The ENGINE Blog

Three Best Things 4/26/10 - 5/2/10

Thing: The Revenge of the Brands: How corporate America turned Naomi Klein’s anti-branding manifesto on its head from Reason. Intended as an anti-marketing call-to-arms, Naomi Klein’s No Logo has actually wound up as the blueprint for modern branding. When corporations are tripping over themselves to seem as uncorporate as possible, what’s left to subvert, anyway? Reason argues that, for Klein, “Writing about branding was only an excuse to talk about politics,” which explains her present lack of satisfaction at seeing corporate America playing by her rules. ELSEWHERE IN BRANDING: Ice Cube on co-opting the Los Angeles Raiders brand by force in the early ’90s.

Thing: Riders on the Storm by the New York Times. David Brooks, fresh off a 15-minute break spent dumping on Sandra Bullock for being the victim of infidelity, gets back to work by linking to some studies that declare internet users to be surprisingly open-minded clickers. “People who spend time on the most liberal sites are more likely to go to foxnews.com than average Internet users,” and vice versa. Sure, most of that cross-traffic can be chalked up to troll exchanges, but it’s reassuring to think more and more people might be finding common ground every day simply by being adventurous surfers. ELSEWHERE IN VIEWPOINTS: Design for the First World, a new blog that flips the “Design will save the world” notion — the idea that well-meaning while perhaps patronizing designers can solve developing-world problems just by being great designers who care really hard. DFTFW is soliciting solutions from developing-nation designers for first-world problems like obesity or having nothing to whine to Twitter about.

THING: Super Mario Bros Crossover via Rock Paper Shotgun. You can play through Super Mario Bros, warps and all, as Mega Man, Link, Metroid person, Castlevania man, or Contra guy. This is all you need to know. ELSEWHERE IN RETRO: The Industrialization of Traffic: Why Bicycles Are Faster Than Cars by No Tech Magazine.

BONUS!

You’ve seen parkour videos before, and some of them were ok, but none of them were as good as this one is:

Apparently Stones Are for Drinking Now [Three Best Things 4/19/10 - 4/25/10]

Thing: Don’t throw that out! Editing like it’s paper destroys journalistic value by Jonathan Stray.

Thing: What’s in a Nickname? In Spirits World, an Implied Relationship by Ad Age. Coke. Jack (and Coke). VW Bug. Mickey D’s. Keys to the Beemer. The Big Apple, ATL, what happens in Vegas. A Louis bag and a pair of Chucks. Some brands have earned nicknames from their patrons the old-fashioned way, but the new marketing thing is to try and force nicknames on people, like this is first grade recess and Brand X is telling us we have to call it Musclebutt The Impossible because it climbed up the slide backwards woooooooo.

Corporations have successfully incorporated nicknames before, but only after the nicknames arose organically. Federal Express wouldn’t have changed its name to FedEx if everyone hadn’t already been calling it FedEx for years. Same story with the former Kentucky Fried Chicken. America Online. The obvious difference between these and Keystone Light trying to get you to call it Stones is FedEx and KFC and AOL didn’t force the change, as if they’re Brand Jœhanndreus X deciding to go by its middle name during its sophomore year because college girls seem to like weird names.

Who knows; maybe it’ll work. Seems more like they’re trying to fit in with Sam, the Captain, Heiny, Jager, Bud, Maker’s, PBR, Henny, and Natty. Also we’ve decided we want you guys to start calling us Eng.

Thing: As Australian comedy trio Axis of Awesome demonstrates, all you need to do to write a hit song is use the four-chord progression that’s used in every other hit song. Or just about. Medley us: [NSFW: Three cusses.]

Bonus Bonus Bonus

Blog Comments Are Pointless: Why Can't a Blog Post Be a Living Document?

Short: Bloggers should take advantage of their comment sections by editing posts for clarity. If readers have been confused so far, take a minute to prevent future readers from also being confused. Note the change and thank your commenters!

Long: If something’s wrong on Wikipedia, we fix it. Others review our change, the edit is credited, and then the problem is solved. But if something’s wrong in a blog post, we make a comment. Others read our comment, the author defends the post, and the problem remains.

Why do blog posts have to be static documents?

First, we have a blog post titled 36 SEO Myths That Won’t Die But Need To, written by Stephen Spencer. It’s a good post; I’m sure we could find a more fitting example of the phenomenon at hand, but we don’t really need to. The post’s content is obvious from its title. It’s about popular SEO misconceptions. A lot of it is stuff we tell people all the time — meta tags, h1 tag trickery, and keyword density are all obsolete, for instance, and targeted traffic is more important than winning results page rank fights.

But this post gets really interesting once we read the comments. As professional nerds, these commenters are falling over themselves to find all the spots in the post where Spencer is wrong. Or, more accurately, technically wrong. Reading the post, it’s clear he knows his stuff and has expressed his knowledge in a Good Enough manner, but he left himself open for commenters to pounce. We could say they’re being pedantic and just overeager to outfox the author at his own game. Except, the things they’re pointing out aren’t supposed holes in his logic, but a few specific poorly phrased arguments. Most of Spencer’s points are well-written, but we can see why his commenters are jumping on certain items.

#14, “It’s important for your rankings that you update your home page frequently (e.g. daily.),” is not a myth — it’s true, as many commenters scramble to argue (FIRST!). Fresh content helps a page rank well, whether some high-ranking pages update infrequently or not. If a stale page outranks fresh pages then there are other factors, such as links or domain maturity, that are having a bigger sway. Many commenters offer this rebuttal, and they’re all right. After reading their objections, Spencer could’ve said “Allright, I’ll edit #14 to clarify. #14 is now tempered with the qualification that a page doesn’t ALWAYS need fresh content. Thanks for pointing that out, commenters X, Y, and Z.” But he didn’t — instead, he clarified in the comments — because that’s how the institution known as The Blog Post works, for whatever reason. Why?

Every author knows the terrible feeling of working on something and then finding people aren’t getting it. When your article is in print, there’s nothing you can do to fix it. But that’s the beauty of the web. You can restate, and you should restate, while thanking those who inspired you to.

A blog author shouldn’t look at a churning comment section and see stubborn dissenters. He or she should see peer review.

Think about it — academics tear apart each other’s arguments all the time. That’s how arguments become excellent! Very, very few published authors of any stripe have ever written a manuscript and squirted it straight into the public without any sort of peer review.

I’m not suggesting that Search Engine Land has no editors or that Spencer didn’t have colleagues look over his post beforehand. But he did likely run it past experts who knew him and knew what he meant to say. And internal, institutional review by fellow experts is one thing — it’s the best way to make sure your facts line up and so forth. But the whole heart and soul of the internet is the public perspective — the blogger needs the public’s understanding. That’s what the blogger needs to take advantage of by letting commenters weigh in with an actual impact on the document. You don’t see a movie producer responding to focus groups with “No, you’re not getting it.” Instead, she says, “How can I express my ideas in a way that you understand?”

We could counter that a published blog post isn’t like a focus-grouped movie. It’s already been released into the wild, while focus groups occur well before a movie’s release. But the difference here is that a released movie can’t change — until the DVD director’s cut, at least — while a blog post can change at the literal push of a button.

The only reason they don’t is that we’ve been conditioned to think of a published document as a document that the public must come to terms with. What if we think of the blog post process as something like a grad school thesis that could eventually become a book, meaning each expanding of its audience is also the next stage of its revision?

I’m not calling for crowd-sourced blog posts, though that would be an interesting model to try. This doesn’t mean every blog post needs fussed-with after every critical comment, but it does mean a comment section consensus should move an author to edit. In the case of the post I linked to, the whole post-comment editing process would mean adding a few qualifying sentences to three or four points. That’s it! Wouldn’t that be worth it? Especially if the author cares about his or her post being as link-worthy as possible for many years to come?

After all, a blog post isn’t just a news splurt that disappears in the stream … it’s not a tweet. It’s a webpage that will be around forever and hopefully be read by one person every day for the next decade. Shouldn’t it represent the best we have to offer?

And I’m not saying authors shouldn’t stand their ground. In yesterday’s post here, I somehow wrangled up a small mob of Creed fans. We dearly appreciate them stopping by and offering comments, but no matter how many Creed fans show up, I’m not changing my mind on how hilarious that Scott Stapp Florida Marlins video is. However, if I’d said something especially dumb like “No sports team should ever hire someone to record a theme song,” then I’d be happy to be corrected by commenters.

Choosing to differ on opinion is great — choosing to differ because the author didn’t write clearly enough is a missed opportunity.

Are we selling our audiences short if we think of them as pupils instead of peers?

The content creator should be right in such a way that even newbies can understand.

Even if the commenters aren’t technically right, consider this: if enough of them are wrong about the same thing, then perhaps that thing wasn’t expressed clearly enough.

By “Blog Comments Are Pointless,” I mean that the average blog post comment, no matter how insightful and contrary to the author, has no effect on its subject blog post. You could argue that a comment is in a way a part of its post, as they’re both on the same webpage. Certainly I linked to the post that I linked to because of its comment section. But wouldn’t MORE people have linked to that post if its author had used his commenters obvious, worthwhile, and justifiable complaints to edit his post until it was airtight? Again, I’m not attacking Spencer, because this is how The Blog Post works all across the internet.

Newspaper editors and bloggers correct factual and grammatical errors all the time, hopefully noting the correction with a time/date update and credit to the reader who pointed out the error. So why don’t all bloggers do the same when it comes to errors of logic or errors of syntax that SEEM like errors of logic?

If every Joe P. Netscape can find 10 seemingly nitpicky reasons to dismiss a post, then what good does it do if the post is right?

Why can’t a blog post be replaced by its own director’s cut?

What do you think should I change about this post? :)

Of Course Your Kids Get More Out Of Facebook Than They Do From School [Three Best Things 4/12/10 - 4/18/10]

  • Thing: Social, Super-Sized by social-creature. “The same technology that allows us to be more connected than ever before imaginable, on its flip side, perhaps even simply through contrast, has increased our capacity for loneliness. We have built up a new tolerance level, and all we do is want more more more. Hence, the compulsion to feel a part of something, something massive, surrounded by hundreds of thousands of other people, all experiencing the same trending topic stream together as it scrolls by.” We should feel both comfort and horror when we think of the ways technology is enhancing (taking advantage of?) our prehistoric/biological need for social connection. In other words, how would Genghis Khan have used Foursquare?
  • Thing: 10 Ways to Access Blocked Stuff on the Web by Lifehacker. Now, if a site wants you to pay money for content, and you choose to access that content without paying, you’re stealing — whether you like Rupert Murdoch or not doesn’t change that fact. However, there are plenty of times when we’re unable to get to something, and there’s a perfectly good reason to bypass whatever’s in the way. Whether that means getting around Gmail downage, avoiding an overeager office or university page-blocker so you can get work-related research done, dodging an oppressive government, or watching legally streamed TV from another country, the internet always wins.
  • Thing: Why Teenagers Are Growing Up Slowly Today from Newsweek and Kids Learn Math Easily When They Control Their Own Learning from Psychology Today. The construct that comes to mind when we use the word school has little in common with the ideal learning environment. And it’s not about tweakable elements like student-to-teacher ratio — it’s about the whole concept of school and what we’re really trying to accomplish. You know this. But it’s worth repeating from top to bottom until everyone knows this.

Double Bonus

I swear I’ll do three sets each of Radioheads and Ghostfaces at max weight, max reps for saying this out loud, but CONFESSION TIME: I like two Creed songs. So it’s with only 99% ironic passion that I’m able to join in the LOLETARIAT on mocking this song Scott Stapp recorded for the Florida Marlins.

But you’re telling me you’re serving up “One-strike-two-strikes, swing aweey-ahhh/ A Diving Catch-hh! A stohe-len beeaase-ahh/ A perrfec game-uh! A trih-pul play-ahh!/ Anoe-tha playhoff ra-ace, YES?/ WORL SEE RIES CHEIMPS WELL [CRACK!] BEE!”, all over Friday Night Lights guitars run through the NASCAR-mosh filter? Oh, it’s summertime, friends:

Ambitious dunk contest participant somehow, someway winds up with half his leg submerged in the basket. You want to talk about mainlining social media — note the immediate cameraphones-to-ladders ratio once everyone realizes what’s happened.

The citizen journalism impulses of today’s youth? Flourishing.

Three Best Things 4/5/10 - 4/11/10: WikiLeaks Publishes Conan O'Brien's Tweets On Billboards?

  • Thing: Conan O’Brien’s tweets on billboards by Examiner.com. Everything Conan bangs out on Twitter immediately appears on billboards around the country. There’s not a syllable I can add to this that would make it any greater.
  • Thing: Inside WikiLeaks’ Leak Factory by (Drupal-powered) Mother Jones. However you feel about WikiLeaks’ video release from earlier this week, it’s worth reading up on the site’s founder. The type of cat who claims his Facebook fan page is run by Noam Chomsky when it actually isn’t, this guy chides a pair of assassinated potential sources for not acting “anonymous” enough. WikiLeaks has an amazing public ideal and has certainly mixed lots of very good work in with all its weirdness, but this article just offers up too many really revealing and hilarious quotes to pass up.
  • Thing: What Makes NPR and the Economist So Special? by the Washington Post. The answer, if you want the short version, is that they’ve found the sweet spot between news and opinion. Newspapers are dying because it’s too easy to get news the moment it happens, rather than waiting to read about it the next morning. Think about the blogs you read — chances are they include very little straight-up no-frills news content. Something anyone who writes, speaks, or creates can ponder… how can you tell the story-of-the-week in such a way that people will listen? [Via Rafi Kam]

Bonus Bonus Bonus

SEOmoz shows how to use the psychology of choices to improve your site’s conversion rate. In their example, a nonprofit was able to gain more newsletter subscribers by altering their call-to-action. Instead of just asking users to subscribe, they began asking users to either subscribe or link.

Think about how many times this could happen in a day: Mary Internet is on the fence about subscribing. She’d like to pitch in, but doesn’t feel like committing. But there’s another option — a link? Sure, that’s a one-time way to help.

There’s no data on this part, but it’s not hard to imagine subscriptions would increase too, making the new call to action a double success. Brilliant! We’ve been working with more nonprofits lately, and we’d love to try out something like this.