All entries for Friday 05 August 2005

August 05, 2005

Lists, lyrics and quizzes

So we've recently done some interviews with blog users, and one of the mildly interesting things that came out of the interviews is that most readers of blogs don't much care for blog entries which are online quiz answers ("What sort of helicopter are you?"), entries which are lists of (short) answers to questions, or entries which simply cite the lyric of a song without any further commentary or analysis. From our admittedly small sample size, it seems that most readers just blank these types of entries, scrolling right past them without looking at them at all, or just glancing very quickly over them.

This raises two questions:-

  1. Why don't people like reading these types of entry?
  2. Given that people don't like reading them, why do people write them? (and even some of the people who don't like reading other peoples' concede that they have published similar things themselves!)

The answer to the first question, I think is relatively easy; entries of this sort have certain attributes that make them less likely to be read:-

  • They aren't very discursive; there's no narrative thread to them that encourages the reader to move from the first sentence to the second, and so on. They're too disjointed to be readable.
  • They look repetitive, even if they aren't. The first time you see a quiz result, or somebody's favourite five songs, or whatever, it can be interesting or novel. But the next one is less novel, and the fifth or tenth one seems almost annoyingly repetitive - and interestingly this is true even if the content is genuinely original. Your list of your favourite five songs might contain wit and wisdom and insight, but if you're the tenth person who's done this, nobody will read your wisdom because their mental model of your entry will (wrongly) be that it's the same as all the others.
  • They're generally not hugely revealing. Quiz entries are particularly bad for this. Nobody reads them because knowing that you're a Westland rather than a Sigorsky helicopter (say) is pretty much meaningless. Maybe this isn't quite so true if you know the person who's writing well and can appreciate why it's true or untrue – but most readers don't know the author well. (Of course, the author might be writing for a handful of friends and be indifferent to the fact that it's uninteresting to everyone else. Nothing wrong with that.)
  • They're intellectually lazy. This might sound critical, but in fact I don't mean it to be; I'm not somebody who sees laziness as a fault. :-) But the feedback from our interviewees suggests that one of the criteria for interestingness is that some sort of intellectual effort has gone into the writing, and readers quickly learn that one of the reasons that quizzes, lyrics and lists are attractive to the writer is because they take less effort than creating something entirely from scratch – and thus, are less likely to be interesting and more likely to be skipped over.

So if these are all plausible reasons, then why do people write entries in these styles? Well, one of the reasons, obviously, is the same as the last reason cited above; it's easier to fill in a quiz or cut-and-paste a lyric or answer a dozen questions than it is to create something from scratch. It's attractive too, to feel as though you're participating in a group activity. If lots of other people are doing it, then if I do it I'll be part of the scene. And answering lists of questions has the added advantage that it gives the appearance of creativity and revelation whilst being quick and easy to do.

So what can we conclude? Not a great deal, really, except the passing observation that entries in this style are easy to write but largely ignored. That raises the interesting question of whether authors do any kind of effort-readership calculation when they're deciding what to write about; if you care about entertaining or informing your readers, then these entries are probably not a good bet. But I don't believe that this is always (or even mostly) the case; I think quite a lot of entries are published because publishing them is satisfying, not because the author wants to enthrall his or her readers. And there's nothing wrong with that. But one day we might introduce a "Quizilla filter" which removes any quiz results from the list of entries you're reading, and the evidence we have suggests that this would be hugely popular. :-)


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