable content to an already content-rich website. I guarantee you most of the users of that site don’t know that we call our entries “posts.” They probably think of them as articles or columns. Essentially, that’s what they are, just written in a more punchy, concise, personable style.

(Thinking about this whole meme, it dawns on me that my role at Allbusiness is to serve as a blog evangelist and teacher, helping people understand what blogs are all about. Gulp!)

To sum up this already lengthy post (er, article…er, column), let me cite some of Coursey’s more salient points. He says:

  • The whole RSS/XML thing is way too confusing, and it will need to be replaced by some other nomenclature if it is to become ubiquitous.
  • I am expecting blogs (and Podcasts, for that matter) to be all the rage until some moment when, almost as though a switch had been flipped, they don’t seem so exciting anymore.
  • Blogs and “traditional” media will share so much DNA that whatever differences once existed will no longer be apparent.
  • What may end up differentiating blogs from traditional Web media won’t be technology as much as style.
  • Successful blogs will be about something, just like successful magazines, newsletters, columns and other written media.

Don’t get me wrong, I love everything about blogs, their search-engine friendliness, their “shoot-from-the-hip” spontaneity, their world “live” web feel, and the ease with which they allow anyone to publish their thoughts and ideas instantly. However, thinking long-term, it makes sense to assume that blogs, RSS, and podcasts will become blended into the overall matrix of online content. Let’s keep the main thing the main thing and express a willingness to admit that the usefulness of the technology is what’s really important, not what we call it.

Edited: LH

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About Paul Chaney

  • I’ve been interested in ModBlogs’ offering of a “by-invitation-only” variation blog where ~6-10 (+or-) blogers can function much like a telephone “party line”, or “conference call” discussing items of mutual interest or commonality of goals, building on each input, and creating an automatic hard copy, like minutes of a face-to-face meeting. QUESTION: is this variation available on other blog providers? Chuck99