ZCom And the Internet I
By Michael Albert at Sep 06, 2010
A Z Writer recently emailed me to say he really liked the new ZMobile (let's call it ZEasy) version of the site so much he wanted to make it his home page on his desktop machine.
I wrote back that I too used ZEasy as my primary way of accessing the site when traveling - but not on my desktop. He could make ZEasy his home page, even on his desktop, the same way he would any other web page.
The Writer replied that he instead wanted to make his home page the page you see when you click ZNet/ZMag on the ZEasy top page, and he hadn't been able to do that. The page he wanted, for those who haven't tried it yet, has links to the most recent articles from ZNet and ZMag, but has no links for blogs, commentaries, videos, comments, notices, or other parts of the site, though these are accessible from the ZEasy top page, which he wanted to bypass. I had to tell our Writer that for technical reasons the only way users can make a mobile page their home page, was to opt for the full mobile top page.
The Writer added that in his view we should make ZEasy the default that everyone sees as the whole site. We should put a link at the bottom users can click to see the old top page if they want, but people should automatically see the site with less clutter.
I asked the Writer what "clutter" he wanted to help everyone avoid. He said pictures of people and of anything at all, were clutter. Links to blogs, commentaries, comments, and videos were clutter. Links to anything old were clutter. Announcements were clutter. Tools for interaction with users were clutter. Menus to access all that were clutter.
He wrote that he was embarrassed to say it, but he couldn't handle much more then a simple list or links, and he added that there were probably lots of folks like him. He would even like the list of links short, with a couple of items picked out as special and made larger than the rest.
I pointed out that his approach would mean no user would know there was a Sustainer program unless they went digging for it, and ditto for much else the site offers, including announcements of new features, other content, and interactive features, and that hiding all this would be the financial ruin of the site, and, as well, would mean as a default that users would never know there was anything beyond current content.
The Writer replied that he understood, but couldn't we find a financial alternative - and in his view diminished visibility for most stuff was not a problem, but a benefit - after all, it meant less clutter.
What did I make of this, beyond my financial concerns?
Of course each user has certain content they are highly interested in and that they typically leap toward. Each user also has content they don't much care about, but don't find a problem. And finally each user has some content they not only don't leap at, or don't mind, but consider clutter that just taking into account their own ease of use, they would prefer gone. It is true of me, and probably everyone.
So our writer's request morphs into, what if we could deliver to each user exactly what he or she most often wants and never anything felt by that user to be clutter. Wouldn't that be good?
Well, in fact, we can already do that. Any Writer or Sustainer can change the top page to have whatever content they want on their own custom version of the site, and if we could afford it, we would let Free Members customize the site too.
But now I have to admit that we hope that ZCom-ers do not use customization to curb the flow of content so they see nothing contrary to their main interests.
Suppose Joey likes international relations but not feminist content. Billy likes feminist but not international relations content. To give users what they want and be sure they never frown - we would want to give Joey and Billy their priority content and hide from them whatever they don't want. In fact, however, our actual desire is almost exactly opposite that. We want to deliver the content Joey and Billy want, of course, but at the same time we want to raise the odds they will each read content of the sort they would usually ignore. More, we even see the latter goal as in many respects more important than the former.
We want Joey who reads international overwhelmingly, to broaden and pay attention to feminist content too. We want Billy who reads feminist content overwhelmingly, to broaden and pay attention to international content too. Not every Joey every time, and not every Billy every time, but some of each, and sometimes. And if you add economic, political, cultural, and ecological focuses to our priority list - you start to see our conundrum. We want to inspire and facilitate wide and not narrow interests.
More, some users don't incline toward vision and strategy, but only toward analysis of current relations. Other users mostly want vision and strategy and little or no current analysis. We want to give each their preferred content, of course, but the other content too. We want to provide both analysis and also vision and strategy and help folks develop connections to both. And then there is reading or viewing content versus commenting on content, blogging, etc. Again, we want people to diversify and broaden, not to specialize in one aspect or the other. We want to inspire and help people to experiment with what is not their automatic inclination.
What about the web's axiom to give users what users want?
If we sought a maximum number of users it would make sense to deliver content that would make the largest number of prospective users smile and that would make few if any prospective users frown. If we could earmark delivery even more, then we might even want to deliver to each individual user the content that would make that user smile most and not frown at all. If the goal is seeking maximum users, our writer urging us to remove anything anyone might feel to be clutter, has a good point.
Many users may like most material they are already easily able to see elsewhere on many other sites, so that giving it to them doesn't add anything. But with giving users what they want guiding us, being redundant shouldn't deter us. If we have as our aim maximizing number of users, we shouldn't care if we are merely shifting where they view content that they could see elsewhere.
Many users may feel most comfortable with content that conveys what they largely already know. Again, if our aim is only to attract and retain most users, and if providing content users already agree with works to that end, then we shouldn't care if users aren't being challenged and learning much from the site. We should just care about attracting them and retaining them.
You may think I am going to say that in fact attracting and retaining steadily more people depends on challenging them, on giving them content and options beyond what they expect and are inclined toward, and on giving them tools, etc. Well, maybe it does - and I admit I like to think it does - and we of course know that at a minimum it certainly does for some folks. But the point is, what if our ZEasy advocating writer is correct that overall we would get and retain more users with a "clutter minimizing" approach than we get and retain with our current approach? Would we then switch?
We want to attract and retain users, of course, but only as a means to creating social change and thus in a way that enhances the likelihood that they will become involved in or otherwise support efforts at creating social change, as well as become steadily better equipped to do so. We think that that aim implies we should not switch to a more familiar sort of site.
Can we make this logic really graphic?
Suppose ZCom could have a half a million people regularly accessing the site, saying they love it, etc., but only seeing ideas they already know and like, though in doing so they feel reassured and maybe strengthened in their ability to talk about those familiar ideas. We have some anti war, some justice, etc. Suppose to attain that wide user level, the top page includes much less content than it has now, presents the most likable headlines and descriptions much more prominently than others it offers, hides away the advanced functionality, etc. - perhaps it even becomes ZEasy.
In contrast, suppose we could have one fifth that number of total users, and of course they get the material they are most interested in, but they also get a prominent dose of content that we feel is very important to social change including considerable content they would not see otherwise, even including content they would initially deem clutter.
Which scenario is preferable?
If the goal is to maximize users, clearly the first scenario is better. If the goal is changing society - then which approach is better is not so clear.
Suppose we consider as well adding prominent material on vision and strategy and having prominent means of participating in serious ways, and we again ask which scenario is better - the stripped down ZEasy or the full ZCom?
Some people might vote for the ZEasy approach that attracts and retains more people (supposing it would do that) - but I would vote for the ZFull approach that has perhaps fewer people (supposing it did get fewer) - and I would, for irony's sake, quote Lenin for perhaps the first and last time of my life, "better fewer but better," not least because delivering better to fewer is a path to delivering better to more.
Thus, in thinking about the Writer's comment, I found I had three problems with the suggestion that the pared down mobile site should become the desktop site.
(1) Z needs financial revenues and the scaled back approach would drastically obstruct gaining them. Goodbye ZNet, ZVideo, ZMI, and ZMagazine, unless someone picked up the financial loss.
(2) A site seriously seeking social change should not only augment and ratify what the user already believes and pursues, it should challenge, broaden, and deepen other areas of attention that don't come so naturally to the user. It should not only convey data, but also actively prod thought and engagement. It should offer analysis, but also vision and strategy. It should present, but also engage, provide information, but also tools. Since most users never know about content not explicitly linked from a site's top page, if we have something we want folks to know about and access, links from the top page are key.
(3) In any event, regardless of implications for funds and for challenging and inspiring users, how can any one person's taste sensibly guide what is delivered to all folks - and once we realize that different folks have different priorities, isn't the right way to have users get what they want to make clear everything that is there, and to provide means for the user to select what they want - and then, as well, perhaps even customization features?