When readers become users

Understanding web users and their day-to-day behaviour has never been more important

The New York Times has stopped calling its readers readers and started calling its users users, Advertising Age reports.

It reflects the venerable US paper's realisation that no longer do we passively take what we are given. The web has changed all that. Now we expect to interact. To click, to vote, to comment. To drive with our reading (sorry -- using) habits stories up or down the most popular ranking. To add our own pictures and stories to the melange.

This week I found myself, on the recommendation of a friend, using two web stories:
The first was 2200 words, the second 5600. No in-line links, no commenting, no video footage. There were admittedly pictures and, in the case of the New Yorker, cartoons. But as an experience, frankly, it felt a lot like reading.

Web writers are beginning to realise that rules they used to apply do not always work. Or, perhaps, that others are succeeding without adhering to the same rules. How can this be? The two examples above show us that our stories can work without fitting into an arbitrary word count. It is not true that every story needs a direct headline and a news-style intro. We don't always fail if our work is insufficiently loaded with multimedia gadgets.

"As an experience, frankly, it felt a lot like reading"

In discussions about the future of journalism, two concepts have caught my eye:
These seem to me to be the keys to rule-free web writing. Hyper interest (I didn't coin the phrase but I have lost the reference -- apologies to whoever did) is the same as interest but accounting for digital language inflation (geeks exaggerate). It is neologism meaning that no trick or gadget is ever going to beat something that genuinely catches our imagination.

I think the two articles cited above are genuinely interesting, but you may disagree. This is the problem with hyper-interest -- so much depends on the user. It means that before you write something interesting, you have to work out who it is going to be interesting to.

Context means that the same user will find different things interesting according to what is going on in their world. If they are sitting on the sofa on a Sunday morning surrounded by toast crumbs and cats, the New Yorker may be the very thing. If they are on their way to work on Monday and just want to know whether we have the same prime minister so they don't look stupid in the 9:30 meeting, then maybe the BBC's news feed 31 character headlines are what they want.

"If they are sitting on the sofa, surrounded by toast crumbs and cats, the New Yorker may be the very thing"

For writers, hyper-interest means you have to model your reader more carefully than ever before, so you know intuitively what will grab and keep their attention. Context means you have to go even further and model their behaviour patterns. This may mean providing information in a variety of formats so that users can choose the one that suits.

Reader modelling is old school but it is more important than ever. Ironically, some writers freeze on the idea that because anyone in the world (not really) can read their stuff, they have to write for everyone in the world. In practice, the web loves specialism. Writing that focuses on a small group of readers and gives them what they want is generally the most successful.