Twitter: Redefining Spam?

Twitter has recently been making strides to cut down on spam on the microblogging service. Twitterspam is an interesting phenomenon, as it turns on its head the usual notion of what constitutes spam.

Traditionally, spam has comprised unsolicited advertisements such as the ones for V1@gra you find in your email inbox every day, or links published in the comment sections of blogs. In short, spam has always been unwanted information pushed by the spammer to the spamee.

Twitter has always made it difficult for unwanted information to be pushed to a user — one must choose to follow another user in order to receive updates from that user. But spam on Twitter has come to mean not just the provision of unwanted information, but the consumption of information as well. Among other things, Twitter defines spam thusly:

Commercial or promotional use of Twitter is allowed. There are many companies who create valuable, opt-in relationships with users on Twitter who want to keep up to date with them. However, if you are following other accounts in order to gain attention to your account or links therein, you may be considered spam. [emphasis in original]

Take a moment to consider what this means: potentially accusing of malfeasance users who are requesting to view what is for all intents and purposes a public stream of information (viewable on the Twitter public timeline and even indexed on Google). It’s not unlike me accusing you of a malicious act for subscribing to this blog. Furthermore, the language is so broad as to be almost absurd; if you don’t want to gain attention for one’s Twitter account, why would you undertake the essentially exhibitionist act of opening one to begin with?

Now, I’ll confess that I’ve a vested interest in all this, since I’ve undertaken activity on Twitter that would probably be considered spamming under this definition. I opened an account for my band, and started following a bunch of people I didn’t know (for the record, hardly anyone I know in meatspace is even on Twitter) who lived in Chicago and/or expressed interest in music. Admittedly, part of my motivation for doing so was to alert those I was following to the existence of my band; however, I also follow their Tweets to find out what’s going on in the city where I live and in a musical genre that I love. How will Twitter decide whether that action constitutes spam or not? By way of an algorithm? Or by means of the human spam wranglers they have begun to hire?

Of course Twitter users should have the right to keep their Tweets out of the hands of those they don’t wish to see them. But Twitter already makes that very easy by providing the ability to make one’s updates secure, requiring approval of all followers. Defining any act of following a Twitter feed as potential spam will only hamstring the social networking potential of Twitter, as users become afraid to reach out to people who don’t already know them. Instituting algorithms to decide the intentions of human beings will only lead to a lot of unhappy users.

Writing for the Web: 5 Guidelines

(I originally posted this on the University of Chicago Law School Electronic Projects Blog; however, I think the principles apply to most websites.)

As the Law School moves closer to our goal of a redesigned and re-engineered website, it’s time for our staff to begin working on content — creating new copy, editing existing pages, and pruning out-of-date text. While many of our staff are experienced and accomplished writers, we sometimes forget that writing for the web is different than writing for other purposes. Numerous studies have indicated that people simply read differently on the web.

To that end, I’ve prepared a brief set of guidelines for staff to consider as we undertake this process. These rules are synthesized from my own experiences on the web as well as from two great books: Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug and Killer Web Content by Gerry McGovern.

1. The reader comes first.

  • Know your audience. Before you begin writing or editing, take a few minutes to think about who will be reading the copy you’re about to work on. Will they be prospective students? Faculty? Alumni? What will they already know about the Law School? What do you need them to know? What will they want to know? (Note that these are three very different questions.)
  • Put yourself in the reader’s shoes. As you are writing or editing, imagine yourself as one of those readers. Ask yourself if what you’ve written so far will help the reader get the information they need and/or want as efficiently as possible.
  • When in doubt, borrow a fresh pair of eyes. Ask a colleague or student worker to look over your copy and point out what isn’t clear at first glance. Then refine accordingly.

2. Brevity + Clarity = Good.

  • Be concise. The more information on a page, the harder it is for the reader to find what he or she is looking for. Usability expert Steve Krug suggests cutting half the words you’ve written, then cutting in half again. While that practice might be extreme, always remember that less is more.
  • Web surfers don’t read — they scan. Our eyes usually skip over long blocks of text as they try to find a relevant needle in a haystack of information. To help your visitors out:
    • Use visual anchors such as bold headings and lists, when appropriate.
    • Keep your paragraphs short and make the first sentence of each paragraph attention-grabbing and relevant to the rest of the paragraph.

3. Make your links a call to action.

  • Links also serve as visual anchors. Readers’ eyes gravitate quickly to links as they scan the page’s content. Make that fact work for you to help them find what they’re searching for. For example, which of the examples below gets you to the downloadable presentation more efficiently?

“A presentation on this topic is also available. To download the presentation, click here.”

“A presentation on this topic is also available.”

4. Web content is never “done.”

  • Remember that whatever you write will have to be maintained and kept up-to-date for a significant period of time. The only thing worse for a reader than not being able to find information is finding wrong or out-of-date information.

5. Don’t reinvent the wheel.

  • Does the content you’re creating exist in another form somewhere else on the site, or somewhere else on the web? Why not just link to already-existing content, instead of creating more content that will require maintenance?

I’m sure more guidelines will emerge as we go through the content-production process. Are there things that you think I’ve left out? As a web-reader, what bothers you about the way content is sometimes presented? What are some examples of well-done web writing?

Social Networking: Why?

When I discuss my work with friends and family, I inevitably wind up talking about the various social networking sites and services on which I’ve established a presence: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, GoodReads, iLike, assorted blogs, and so on. Whether it’s my parents, my wife, or my colleagues at the University of Chicago, many of them ask the same question when the subject of social networking arises:


Why bother putting so much information about myself out into the world? Is it simply exhibitionism that leads one to sign up for a FriendFeed account and broadcast to anyone with an internet connection all the movies they’re renting from Netflix and the photos from their friend’s karaoke party that they’ve posted to Flickr? Or is it a lack of connections to people in realspace? And the hidden subtext to these questions: in a world where identity theft seems to have replaced nuclear war as everyone’s number one fear, isn’t it dangerous to let people know so much about you?

I’ve been thinking a lot about these questions lately. I don’t consider myself an exhibitionist (a ham, perhaps, but not an exhibitionist). Part of the answer is a geeky fascination with new toys (“ooh, this sounds cool!”), and a professional need to keep up with the blistering pace with which new web technologies seem to be generated. When my boss or a freelance client says, “Tell me about,” I need to be prepared. Like Dr. Jekyll, I have little choice but to experiment on myself before I can provide answers to the people who sign the checks.

Moreover, it’s quite possible that my livelihood may eventually depend upon my participation in these networks. One’s prospects for attracting work have always depended a great deal upon whom one knows, and what those people know about one, whether through direct experience or through word of mouth. In the Web 2.0 world, one has the opportunity to exponentially increase the number of people who know about you, as well as to have some measure of control over what they know about you. For information workers, our online identity becomes a brand.

This explains why I also participate in networks that are not obviously career-oriented. Our personality is part of our brand, and becomes a means for people to sort the signal from the noise. If a potential client discovers that we like the same music via my iLike feed, or that we like the same books via GoodReads, that is an anchor that provides them some traction in the swirling stream of information surrounding the potential hires they are considering. If a colleague I’ve never met who works at another university posts a question to Twitter that I am able to answer in a funny or memorable way, they may keep me in mind the next time a position opens at their school. Put in utilitarian terms, social networking is a way to build social capital that may pay dividends down the road.

Project Update: New Law School Sites

Last week, the University of Chicago Law School unveiled two new websites, designed and built by yours truly. One is an online version of our alumni magazine, The Record. The Record Online will contain many of the same stories as the print version of the magazine, but will enhance them with extras like audio and video, as well as the ability for our readers to comment on the stories.
Screenshot of Record Online

The second site is one devoted to a little experiment that we’re running here at the Law School, which we’re calling “Ideas Are Everywhere.” The plan is to send copies of our faculty’s more accessible works (beginning with Richard Posner’s How Judges Think and Martha Nussbaum’s Liberty of Conscience) out into the world, with labels asking people to visit the “Ideas Are Everywhere” website. We’ll ask them to tell us where they found the book (which we’ll track on a Google map), and what they think of the ideas contained therein; we’ll also request that they pass the book on by leaving it in a coffeeshop, on an airplane, or anywhere else an interested party might find it.

screenshot of 'ideas are everywhere'

Certainly, neither of these sites is earth-shaking in regards to its design or functionality. But they each gave me a chance to try something new. The Record Online was my first stab at creating a site using the open-source content management system Drupal, which we’ll be adopting when the Law School launches its new primary website in the fall. It gave me the chance to poke around under the hood and try to wrap my mind around the way Drupal works (though I have much, much more to learn!).

The “Ideas Are Everywhere” site, on the other hand, is built on Typepad (which we also use for our Faculty Blog); the challenge here was to make a site built on a blogging platform feel as little like a blog as possible. Given that I had about a week to get the site up before the first books were to be distributed — projects at universities seem to either drag on interminably or have to be done immediately — I needed to be able to quickly and easily give readers the ability to comment and to subscribe to comment feeds. Using Typepad but removing many of the traditional markers of a blog seemed to be the most time- and cost-efficient way of doing so.

So what do you think? See any room for improvement on these sites?

(portions of this post are cross-posted at the University of Chicago Law School Electronic Projects Blog)

What is a Web Professional?

In the title field of pages on my website, you might have noticed me pitching myself with the vaguest of job titles: “web professional.” If you had nothing better to do, you might even have wondered what that means. And given the number of friends and family who don’t seem to have the foggiest notion of what I do, and my many colleagues at the University who can’t figure out the difference between “the web guy” and “the IT guy,” it seems to be a fair question.

So what exactly do I mean by a “web professional? Quite simply, it’s someone who makes their living building and/or managing websites. Back in the bad old days there was really only one necessary skill set for people who worked on the web (coding HTML) and one job title (“webmaster,” or if they wanted to be fancy, “web designer”). But as websites and the technology that drives them have become more and more complex, the number of skills that one needs to have just to keep one’s ahead above water has ballooned.

As with any growing field, some practitioners become specialists in one area while others take a jack-of-all-trades generalist approach. But there are certain areas that I think every web professional must occasionally dip their toes into, whether they like it or not. The best web professionals will have skills in some or all of these diverse fields:

User Experience Design. The core goal of every website is to allow communication between the website visitor (or user) and the organization or individual behind the website. It is essential that everyone involved in websites have an understanding of how their users (or intended users) interact with websites, and how they can help those users find the information they are looking for (and thereby increase the chance that they will perform the actions that you hope they will take). Improving the user’s experience should be the core of every decision made in the creation and evolution of a website.

At the core of user experience design is information architecture — figuring out how the information you are presenting to the world fits together. This includes things like being able to create intuitive navigational categories and making sure that a user will have all the information needed to complete a given task.

Closely related to information architecture is interface design; this is the “look-and-feel” of the site. A perfectly planned-out information architecture isn’t much use if you can’t provide the user with visual cues about how that architecture works. Interface design should also include a solid grasp of semantic markup and CSS, so that the content can be accessed and understood even by those who can’t see the visual design of the page due to disability or the size of their screen.

Content Production. Skills in writing and copy-editing are extraordinarily important for web professionals. Almost everyone who works on the web will find themselves responsible for writing content at some point, and without quality content even the most well-designed website is essentially useless. Ideally, content should be written in a style suitable for the web; short paragraphs and the appropriate use of lists to make text easily scannable are key.

Programming & Development. Code geeks are what most people tend to think of when they think about web professionals. Developers are the ones that make the web work, inventing new technologies and exploring the limits of existing ones to create exciting web applications. Even if they are not developers, most web professionals wind up having to learn at least a little PHP or some other programming language, if for no other reason than the fact that they have to be able to communicate with their techies and be able to know what is possible and what is not.

Multimedia Production. Audio and video are no longer fun extras; they are expected forms of content delivery for most types of website. Web professionals are increasingly having to learn how to create, edit, and deploy this content.

Octopus Wrangling. Increasingly, organizations’ web presences are no longer confined to their own website. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, iTunes, and other outlets for user-generated content have created the opportunity to have multiple web presences, sending your content slithering out to find interested users without them having to find you (some have called this the “social media starfish,” but I prefer the octopus metaphor — it’s creepier). Today’s web professionals not only have to figure out the best ways to adapt a particular tentacle’s technology to their organization’s marketing strategies, but they also have to keep tabs on a rapidly exploding field and recognize which new social media have staying power and are worth the investment of time and work hours.

The Typographer’s Dilemma

One of the greatest frustrations for those of us working in web design is the incredibly small number of typefaces available for us to work with. Web browsers can only display text in fonts that are already installed on the user’s computer, and since only a handful of fonts are installed on almost every computer the designer’s palette is limited. Of course, people have found ways around this — first by making type as images (which unfortunately renders that type unsearchable and less accessible to those with disabilities), and then by using techniques such as sIFR (which requires the user to have the Flash plug-in installed in their browser).

The holy grail for web designers, then, is the ability to embed font files themselves in a web page so that anyone who views the page can see the text in the intended font, whether or not they have the font installed on their computer (see a proof of concept here). I think it is inevitable that this will happen eventually, but it raises the question of how font designers and type foundries will be paid for the work they do. Right now, as I understand it, they get paid by licensing their fonts to be included in operating systems (Mac, Windows) or software (e.g. Adobe’s applications), or individual users can purchase the rights to purchase a font file and use the typeface in personal or commercial products. But if the fonts are essentially downloadable at any time by anyone for free, where is the incentive for type designers to continue investing the considerable amount of care and time necessary for producing a quality font?

In a lot of ways font designers and type foundries find themselves in situations similar to those of musicians and record companies. Because fonts are digital files they are, like .mp3s, incredibly easy to copy and redistribute (or “pirate,” as the RIAA would have it). It must not be possible to include digital rights management (DRM) measures in font files, or I’m sure the big foundries would have done so already. Instead, font producers try to cover their costs by charging astronomical sums to those who do wish to use them legally (non-designers might be surprised to learn that individual fonts can often cost up to $400), just as prices for legally purchased music have failed to fall appreciably, despite the fact that the cost of distributing that music is approaching zero. Both industries, it seems, are locked into pre-Internet business models that lead only to the frustrated customers — and, as a result, “stolen” files.

How then, might type designers adapt to new distribution models in a way that would both satisfy their customers and make money in the coming age of embeddable fonts? The changing music industry may be a model for the solution, as well as the problem.

  1. Sell fonts as a loss leader for other services. Just as many musicians have had to begin thinking of recorded music not as their primary product, but as a way to promote their other services (touring and performing) and products (merchandise), so font designers could use free versions of their fonts as promotional tools for any number of other services and products, from printing to web design to (in Adobe’s case) software.
  2. Free version/Pro version. Some font designers already do this, allowing free use of “lite” versions of their fonts for personal use, and requiring licenses for commercial use. This is not unlike the recent experiments by Radiohead (with their “In Rainbows” album and Nine Inch Nails (with their album “Ghosts,” among others), where basic .mp3s were made available for free with the hopes that the artists could recoup their costs from more elaborate packagings of the material (hi-fidelity box sets, for example).
  3. License their fonts to browser manufacturers. In the same way that font designers license their products to companies like Adobe, they could strike deals with browser manufacturers to package them in browser software. Unfortunately, I can imagine there might be problems getting licenses for opensource browsers such as Firefox.
  4. Taxes. The most controversial means of font designers recouping costs on illegally shared font files might be something like that proposed to get record companies a share of money from their pirated music files: a tax on internet connections, to be charged by Internet service providers, which could then be distributed among the people who own the legal rights to files (see here and here. There is a significant downside of this plan, in that the logistics of distributing the revenues it generated would probably be quite difficult; however, it would likely be less difficult to implement than the licensing fees charged by performing rights organizations like BMI and ASCAP to live music venues, which allows any performer in those venues to play songs to which they do not own the rights. Moreover, it would both allow web designers and website users to have access to a much greater variety of typefaces and ensure that designers of those typefaces would be compensated for their work.

Presentations: Podcasting & New Media

Late last year, along with Renee Basick, the Interim Director of the Chicago Media Iniatives Group, I did a couple of presentations on podcasting and new media. The first, entitled “An Introduction to Podcasting,” was presented in November to a group of University of Chicago IT folks as part of the University’s “Get IT Together” initiative. The presentation was (gulp) video-recorded, and you can watch it below. In it, Renee and I address the logistical and technological issues surrounding starting a podcasting initiative in a higher education environment, using my experience in starting the CHIASMOS program as a case study. The advance publicity for this presentation may be the first and only time anyone has ever referred to me as an expert in anything.

The second presentation, “Embracing Web 2.0 and New Media Communications,” which was an expanded version of the presentation in November, was presented at the Council for Advancement and Support of Education District V’s annual conference in December. While this one wasn’t recorded, you can check out our slideshow below. If you download the prsentation, you can also read our notes that went along with it (which will make a lot more sense than just looking at the slides).

Review: “The Laws of Simplicity” by John Maeda

John Maeda’s “The Laws of Simplicity” has been popping up on a lot of the best-of-design-books lists I’ve seen lately (see Speak Up, for example). I received a copy for Christmas, and recently buzzed through it during a couple of commutes (Maeda tells us the book was purposefully limited to 100 pages to allow just such quick reading — a prime example of form following function, I suppose).

The book is intended as a primer in the merits of simplicity for not only designers but also technophiles of various stripes and business leaders as well. The wide range of intended audiences also results in a style that is rather jarring for those used to a different style of writing about design — the book often feels like a mix of design criticism, personal anecdotes, and the often-mushy self-help language of “Jonathan Livingston Seagull”-type bromides intended for wealthy executives.

Another consequence of the wide range of audience is that many of the laws are fairly obvious to anyone with a basic grounding in the theory of design — groupings help communicate (Law 2, “Organize”), whitespace is good (Law 6, “Context”) — and they can all be effectively summed up (the ultimate in simplicity) in the final law: “Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious, and adding the meaningful.”

The one idea that did resonate with me in a way that had never struck me before was the idea that simplicity requires complexity (Law 5, “Simplicity and complexity need each other). He uses musical rhythm as an example: the simplest rhythms have their place, but are rendered far more effective in contrast with more complex ones. This is, of course, the very essence of something I am very passionate about: the writing and arranging of pop music. What makes a great pop song is often, the establishment of a pattern which is then suddenly changed (verse, chorus, verse, chorus, BRIDGE), or stood on its ear (building up to a chorus only to go back to the verse).

All told, “The Laws of Simplicity” is an interesting book if for no other reason than that it may give designers something to recommend that their clients read as a justification for why they really don’t need to make the logo bigger; most designers, though, will already have internalized most of these “laws” already.

Project Update: Recent Design Projects at the Law School

While my day job as Manager of Electronic Communications at the University of Chicago Law School tends to lean more toward the tech and information architecture sides of web-work than the design side, I do occasionally get to undertake projects that use as much of the right side of my brain as they do the left (while our upcoming site-wide redesign promises to explode both sides).

Since starting the job in August of last year, I’ve had the opportunity to do a couple of these projects. The highest profile one so far was a redesign of our Faculty Blog, which had been launched in 2005 using a slightly modified version of one of Typepad’s standard issue templates:

When I redesigned it this past fall, my primary goal was to make it more usable — get rid of the gray text on a gray background, add a prominent search box and make it easier for visitors to subscribe to the blog and get to the Law School website. I also separated out the podcast feed and added a widget in the sidebar so people could listen to the podcasts without leaving the blog page.

I was very pleased to see a presenter at the CASE V conference in December hold up the redesigned blog as an example of higher ed institutions “using social media well.”

I also used this design as inspiration for a Flash e-card that the Law School’s Annual Fund asked me to create. Considering it was my first attempt at Flash, I think the card came out pretty well. This was an especially fun project because I had the chance to create the music for the card as well. The music for these things is usually classical music calculated to be almost unnoticeable. I used a collage of samples from Apple’s Garageband program to create a piece that sounds to me a bit like it could have come from “Six Feet Under;” I even had someone ask me where they could purchase a copy.