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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  1. I think these entries are useful for one thing: alleviating blog-writing guilt. For people who ignore their blog for a while, these annoying little quizzes are a quick and simple way of putting something in your blog to make you feel less apathetic towards it.

    As a regular reader of the "Most recent entries for all blogs" page though, they're really annoying. The worst ones have to be the song lyrics which seem to be a poor attempt at showing some moral philosophy by ripping off rock stars.

    05 Aug 2005, 16:36

  2. John Dale

    alleviating blog-writing guilt

    I'm sure that people use them for that reason, but what I don't understand is, what's the thought process that leads to feeling guilty about not writing on your blog? You'd have to be pretty confident in the power of your blog if you really thought there were readers out there pining for your next entry, but if nobody really cares except you, then why the guilt?

    05 Aug 2005, 17:22

  3. Mathew Mannion

    I believe Kieran's Leaflet covered Blog Guilt in it :) Personally I'm not really sure why blog guilt is there, sometimes it can feel very competitive and there's always that little rush and a buzz whenever you get a comment, like your existence has once again been validated. God bless the blog system. Once you've got a captive audience, you don't want to disappoint… Blogger peer pressure.

    I would, of course, have coded the Quizilla filter this afternoon if I hadn't broken internal trackbacks and spent 4 hours trying to remember how I broke them :(

    05 Aug 2005, 17:30

  4. must write entries….
    Having not really posted this week because I've been so busy I am experiencing a certain degree of blog-writing guilt. I feel as though I have nothing now recording what I've been doing, feeling, thinking over the past few days. I feel as though I'm not contributing.
    Worse than that though, I'm starting to really worry about the fact that since Dan's been with me, his blogging has dried up. I feel more guilty over this as he had such a big audience before and wrote for them a fair bit (whereas I ultimately write for me).

    Agghhhh! The guilt!

    05 Aug 2005, 17:34

  5. Blogs = the New Catholicism.

    05 Aug 2005, 20:08

  6. I pay attention the the quiz entries if they're by people I know. I browse the blogs via the new entries page (I don't even use my favourites, it's there purely as a vanity mirror for all the people I like) and I read just about everything that tells me more about the people I want to know more about, i'll skip over the quizes of randoms but if I know the person i'll be more curious.

    I know I stopped reading the entries of Dan/Sam/Etc (as much) when after the first couple of months of funny I stopped learning anything new about them.

    06 Aug 2005, 01:26

  7. John said: "But one day we might introduce a "Quizilla filter"".

    Something that would be useful for us "English Only" speakers is a filter to remove posts that have their entirity in foreign language. I'm sure they do have some really interesting and thought provoking content, but to me, it might as well just be a series of squares… oh wait, it is, I don't have Chinese/Korean language packs installed.

    I'm curious too why the "latest from warwick blogs" summaries include so many duplicated entries on the next page. I turn over and end up scrolling 1/4 of the way down the page just to skip past the ones I ignored on the previous page.

    Adam

    23 Aug 2005, 05:33


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