Clarity in any environment takes energy, devotion and focus. On the Web, in a cyberspace with many intertwingled signals competing for our attention even more so. As David Amerland once shared:
In a digital environment we are constantly switching between codes and, cultures, compensating the lack context or simply looking to decipher unknown threads of narrative and weave them into our own.
I think it is more than just trying to have clarity in communication. If we conceive of the Web as a purely communicative means, then learning to communicate with clarity is a digital skill set and we should all became digital natives in that.
Minding the digital context is easily said than done
Knowing all of the above, I found myself in the exact opposite scenario.
What happened was that in my attempt to communicate the importance, the universal value and the practical implications the Semantic Web to my students in the web writing course I am teaching at FH Johanneum this year, I kind of messed up.
Thinking about how exactly I did that, I realized I had made 4 classic mistakes in communication. I consider them totally relevant to web writing and the mistakes we all make when conceiving of, creating and sharing a digital texts on the Web.
The slides from my lesson are here:
In hindsight they are not that entangled. Yet, from the poll I made after the lecture, it appeared that some things remained unclear in the students’ minds.
So, here I wanted to share what I learned, teaching.
4 (web writing) communication mistakes
Assuming that your audience knows what you are talking about
This creates a gap. Even a void. A chasm, about which John Peters talks eloquently in “Speaking Into the Air”:
“To put it a bit archly, dialogue may simply be two people taking turns broadcasting at each other”.
For me personally this was very close to Steven Pinker’s Curse of Knowledge. You know something and you are cursed to believe that this is obvious to the other. It is not.
Remedy: Rehearse. Explain in one word. Then in one sentence. Or in brackets. Simply. Mind the communication scenario.
Or in John Peter’s words:
“The other, not the self, should be the centre of whatever “communication” might mean”
Trying to explain it all in one sitting
Cramming all the things we have learned throughout the years in several sentences or in a paragraph is tempting, yet so confusing to the person on the other side of your idea. Things need time and space to be explained. They also need rhythm and repetitiveness.
Remedy: Build ecosystems. Don’t explain it all in once. Do it gradually. Rome was not built in a day.
Assuming that your audience is homogenous
The one-to-many scenario is a complex dynamics of the person before the audience and the person in the audience. For sure there is no formula for that except that one can avoid the mistake to think about the audience as one homogenous whole. Rather it is a sea of different minds, perspectives and experiences.
Remedy: I believe “onion” content might make the “chasm” in the one-to-many communication scenario a bit better. By “onion” I mean layered content – concepts built in each other, like the Russian doll “Matreshka”. There is one core point which gets bigger and bigger by the enlarged context you gradually add to it.
Placing the focus on the subject rather than on the perceived gain for the recipient of the message
I recently found a cool way of seeing how we navigate the Web. It is through the perspective of information foraging. And this came with a handy formula:
Information foraging is the fundamental theory of how people navigate on the web to satisfy an information need. It essentially says that, when users have a certain information goal, they assess the information that they can extract from any candidate source of information relative to the cost involved in extracting that information and choose one or several candidate sources so that they maximize the ratio:
Rate of gain = Information value / Cost associated with obtaining that information
Remedy: Before communicating anything, think about why it is important and why would anyone choose to choose you. [Remember, they have a formula! :)]
And all of a sudden: The Semantic Web (again :))
This sense of unfulfilled mission to communicate what I have to say, and not only to communicate it but to make sure the message about the intersection between the Semantic Web, SEO and content gets accepted and internalized, urged me to try again.
With a visual:
This time the message might go through. And if it doesn’t maybe it wasn’t meant to. And I am in peace with that, as barriers to understanding are also a part of the otherwise never-ending conversation on the increasingly semantic Web :-)