Notes Information Apocalypse

Pandora's Alertbox

Write Articles, Not Blog Postings could be one of the most arrogant and ineffably crude pieces of writing that Jacob Nielsen has ever published.

He starts with reasonable and valid advice: thorough, well edited articles have much greater value than rapidly written “throwaway” blog postings. He then uses this advice to construct a garbled and fragmentary treatise involving “standard deviations and utility functions” which makes a complete mockery of the whole idea. I was rubbing my eyes and shaking my head at first, wondering if I had stumbled across an elaborate parody along the lines of Abject Oriented Programming. Surely not?</p>

Nielsen has gained his reputation from being a hard-nosed proponent of testing design and usability assumptions on audiences using various analysis techniques. Some of these techniques could indeed be considered empirical, drawing precise statistical conclusions from aggregated data. So if there is a solid empirical foundation to Nielsen's expertise, what should we make of this particular foray into statistical reasoning?

We can measure expertise as some combination of intelligence, education, experience, correct methodology, professionalism (say, avoiding profanities and politics), and willingness to be frank. The exact metric doesn't matter here; let's just assume there's a way to quantify how good people are within their field. The metric probably follows a normal distribution [...]

Probably what? How can we interpret this information as factually correct if the "exact metric doesn't matter"? Why should we assume such a degree of homogeneity across a massive range of specialties, markets and disciplines? Nowhere in this article does Nielsen explain or justify any of the figures or metrics he is using, but he has no problem throwing about weighty visual charts that "prove" his point. Unfortunately for an absolutist, he has absolutely no realistic quantification for what he describes as "quality". Nobody does. It's simply not possible to objectively measure or compare, because quality is not a discrete metric, it’s a yes/no/maybe based on aesthetic and intuitive interpretation. Even if there was a factual basis for measuring professional expertise as he describes, it would still be immensely problematic to verify a particular assessment of value based on "quality" of writing.

Reputation and eloquence are not considered valuable by Nielsen, but they are every bit as important as expertise for businesses who are considering how to develop their online presence. By ignoring the social facets of brand identity and the interplay of conversations, audiences, motivations, and respect, Nielsen is constructing a false utopia of the web populated with "expert specialists" communicating in a measurable fashion to a niche marketplace of information foraging mole-rat consumers. Lurking behind this is the implicit claim that he knows what works online, that his strategy will succeed where others will fail.

His biggest failure here is his inability to establish a clear purpose and target for his advice, and as a result, his one-size-fits-all strategy ends up being an embarrassing jumble of bad marketing and faulty statistics. He starts out talking about the problem of how "worse" non-expert posts can be elevated to top status in the blogosphere, and ends up pontificating about measurable value when selling expert focused online content. Comprendez vous? I certainly didn't. While Nielsen's advice may very well pertain to flogging off whitepapers, this is a completely different business goal from blogging, which is what the article purports to be about.

Companies and experts should develop an online strategy based on their own perceptions of how they want to interact with their audience. The greatest irony here is that Nielsen's article would have made much more sense if it was shortened to 300 words or so.