Entering the realm of cyberspace, reading and writing change, changing us and the way we perceive text. New modes of interacting with the written word emerge and further exist in brand new environments, across brand new digital surfaces and spaces.
Given the bursts of thoughts and meaning exchange in the digital world, we as writers, are challenged to rethink reader experience and from there find answers to questions like: how can we write differently to meet our readers? where are we to meet our readers?
The answer to each of the questions lies in thoroughly examining and understanding the moving parts of a fragmented, multi-channel reality. One of the rapidly unfolding narratives and living intertextuality. One where our readers are constantly distracted by notifications and have increasingly shrinking attention spans. A reality where content needs growing at electric speed.
Talking about the fragmented reader’s experience,
the index below can help you navigate through this article.
Just click colored rectangle besides the names of the paragraphs on the left to skip to those passages, or click the ones besides the entities on the right to better understand the main concepts behind this article.
Readers and Writers: A Life in Fragments
Deconstructing the fragmented nature of today’s reader experience is key to crafting texts that will connect us to audiences in a meaningful way. And the nature of today’s reader very much resembles what Seneca described in one of his Moral Letters to Lucilius – On discursiveness in reading:
…reading of many authors and books of every sort may tend to make you discursive and unsteady. You must linger among a limited number of master thinkers, and digest their works, if you would derive ideas which shall win firm hold in your mind. Everywhere means nowhere. When a person spends all his time in foreign travel, he ends by having many acquaintances, but no friends.
The full text is available at II. On Discursiveness in Reading
Further, the letter continues with Seneca arguing that ”eating” too much of a knowledge is “cloying the consumer rather that nourishing them”.
Similarly, a reader’s experience with digital media, mostly the Web-based one, more often than not appears to be “devouring” bits and pieces of fragmented content – a headline from Youtube here, a Facebook share from there, a piece of a Kindle book and a bit of a pdf, sent from a friend.
Acknowledging the essence of such reader’s experience can give us perspectives and understandings that will help us see and foresee what role our texts might play in such a fragmented environment. As writers, we are tasked to find the common thread in this cornucopia of content and present it to our readers giving them real food for thought and deep thinking. For time well-spent is one of the most valuable experience we can enrich the life of a reader with.
“The story of a shattered life can be told only in bits and pieces”, quotes Rilke, philosopher Zigmund Bauman.
In cyberspace, our texts reach readers converging before their eyes in all possible shapes and forms, surfaced and discovered in all conceivable ways. That is why the texts we write are (or should be) like a kaleidoscopic mosaic, made of various chunks. Chunks that can live separately without looking as if they are not part of our narrative. Such kaleidoscope-like approach, where content pieces are designed as to be brought together and form any picture before the reader, is radiant with possibilities for readers and writers alike.
Text on the Web: A Glorious Symphony of Interconnected Ideas, People and Things
On the Web, texts break boundaries and build networks, as glorious symphony of connected ideas, people and things. Our job as writers, diligently meeting our audience’s needs, is to orchestrate this symphony – with our imagination and with a baton made of technology.
Mixed with the right tools, our creativity would allow us to connect on as many levels as possible. For, remember, in a fragmented reader’s reality we are tasked with finding that common thread that will help the person on the other side of the text see clearly through the noise. We should also keep in mind that in a multimodal interaction with our readers we are not only content creators but to also content curators: we need to be able to assemble meaningfully bits and pieces of texts across social media, email communication, forums and other digital spaces.
To sum up, to orchestrate a good symphony, we need to:
- find out what algorithmic audiences are all about (how and why they read us)
seek to create a binding thread across devices, platforms and interactive systems through our writing.
We can accomplish both with a single conceptual shot: if we allow ourselves to conceive of texts outside the website boundaries, that is to think of texts within the context of application, a personal assistant, a chatbot, a voice search environment.
The Curious Case of the Networked Text in a Fragmented Reality
It is only when we as writers recognize and accept that we build worlds of words in an environment that pushes the limits of the written word outside the screen, that our messages will be able to make it to our recipients – on the other side of a screen or through the still awkwardly sounding robo voice of a personal assistant, the algorithms of which have just calculated the best answer for the user.
Impressive problem solvers, algorithms have been around since Ancient times. The oldest algorithm, being the one of Euclides (a method for finding the greatest common divider), as Marcus du Sautoy explains in his wonderful movie: The Secret Rules of Modern Living: Algorithms.
Very simply put, algorithms are “a set of defined steps to produce particular outputs”.
Algorithms search, collate, sort, categorise, group, match, analyse, profile, model, simulate, visualise and regulate people, processes and places. They shape how we understand the world and they do work in and make the world through their execution as software, with profound consequences.
That explained, algorithmic audiences are the audiences of various programs that consists of algorithms reading your text in various ways, for a number of reasons – to analyze them, to search through them, to process them and feed them in a larger system. And before we slip into the utopian future of a your vacuum robot reading for pleasure in their spare time, and you thinking about the best text to please it, let me brace you with this first understanding: algorithmic audiences are important and knowing about them will give you a valuable perspective. On one hand it is the human to human interaction that algorithms ultimately serve, on the other, they are still far from being true readers.
I scolded him about last year,
I now offer to his spirit.
Oemaru (Blyth 1982)
[…] this spare and lovely haiku, can we even say for sure what it tells us? So evocative to a person, surely an eternity will pass before a computer can extract its essence. Let’s try something else.
This haiku was written by Oemaru (a Japanese person), was translated by R.h. Blyth (a British person), and appears on page 763 in Blyth (1982). Which is volume three of a set of books entitled Haiku. […]
Yes, this is more like it. We can represent this kind of information to a computer – specific bits and pieces about something definite.
Thomas B. Passin, Explorer’s Guide to the Semantic Web
As you can see, algorithmic audiences are nothing more than programs designed to make sense, to the extent possible, of our texts in order to better classify, distribute and serve them. Actually, algorithms can be also very helpful when creating content, as Andrea calls them (see WordLift for Digital Publishers and how to create an Open Database of Knowledge), the can be Our New Colleagues simply because they can interpret data and turn it into meaningful content.
And when a substantial part of our work gets algorithmic helpers, i.e. gets automated, we will have the time and mind space to envisage new ways of interacting with our readers, and connecting with them through the power of words. For the courage of creation and the spirit of imagination will never be a question of automation.
And this leads us to the second understanding I want to brace you with: the understanding of the value and the importance of a narrative.
Electronic text is connected on many levels, it is literally a networked text. With its hyperlinks and the openness it exists within it has the potential to give the reader the full benefits of the digital experience. Among the most prominent from these benefits is the benefit of interconnectedness. On the Web, a text is to be connected to as many parts of its story: to related facts, to contextual details, to a network of ideas, people and to the other texts it is made of and exists in. It is to be a network itself. When it serves as a hub for all kind of related media, it also serves the purpose of being a part of a narrative, while simultaneously providing new experiences, new ways of interaction, new ways of content discovery.
The Web Hitchhikers Guide to Thinking, Reading and Writing
To successfully create and nourish our relationships with our readers, hitchhiking, exploring and making the Web a better place to read in, we need to ask ourselves: What we can do for our readers to make their experiences rich and fulfilling?
Take voice search, for example. A growing number of our readers are accessing websites via Google’s voice search. So, there are a number of things we can do to make our texts suitable to be listened to.
As you might have experienced already for yourself text is being increasingly rendered the form of an answer when searched for in Google. So, here, the implications for us as web authors are clear. We are to aim for:
Clarity: Nothing new here. When writing content for the so-called informational searches, we are to use concise, neutral language and to straightforwardly answer questions. There’s no need for verbosity, what the user needs is as much information packed in one sentence as possible.
Reimagined interaction: This is where we need to imagine possible environments. We are to think about the most important information that a user would need to hear or see and the context they are going to be served that information in.
Narratives built of content chunks: We need to be fusionists here. We are to be able to very well combine a text with other content pieces that we believe will best serve the content need of the user.
For more practicalities, make sure to check Silvia’s 5-step checklist to write effective content for voice search.
And now, the hardest part, I am unwilling to skip: how do you write facts in a beautiful, engaging way. How do we combine them with the creative flow of our text, ultimately how do we present something dry in an immersive way?
Fortunately, I don’t know!
The answers to all of these questions are a matter of your own thoughts, feelings, your own “sequence of decisions”, your own intuition, and your own experience. It is up to you to envisage the interaction with the reader and craft the most appropriate piece to serve, delight and inspire them.
What I know is that passion, imagination and the need to express yourself and connect with your readers will never be a question of algorithms or technology. They will always be a question of the web hitchhiker’s hunch.
And Now, Writers, Please Step Up to the Screenless World of Your Readers
As revolutionary and novel this title may sound, I want to remind you something: solitary reading has not always been the primary way of “consuming” a text. Back in Ancient times there were “readers” that read the text from a scroll to an audience. They did not have the neutral voice of the Kindle reader, reading you your ebook or the “faculty” to search through text as fast as Google Voice Search, but they did have a similar role: to be a kind of a medium in this amazing process in which “we come to know a little more about the world and about ourselves to us individually, far away, and long ago”, as Alberto Manguel puts it in the preface of his book A History of Reading.
My point here is that no matter the medium our text reaches our readers through, be it a screenless environment or another “shiny object”, what counts is that we as writers are to be well-versed in this medium and at the same time not to be blinded by its features. We are to only use it as yet another vehicle for our writings to reach our audiences through the highway called intertwingularity.
We are to just keep doing what we’ve always done – weave webs of words, knowing that our message today is amplified on an unprecedented scale and in today’s culture the fragmented reader experience is the yin of shared understanding and our networked texts are its yan.
Wanna learn more? Join Teodora’s class!
In this free webinar Teodora Petkova will teach you how to craft effective copy that will:
- Bring more traffic to your website
- Create an immersive experience for your readers
- Connect ideas and people together.
Teodora Petkova is a philologist and a freelance content writer with an educational background is in Classical Studies and Creative Writing. She helps companies with content creation, writing for their blogs. Enthusiast user of WordLift, she wrote an inspiring, beautiful article about her interdisciplinary journey to structure her knowledge graph using our WordPress plugin on her blog.