Monday, June 27, 2011

Writing About Technical Subjects (Pt. I)

So, you're a company intent on empowering people with hardware, software, and/or other new tech. Or you're a non-profit with Big Ideas about digital rights, tech literacy, or another 21st Century cause. Or you're a copywriter, learning to ply your craft in the content economy. Telling compelling stories about complex topics is exciting, but challenging. This fact is your greatest friend and most terrifying enemy:

We now live in a world where the "simple facts" are not so simple.

Take Facebook. The second most-frequently visited place on the web is one of a handful of websites that has spawned its own verb. (When was the last time you said you were "facebooking"?) Behind the scenes, though, it's a complex messaging, image-sharing, networking beast of a site-slash-app, not to mention the developer interface for third-party apps.

The features aren't what Facebook splashes on the sign-up page, though. It says,

Facebook helps you connect and share with the people in your life.

There's a simple principle in effect here: you don't sell features, you sell motivations. I've long appreciated market researcher and TED Talker Simon Sinek's verbiage:

Start With "Why"

That's hard and fast for me: successful pitchmen and copywriters have always done this, even if it wasn't worded exactly as above. That doesn't change in the world of software. In fact, in a world of rapid development and widespread innovation, there's even less place for people selling boxes of features.

Recently, Twitter posted a guide to help journalists and other newsy sorts use their service. They didn't have to—heaven knows people have already been using Twitter to do news since the dawn of tweets—but they did it as a help to their userbase. #TfN may not be copy, but it follows another guideline I love:

Solve a Problem

When possible, I present services as solutions to problems that people face. (As an aside, I think the use of "solution" as a buzzwordy substitute for "service", "application", or "product" dilutes the semantic power of that word.) Some companies don't use much text to show that they solve a problem—apps like solve a problem (or perhaps "grants a wish") in an obvious way, and sell themselves on word of mouth alone. For everyone else, there's copy.

Trouble is, you have to explain a complicated problem like "T1 connections used to be state of the art, but nowadays you get more bandwidth if you sign up with a Wireless ISP" to someone who may not understand "T1", "bandwidth", or "Wireless ISP". If you're a Wireless ISP, that's going to cause problems.

The writer, then, has to make the problem and its solution simple enough to be clear to the reader. "Telling your story" has become a popular phrase in the marketing industry, and one of the tricks of the trade is just that: making copy into a story, with a conflict, a resolution, a hero, and—if necessary—a villain.

Tell a Story

Of course, you don't want to take storytelling to the extreme, either, or your reader will think you don't respect them. Leave some complex concepts in the narrative, and explain what must be explained.

Don't Condescend

Here's a bit of copy I wrote for a client that I think exemplifies these ideas:

For years, network service was fastest when it was delivered by physical cables and circuits, the “T1” being the most popular with businesses. The T1 was a workhorse, but, as content on the web has become more complex, it’s clear that T1 just can’t keep up. Fortunately, wireless technology has kept pace with increasing bandwidth needs— wireless can offer speeds comparable to those of cable internet[...]

So, there you have it, an overview of copywriting on complex topics. Next up: News writing.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Intersection: Trumor + The Filter Bubble

First in a series of pieces that examine the hidden links between apparently unrelated ideas.

Scientists at the Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems at MIT have been working on a way to determine how far an idea will propagate via Twitter. The system, named Trumor, measures the reach and influence of individual users on Twitter, much like the commercially-available service, Klout. Trumor, however, creates a list of "superstars" in each topic (e.g. soccer, automobiles, copyright law). These users are very likely to have their comments propagated through the network.

The Filter Bubble is the title of a book and the name of an idea developed by online activist Eli Pariser. The basic premise is this: online information is being increasingly organized automatically by individual preference, and this algorithmic curation may not be to our benefit. As an example, Pariser notes the results pages for Google searches two of his friends did on "Egypt" during the revolution earlier this year. One friend received mostly news, the other received travel agencies and basic encyclopedia information, but nothing on the protests. As human beings rarely like their ideas to be challenged, the filter bubble tends toward increasing divisions between groups of people, based on ideology.

The Intersection: As people self-organize by ideology, they will likely either choose to restrict the number of information sources they rely on, or the filter bubble will do that for them. As the bubble closes in, information from outside will leak in less and less frequently, making the power of online thought leaders very strong as concerns influencing those that follow them. (Incidentally, the implications of the word "follow" in the Twitter context will become creepier.)

As this occurs, the knowledge of who influences whom (will MIT retain this information? will it be made public?) will likely fall into the hands of corporations, political parties, hackers, and activist groups. The game will become "Who influences the influencers?" as groups attempt to convince members of the superstar list they're interested in to carry their content. This structure of top-down siloed syndication would be very weak to subtle subversion and account hacking.

In sum: As the world outside our senses becomes more important, our reliance on others' perspectives increases. As our filter bubbles close in, our worldviews become less robust and more vulnerable to manipulation via the social media superstars we rely on. Reality-hacking and reality-selling are imminent, but not in a cool cyberpunk way.