A look at why engaging content is durable content, demonstrated by an online search that started with cats and ended in metrics.
There’s a sting in going, or being taken, through the search equivalent of writer’s block and failing at the internet. But, occasionally, the ‘luck-accident-design’ algorithm works in our favour and we get a real good run of finding exactly the right content we were or weren’t looking for.
What is the luck-accident-design algorithm?
When looking for a copy of Stanley Kubrick’s 15-page document on cat care instructions (part of some browsing on famous people I like and how they feel about cats, which also led me back to Charles Mingus’s cat toilet training program), I came across his interviews with French film critic Michel Ciment.
When discussing The Shining (get your eyeballs all over the excerpts of the Ciment-Kubrick interviews here), Kubrick said this nugget: ‘It's intimidating, especially at a time like this, to think of how many books you should read and never will. Because of this, I try to avoid any systematic approach to reading, pursuing instead a random method, one which depends as much on luck and accident as on design. I find this is also the only way to deal with the newspapers and magazines which proliferate in great piles around the house -- some of the most interesting articles turn up on the reverse side of pages I've torn out for something else.’
This is broadly how most of us currently use and enjoy the internet – except it isn’t wholly random. How we find content that’s relevant or answers a query is influenced by a whole host of human (i.e. luck and accident) and technological (i.e. design) factors. This is why I decided to adopt Kubrick’s sentiment by terming the process by which we navigate the web the ‘luck-accident-design’ algorithm. Admittedly, this is a bit of a misnomer - there are a whole host of processes we use at Curated Media for getting our clients’ content in front of the right audience, from best practice SEO to thoughtful use of distribution tools, such as social media. What I’m driving at is our personal experience of using the internet – what personal curation says about content more generally.
Theory of Everything – Meaningful Metrics
Every day, like most of us, I make split-second decisions about the content online I will and will not read. Also like most of us, I take more time deciding which book to read. But the one on the top of my unread books pile is rarely the one I go to next (even though I’ve specifically arranged them in order of reading preference).
Benjamen Walker’s Theory of Everything is a great podcast. The episode ‘Recent, Relevant, Random’, first broadcast last year, introduced me to Russian author Andrei Platonov. I bought a collection of his short stories, which has shifted from the top to the bottom to the middle of my unread books pile.
The episode, which was rebroadcast at the end of September, is an attempt to deal with the following: ‘we don’t have metrics to measure what happens when we read something that changes our life’. Amongst many other excellent things, Benjamen talks to technology journalist Rob Walker (who I’ll refer to as ‘Walker II’, so as not to confuse the two Walkers…) about how we are ‘slaves to the recent’. Because of our reliance on metrics, writers are pushed into finding a news hook.
As Walker II puts it, one of the great things about the web is ‘not what’s happening now but what randomly occurs to us’ and our ‘access to the infinite past’. He looks for durability beyond the present moment, beyond what is dictated by metrics. This is something we also aim for at Curated – to create content that has longevity and performs on behalf of our law firm clients.
Walker also asks editor-in-chief of NYRB Classics Edwin Frank, who published John Williams’ Stoner (a favourite at Curated Towers introduced to us by cultural curator Ally), about having an editorial sensibility that ‘encompasses everything’. Benjamen decides that what binds the series is the ‘if-you-liked-this-unexpected-life-changing-experience-then-I-have-a-bunch-more-for-you’ algorithm.
After listening to this delightful podcast, I took Platonov out of the middle of the unread books pile and started reading. I also started to think about writing a blog on metrics and algorithms.
Inside Science - Readability
Writing about the law, on behalf of lawyers, for non-legal audiences, often involves compromise: what you say about the law has to be accurate but it also has to be understandable and interesting. This dilemma isn’t new. It affects any area that has developed it’s own language and writing style for precisely and efficiently communicating concepts and ideas. Science, maths, law, art have all developed their own jargon that can be incomprehensible to the uninitiated.
A great example of this was recently discussed on Radio 4’s Inside Science, following publication of a paper in Nature Climate Change that used ‘established sentiment analysis tools and readability metrics to explore the readability of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Summary for Policymakers (SPM)’. Quick summary: it didn’t do well.
I wasn’t online looking for information about readability algorithms and hadn’t planned to listen to the show. I was in my kitchen and the radio was on. The next day, I re-listened to the programme on the BBC’s iPlayer and clicked through to the related sources because I wanted to know more about how readability was measured. The link, which tracked that I was directed there by the BBC site (good metrics), led me directly to the paper, where I read that the researchers had used two methods: ‘The Flesch Reading Ease (FRE) algorithm’, which ‘is based on the assumption that text containing longer sentences and more complex words is more difficult to comprehend’; and, ‘the content analysis software DICTION’, which assesses ‘the degree of optimism – and therefore the tone – of different bodies of text’.
Not long after this, I came across the Kubrick interview mentioned above.
So there you go. Three pieces of content that I’ve managed to tenuously link together, but hopefully demonstrating a general principle: engaging content influences us, either on a conscious or subconscious level, which gives it, and its message, durability.
Curated Media – Experts at Durable Content
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