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Microcontent Migration: Making the Move to New Content Opportunities

Microcontent Migration: Making the Move to New Content Opportunities. Josh Anderson, CPTC. 15-18 May 2022. STC 2022 Society for Technical Communication Conference & Expo. #STCSUmmit.

Earlier this week I enjoyed being in Rosemont, Illinois for my first in-person STC Summit conference. I presented on my team’s microcontent migration of an important company document. My slides are below. Download the PowerPoint file for all the animations.

There is no recording of the presentation. However, you can read the full proceedings paper.

Microcontent Architecture in Action NCCI

On the Road to Boca Raton: Our Microcontent Story at the National Council for Compensation Insurance (NCCI). ConVEx Tempe May 2-4, 2022. Precision Content. Trust in your content. Microcontent in Action.

Earlier this month, I presented at ConVEx 2022 Tempe with Rob Hanna. We spoke about how our company, Precision Content, built a microcontent solution for their complex content situation. If you attended ConVEx 2022 yourself, you can view the recording on the conference website. Our slides are below.

Elon Musk Laughed

Elon Musk laughing

Elon Musk is like a real life Ayn Rand protagonist.

While many critics of Twitter’s inequitable content moderation policies have proposed amending Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act so that Twitter and other social media giants are recognized as publishers rather than platforms, Musk circumvented that less-than-ideal solution entirely. He did the thing that only someone with so much money that it constitutes a superpower could do. He simply bought Twitter.

Come to think of it, maybe that’s not the Ayn Rand-protagonist-approach. Howard Roark dynamited the housing project that strayed from his ideals. Musk, on the other hand, seems sincere about reforming – not blowing up – Twitter.

Among his proposed changes are several easy, low-hanging fruit that ought not to be controversial to anyone. For starters, he wants to “defeat the spam bots.” These spam bots swarm #crypto threads like flies. Worse, I have yet to hear of one that actually followed through on its questionable promise to return double the ETH sent its way. In a space where even the most sincere actors are regularly accused of scamming, the unmistakably fraudulent behavior of spam bots does nothing but harm crypto’s reputation. Good riddance, I say.

Musk has also signaled that he would like to simplify the verification process. I wonder if Musk’s idea for doing so relates to the most intriguing line in his public statement after his bid was accepted: “I also want to make Twitter better than ever by […] authenticating all humans.” To be honest, that line comes across as creepy as when the World Economic Forum salivates over global digital identities.

This is part of the reason why, as interested as I am to see how the Musk era of Twitter unfolds, I still have no plans to return to the platform that I left on acrimonious terms. In an earlier blog post, I described Twitter as a “trauma & outrage information superhighway.” That’s still how I feel about Twitter, and about social media broadly speaking. My problem was not so much with who the CEO was as it was a disdain for the fundamental design philosophy behind these kinds of products. Social media incentivizes users to externalize their locus of control – to seek psychological validation from the retweets, likes, and comments of others, as opposed to from within. This is not a healthy way to go through life. It’s so dysfunctional, in fact, that I predict that a decade or two from now, society will regard social media the same way we now regard cigarettes: addictive and terrible for your health.

Spend enough time on Twitter and you’ll also notice the way it starts influencing you even when you’re not logged in. “We shape our information architectures; thereafter they shape us,” you might say. I think blogger Aaron Z. Lewis described the phenomenon best in this literary vignette:

Before I started posting, my thoughts were more abstract and non-verbal — like blobs of play-doh floating around a zero gravity chamber. I used to spend a lot of time re-molding these amorphous thought forms into Twitter-friendly nuggets. But nowadays my internal monologue speaks tweet by default. Thoughts bubble up from the depths of my psyche readymade for the timeline, already twisted into the pre-programmed shape of a Post. I wonder if the algorithm is starting to interfere with the way my subconscious works. What if it’s filtering out thoughts that it doesn’t think will perform well online?

Source: “Inside the Digital Sensorium” by Aaron Z. Lewis

It took me years to wrest social media’s pernicious control from my life. I quit alcohol before I was able to quit social media. Arguably, I still haven’t quit social media – here I am, talking about it again, right?

Lord forgive me, but I’m back on my 🅱️ullshit: Twitter’s actions during the last election were, to borrow a certain phrase, “deplorable.” Among other things, they forcibly prevented users from sharing information verified as authentic by everyone from federal law enforcement to, belatedly, the New York Times. Information that, as a poll from the Media Research Center would later reveal, would have dissuaded 16% of Biden voters from voting for him had they known about it. That was election interference, full stop. The magnitude and significance of this crime still gets my blood boiling. It’s why I cannot – will not – stop talking about Twitter.

Musk seems to get it: “Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated.” I can’t argue with that first part, although I wonder for how long Twitter will get to be the “digital town square.” Ideally, the digital town square would not be owned by any one entity – public or private. I prefer the approach of something like Twister, a blockchain-based, peer-to-peer microblogging platform that fundamentally can’t be censored. As the last vestiges of legitimacy vanish from the felled titans of Web 2.0, I think it’s inevitable that these kinds of distributed, decentralized solutions will take over. But insofar as we live in a world where plutocrats purchase platforms, we can do a lot worse than Elon Musk. His tenure at Tesla and SpaceX has shown him to be one of the most capable capitalists in American history. Repairing our fractured body politic? That’s got to be at least as tough as sending a man to Mars. I’m not even sure it will be possible, but at least we’ve got a shitposting supergenius on our side.

Is This Half-And-Half Cream Expired?

Half & Half Cream with mug

The day is April 4. I extract the half-and-half cream carton from the work mini-fridge and prepare to unscrew the cap when I notice the expiration date printed at the top. “MA 14.”

Does “MA 14” mean March 14 or May 14?

I stop. Is that March 14 or May 14? Both months begin with the letters “MA.” Both dates seem plausible when I consider that it’s early April. This half-and-half cream might have gone bad two weeks ago or it might have two weeks of quality left in it. Which is it? Is this going to give me a tummy ache or not?

Fortunately, I have not exhausted the backup plan. I have used only a fraction of my power. I unscrew the cap and hold the carton to my nose. Sniff. Seems okay. The half-and-half plops into my coffee.

Afterwards, I ask my co-workers in the office what they think “MA” means. My Canadian co-worker is confident that it’s May.

Quickly I get to wondering about what a clearer abbreviation might have been. “MY,” perhaps? March doesn’t have a “Y” in it. Maybe a number scheme would have worked better – the carton could say the number of the month (“05”) instead of its name. But without context, that digit is simply data, not information. It’s too vague to mean anything. Even if the user knew that number signified a month, it is still probably easier to more quickly recognize a month by its letters than by mentally retrieving the other half of the key-value pair “fifth month.”

Then I remember that being a product of Canada, an officially bilingual country, the month abbreviations surely must have been carefully chosen to fit both English and French spellings. After all, it would have been even more confusing had the carton contained two month abbreviations, one for each language.

Curious, I later poked Google for anything that had been written about Canadian month abbreviations to see if I was right about the labels needing to accommodate both official languages. Yes, turns out that is indeed the case: the two-letter abbreviations were designed to contain only letters that show up in both languages’ spellings of each month.

Two-letter Canadian month abbreviations

“Canadian Month Name Abbreviations,” a minimally styled HTML page from 2014, explores the topic in a satisfying level of detail. The author ruminates on other possible abbreviations for each month and realizes, as I begrudgingly did, that “MA” was literally the only possible option for May given the constraints on the naming conventions for this information.

The author reverse-engineers the information architecture in detail:

The abbreviation starts with the first letter of the English or French name. (By chance, English and French always agree on the first letter. Not true with, for example, English and Spanish: January/enero.)

The second letter has to be in both the English name and the French name. Consider the month April/avril. It can’t abbreviate as “AP”, because there’s no “P” in “avril”, and it can’t abbreviate as “AV” because there’s no “V” in “April”. But both “April” and “avril” have “L” in common, so they can (and do) abbreviate as “AL”. (The other possible solutions: “AI” and “AR”.)

As a user of the half-and-half, “sniffing” for information about the expiration date of the product, this particular labelling scheme failed me. I was unable to discern meaning from the two letters I was provided. And yet, my Canadian colleague could immediately tell what that abbreviation meant. The fact that the two-letter code must accommodate both English and French was a “a-ha” moment to me, a recent immigrant from the United States, but it was obvious to her. A mere abbreviation on a carton reminded me that I was a foreigner.

However, given the bilingual constraints of this labelling scheme, I think the information architects at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency did the best they could given what they had to work with. I put this new information into the back of my mind, and the half-and-half carton into the back of the office mini-fridge.

I Thought It Meant “Dis I Like”

Thumbs down

It’s been a little over a month since YouTube removed public dislike counts on all videos.

Soon after this pronouncement, I noticed an interesting phenomenon begin to occur in the comments sections of YouTube videos. Users started making their own “dislike buttons.”

Comment saying "heres a dislike button for you guys. go wild"

Other users simply left one word comments that said… you guessed it.

A series of comments saying "dislike"

As an information architect, I’m fascinated by this kind of push-and-pull dynamic between the top-down directives of the platform and the bottom-up behavior of the users. Clearly the users of YouTube still want a way to publicly express their dislike of a video, as evidenced by the comments section workarounds they have come up with.

In a video accompanying the blog post, Matt Koval, Creator Liaison for YouTube, describes this change as mitigating a “whole other use” for disliking a video, which is to harass the creator of the video through something YouTube calls “dislike attacks.” At what point does a sincere dislike become an “attack” dislike? Your guess is as good as mine.

Typing out the word “dislike” is certainly a “whole other use” for a comments section. Will that be the next user forum to get gutted? I have to say, if curtailing harassment was the goal of this change, it’s utterly baffling why the comments section wouldn’t have been the first feature to be axed. I genuinely wonder if YouTube will eventually turn comments into some sort of one-way function where users can leave a comment that only the creator will be able to read, much like those suggestion boxes where one drops a folded up slip of paper into what feels like a void.

A series of boxes
Pictured: The future dynamic of the YouTube comments section?

I also found it amusing that one of the reasons Koval names for the dislike count being “a big problem” is because “half of YouTube’s mission is to give everyone a voice.” How is removing one of the key mechanisms for interaction between users anything but the precise opposite of that mission?

Besides, creators can still create their own commentary videos about why they dislike something. Surely several minutes worth of spoken commentary (plus the view and like counts of said commentary) has at least as much potential to “harass” as a thumbs down?

Indeed, there’s been no shortage of commentary from prolific, established YouTube creators about why this move makes little sense and worsens the user experience of the platform. One of the best I’ve seen is from Marques Brownlee:

One of the key points Brownlee makes is that the dislike count is not merely that—it is also one of two necessary halves of a like/dislike ratio that provides “the immediately glanceable piece of information that I can look at when I arrive at a video to know if it’s going to be worth my time.” Neutering dislikes also neuters likes.

(Maybe there’s a corollary to that famous IA mantra about “the creative organization of information”. Something like, “The selective destruction of information destroys other information”?)

If I see that a video has 3,000,000+ views and 27,000 likes, what does that mean? Is that… good? Is that a particularly well-received video? It’s widely acknowledged that the likes-to-views ratio on YouTube has always been low (I’ve seen several sources put it at 4:100 on average). Most users only watch the video and leave as soon as it’s done, even if it’s a video they enjoyed. I can’t assume that a like count that’s far below a view count is necessarily “bad.” The entire like/dislike mechanic is effectively meaningless to me now, save for whatever unseen, mysterious influence my choice might have on “the algorithm.”

Compare the image on the left to the image on the right. Which UI provides the user with the most helpful information in the shortest amount of time?

A side by side comparison of the same YouTube video. On the left is 27K likes. On the right is 27K likes, 498K dislikes.
Which UI provides the user with the most helpful information in the shortest amount of time?

If a user clicks on, say, a how-to video (or perhaps a video about COVID-19) and immediately sees a disproportionate number of dislikes, that’s an immediate indicator that the video is suspect—and not necessarily because the information is malicious or the creator is untrustworthy. It might simply be that the information is out of date, for example. But now the user will need to either sift through YouTube’s notorious comments section for a clue as to the general reception of the video (which seems less than ideal if the goal is to decrease harassment) or they will need to waste time watching more of the video than they otherwise would have because they need to figure out for themselves whether it’s worthwhile.

Hm, I think I may have hit on something. One of the side effects of this change is that a greater number of YouTube videos will attract lengthier watch times. That’s fantastic from the perspective of YouTube, their advertisers, and their shareholders, who want to be assured by perpetually climbing eyes-on-the-screen metrics. But from the perspective of YouTube users? Not so much. Think of it this way: if I wanted to maximize the time users spend on a piece of written content trying to find the information they’re looking for, I could remove all the headers and equalize the formatting. That would certainly boost time-on-page, but would it help usability? What would that say about my priorities as an information architect?

Information architecture is a balancing act between the business needs of stakeholders and the desires of users. Unfortunately, the decision of YouTube to remove the public dislike count has to be one of the most lopsided moves I’ve seen from a major platform in a long time. It is entirely in favor of the platform at the expense of the creators and users. I say this confidently because I quite literally have not seen a single actual YouTube creator speak out in favor of this decision. To quote Jawed Karim, YouTube co-founder and star of the first video ever uploaded to the platform:

Calling the removal of dislikes a good thing for creators cannot be done without conflict by someone holding the title of “YouTube’s Creator Liaison”. We know this because there exists not a single YouTube Creator who thinks removing dislikes is a good idea—for YouTube or for Creators.

Why would YouTube make this universally disliked change? There is a reason, but it’s not a good one, and not one that will be publicly disclosed. Instead, there will be references to various studies. Studies that apparently contradict the common sense of every YouTuber.

The ability to easily and quickly identify bad content is an essential feature of a user-generated content platform. Why? Because not all user-generated content is good. It can’t be. In fact, most of it is not good. And that’s OK. The idea was never that all content is good. The idea WAS, however, that among the flood of content, there are great creations waiting to be exposed. And for that to happen, the stuff that’s not great has to fall by the side as quickly as possible.

The process works, and there’s a name for it: the wisdom of the crowds. The process breaks when the platform interferes with it. Then, the platform invariably declines. Does YouTube want to become a place where everything is mediocre? Because nothing can be great if nothing is bad.

In business, there’s only one thing more important than “Make it better.” And that’s “Don’t fuck it up.”

I’ll take a guess as to the reason: I think this change is to appease the “large” creators, despite YouTube’s insistence to the opposite. No big-name movie, music, or game studio enjoys seeing their videos added ignominiously to a list of most-disliked YouTube videos. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that they are probably less inclined to funnel marketing budgets towards platforms that have humiliated them. I’m not the first to posit this, although some other creators lend this idea less credence than I do, arguing that even the most thoroughly embarrassed brands see all press as good press. My retort: even if brands are willing to tolerate the short-term sting of shame, other entities might be less so. Some of those entities might even be closer to home than you realize.

Fortunately, there does exist a way to return the YouTube dislike counter: I’ve installed the Chrome extension. I would encourage any of my fellow daily YouTube viewers who are annoyed by this change to do the same. Judging from the resurfaced dislike counter on YouTube’s pronouncement video (pictured above), I can tell there are at least several hundreds of thousands of you.

If YouTube is a key contributor to what Richard Saul Wurman described in 1997 as the “tsunami of data that is crashing onto the beaches of the civilized world,” removing one of the mechanisms for people to make sense of that data—the public dislike count—is analogous to smashing the beacon of the lighthouse on that beach.

To those out there who agree with YouTube’s decision, I ask the following questions in full sincerity:

  • Would you support removing the ability for users to give one-star reviews on sites such as Etsy, Yelp, or Amazon in order to protect the mental health of merchants?
  • Would you support the criminalization of the Better Business Bureau and similar consumer protection nonprofits in order to protect businesses from possible targeted harassment?
  • Would you support the abolition of public election result data in order to protect defeated candidates from embarrassment?

For the sake of usability, transparency, and democracy, I hope your answers to those questions are a big, fat 👎.

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