Content creation for all: 8 ways to simplify online publishing

 

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The World Wide Web enables publishing at an unprecedented scale. Anyone can create content, and any piece of content can be instantaneously distributed to anyone in the world.

Pretty awesome, right?

There is just one thing: although content creation has never been easier, the number of people who create is surprisingly small. This has become known as the 1% rule: 1% of people create the content, 99% of people consume.

There isn’t anything wrong with the 1% rule, but it isn’t ideal. The web enables everyone to have a voice, yet 99% of people don’t take advantage of it. If more people created content online, we would have more shared perspectives, more communication, and in general, more people connecting over their passions and interests. You have to believe that the world would be a better place.

Content creation should be easier, and fortunately, it can be. Seemingly small product design decisions can make a big impact for encouraging content creation.

As a thought experiment, let us start with this blog post. Long form blogging turns out to be a particularly difficult form of content creation. If we study what makes this post difficult to create, we can uncover several ways to simplify and ease content creation.

 

1. Strip away identity.

If you look at the top of this blog, you’ll see my real name. Do you know how difficult it is to write under my real name? I’m afraid of publicly being wrong, sounding like an idiot, or even worse, coming off as a complete jackass.

If we separate my real identity from my online identity, writing becomes easier. I become less fearful of what others think, and may write things that I otherwise wouldn’t.

Historically, handles (or user names) have been used for anonymity. They were used back in the days of IRC and forums, and are still used today on many popular sites like Reddit, Twitter, Tumblr, etc. Handles help with anonymity, but don’t ensure it. As time goes by, users leak information which can often be pieced together. With enough time, a motivated third party may learn the real identity behind a handle.

You could go further with anonymity by dissolving the idea of an online identity. For example, Secret uses transient handles. You have an identity, but it is a weak identity, a random icon that lives within a single conversation. Or, you could go all the way and completely dissolve online identity (e.g., Startups Anonymous).

The more you strip away identity, the easier it gets to create content about anything. And the more honest people get. It isn’t surprising some of the juiciest secrets are surfaced in anonymous social networks.

 

2. Constrain the audience.

This blog is public. That means that anyone anywhere in the world can read any bit of this blog and catch me looking like an idiot. As I continue to write, the chances of looking like an idiot increases. Doesn’t sound too good, huh?

Writing for the world is hard. There are things I will publicly announce to the world on this blog or on Twitter, but it is a small subset of the things that are on my mind. If we constrain the audience to my Facebook friends, things get easier. I’m more likely to share my current status. If we limit the audience my close friends and family on Whatsapp, I may share a rumor, a racy joke, or what is actually on my mind.

Audience matters, and the more comfortable the audience is, the easier it is to create honest and authentic content.

 

3. Constrain the media format.

The content in this blog is unconstrained. A post may be of arbitrary length and include any combination of images, videos, and text.

The unconstrained nature of a blog post makes it flexible and expressive, but also brings up many questions for content creators. How long should a post be? Should I add images? How many images? Where should they be placed? What about a video? Or a GIF? Should I have split this post into two posts or leave it as one? There are many questions to ask, and each question makes it less likely that the ‘publish’ button will be pressed.

You can drastically simplify content creation by constraining the media format. There are many examples of this

  • Twitter limits you to 140 characters. Now you don’t need to worry about content length.
  • Tumblr makes certain types of posts super easy: photos, quotes, links, chats, audio files, and videos. You could write a long blog post, but it is easier to quickly share an image or quote that you like.
  • Pinterest and Instagram limit you to a single image, with an optional block of descriptive text.
  • Vine limits you to a six seconds of video.

The flip side of constraining the media format is that it limits self expression. Fortunately, media often has weird properties related to self expression, similar to doing arithmetic with infinity. Divide infinity by 2, and you feel like you’d have less, but you still have infinity. Divide it by 10, or 100, and you get the same thing. Media often works the same way. A blog post offers an infinite amount of self expression. An image or a 140-character tweet feels like less, but still offers infinite self expression.

If you can simplify the media format while still allowing for infinite self expression, it is probably a win.

 

4. Remove the feeling of permanent publishing.

Most bloggers have a complex relationship with the ‘publish’ button. I definitely do. The button is the source of accomplishment (it feels great to ship a post into the real world!), but it is also a source of stress.

Blog posts feels final in two ways.

First, publishing a blog post feels like a one-time action. Once I hit that ‘publish’ button, it gets sent out to the blogosphere to RSS, my WordPress followers, and email subscribers. Most likely, if it is going to be read, it will be read at this point. Later on, someone may stumble upon it through a Google search, but old blog posts quickly loses interest as well as discoverability on the Internet. Second, the post feels final because it kind of is final. Once it gets cached in a search engine, or archived by archive.org, it is accessible forever.

Removing the feeling of publishing makes content creation much easier, and there are several ways to do this.

The first way has already been mentioned in (2) constraining the audience. A Facebook startus or a Whatsapp message doesn’t feel like publishing because it is relatively private (compared to this blog post).

Second, you can also remove by feeling of publishing by encouraging works-in-progress. In college, I used to manually write HTML for websites. I wouldn’t have any problem leaving my work online for people to see because it was a work-in-progress. Wikis are the same way. You can easily add to them because it is expected that the content will be edited/removed at some point in the future.

Third, you can delete by design. This has become a big thing with ephemeral content. Snapchat and Frankly are two great examples here; your content lives for only a few seconds, and then it disappears. Or, it feels like it disappears. I would bet that the content lives on their servers forever, but what matters is the ephemeral feeling.

 

5. Enable references to existing work.

This post includes original content. Original content is difficult to create.

You know what is easier to create? Existing content.

It sounds a little funny, but people do this everyday sharing links on Facebook, Twitter, and Delicious. Or, sharing images on Pinterest, imgfave, weheartit, etc. Or quotes from other websites.

“Creating” such content isn’t as much creating as it is identifying with content. There is so much content out there on the web, and more gets churned out on a daily basis. While we consume existing content, it isn’t difficult to find something that we identify with and want to share.

It turns out there is an extra big benefit to sharing existing content: it is simple from an interaction standpoint. Websites have employed one-click buttons for resharing, reblogging, repinning, etc.

 

6. Add context.

This post started with an empty text input field. There was no context. Just an intimidating blank canvas.

Creating content within a vacuum is difficult. Adding context makes creation easier.

A common way to create context is to add a prompt, such as an image to caption or a URL to comment on. Creating content within a context tends to be an emotional response, a sign of agreement/disagreement, or a perspective/comment. Sites like Quora, Quibb and Reddit lets users create prompts for other users to react to. Sites like Pinterest and Tumblr let users write a note within the context of an image, video, etc.

Oftentimes, a reaction to a prompt becomes another prompt. For example, a message which requires a response. Or a comment that invites a reply.

 

7. Constrain reactions of others.

Allowing others to comment on your content can be intimidating. Unconstrained commenting allows anyone to come along and shit on your thoughts.

Because of this, it is often a good idea to constrain the reactions of others. Products do this in different ways. Quibb constrains its membership, only allowing vetted members to comment. Secret constrains comments to your friends and friends of friends, effectively removing the vast majority of trolls on the Internet. Tumblr is designed to encourage likes and doesn’t emphasize comments. Medium and many other blogging platforms require comments to be OK’ed by the original poster. Some bloggers implement a timeout functionality where the comments section for posts become closed after a fixed number of days.

Most people enjoy thoughtful comments and reactions, but this is the Internet, and there be trolls everywhere. Finding a way to limit reactions to content can be a big win.

 

8. Watch the content container.

This blog post doesn’t exist on it’s own: it lives within a blog called ‘On life and startups’.

Blogging isn’t easy. If you’ve ever started a blog, you’ll know friction involved here. There are a lot of question involved with creating a blog. Which platform should I use? What should the tagline of the blog be? Will the tagline be too restricting? Should I blog about everything on my mind, or specific topics? How often should I update the blog? What if I stop writing? What if I run out of ideas?

Giving users a single container often has these problems. For example, I have the same problems on Twitter. My twitter stream has become the startup version of Alex. I don’t share many other things on there, even though I have other interests in my life outside of startups.

One approach is to give users multiple containers. A great example is Pinterest, which gives users the ability to create multiple boards. The boards allow a user to be their full selves. They can share DIY stuff in one board, good recipes in another, and their favorite infographics in yet another board.

Another approach is to free containers from user accounts. Medium makes posts and collections feel independent. I can curate multiple collections, and my posts can be syndicated on all collections that want to contain them.

Yet another approach is to simply free content from containers. Secret does this by making each secret independent. Secrets don’t live within a user profile. And since user identities only exist within a single secret, all secrets feel independent.

It may seem like a small thing, but the relationship between the user, content, and the container makes a difference when it comes to content creation.

 

Enable content creation, change the world.

Did you notice a trend throughout this post?

Some of the largest and most successful social media sites are defined by their methods for simplifying content creation. Twitter is defined by its 140-character tweets. Pinterest is defined by allows users to curate multiple collections of images. Snapchat is defined by images that self-destruct. Medium has been purposefully vague about intentions, but it is clear that it changes the relationship between users, content, and collections.

One of the biggest promises of the web is that is allows anyone to publish. Anything that makes this process easier is a huge win for the world.

Have some other ideas on how to simplify content creation? I would love to hear them in the comments.

Better yet, build the idea and get it out there. If you discover a new way to simplify publishing, or create a new combination from the examples above, you just might change the world.

 

Photo credit: want2scrap

One thought on “Content creation for all: 8 ways to simplify online publishing

  1. On the limits of constrained media and self expression | Alex Shye

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