P042: Hashtag Shortform

Fake-intellectual newsletter opening, take one… annnnnd action!

Let’s start off this week with a quote from Mark Twain French philosopher Blaise Pascal:

I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.

My recent obsession with Glance Journalism has led to a fixation on form and a renewed enthusiasm for brevity. And since I’m not alone in this, you don’t just have to listen to me go on about it.

If you’re not paying attention to Gina Trapani, you’re not paying attention

Bold statement, but true, and not just for “tech people.” Reading her notes on Short-form Blogging felt like getting a permission slip to be a blogger again. Marco Arment and Jason Snell are feeling this too, not to mention O.G. blogger Andy Baio who got this ball rolling with a brief appreciation of Tilde.Club (huh?).

And now a love letter to Twitter

People are pumped for more bloggy stuff because lots of people seem to be burnt out on Twitter. Real talk: Twitter has some obvious problems but for my money, honing a rambling idea down to 140 characters is, like, the 6th or 7th most fun thing you can do at a keyboard. I mean, it’s no Duke Nukem 3-D, but sometimes you get some gems:

And a little something for my advertising peeps

So many people confuse “interactive” with “delivered via the internet.” Let Faris Yakob help you to not be one of those people. Three minute reading time.

Periodically yours,

Bob Sherron

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P040: I Only Have Retinas For You

Last week, I linked to a two-year old article from Will Leitch about the evolution of broadcast graphics during sporting events. In the piece, Leitch breaks down the divergent paths taken by baseball and football and identifies the rise of fantasy sports as the rationale behind the over-saturation of stats during football games. And while that’s probably true – especially for football – I think it’s only part of the story.

High Definition TV signals began being broadcast in the United States in the year 1996 – coincidentally the year of one of Leitch’s examples. By the time this article was written, HDTV had reached more than two thirds of American households and we now peg that number at 77%. More pixels on screen means more real estate to work with and greater legibility of data at smaller sizes. Win, win, win?

Admittedly, it’s pretty unfair to cherry pick missed opportunities in an old blog post, especially from a writer that I admire as much as Will Leitch (man, this room got dusty all of a sudden), but with last week’s announcement of the 5K iMac displays high definition is on my mind. As an (occasional) optimist, I tend to believe that as technology improves, there will be those who put it to good, ethical uses. In the case of sports broadcasting, one such use would be delivering more of the secondary information and stats to enhance the viewing experience. Of course, the cynical take would be that the network broadcast teams are doing something, anything, to try and recapture the fickle attention spans of viewers immersed in second screen experiences.

In the end, the only thing that we can be sure of is that display resolution is going to continue to improve because money. And since physical screens can only get so large before they become completely ridiculous, I’d wager that we will, as a society, get better at designing and consuming high density information before we get larger pockets in our trousers.

Periodically yours,

Bob Sherron

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P039: On Shorthand and Sportsball

In the past weeks, we’ve taken a glance at some topics in high density communications, so tonight I’d like to dive a little deeper into what makes this all possible. A fundamental requirement of effective communication – verbal, physical or otherwise – is an agreement between the parties communicating that the message sent is transmitted in a way that the receiver can understand it. But once that baseline is established, the sender will often begin to sacrifice explicit clarity for the sake of brevity, creating a shorthand that opens up all sorts of possibilities and pitfalls. Let’s explore this idea through the lens of the Fox Box from last week.

Fox Box

The agreement between Fox’s MLB broadcast and the viewer is that anyone watching is familiar with the rules of the game of baseball. They understand scoring, innings and the counter-clockwise progression of the baserunner. Further, by providing the pitch count, the graphic gives hints to the novice that this is An Important Stat and might be worth noticing.1 Having constant access to this information has fully transformed the way we enjoy sports on TV.

But for someone who is not at all familiar with sportsball, the Fox Box is the hamburger menu of their TV experience – a cryptic symbol that keeps an endless bounty of knowledge locked away out of sight. And while it is true that viewers of a televised sporting event are pretty much a self-selecting segment, this shorthand is both a barrier to entry for the new fan and completely in character for baseball, a game whose ancient knowledge and Satanic numerology practices are passed down through the generations.

Periodically yours,

Bob Sherron

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  1. Stat-geek aside: I’d like to see that pitch count in context. If Tyler Clippard has thrown 7 pitches, how many does he have left before he becomes Not Tyler Clippard? Maybe calculating xFIP over bands of pitch counts based on the average pitches per outing? If you can find a point where that xFIP goes over 3.8, you can turn that into a progress bar that shows how many pitches he has left in the tank… 

P038: Let’s Get Dense

Last week’s article about Glance Journalism prompted some interesting discussion, most of it focused around how to convey a useful amount of information in a short amount of time or space, aka “Information Density.” Both evangelists and critics of high density interfaces agree that there is a line to be drawn between communicating efficiently and overwhelming the user – the disagreement is where to draw the line. And of course, no discussion about interface design is complete without a close read of post-season baseball game production from Jason Snell.

But which is more important, how we say something or what we’re saying in the first place? We’ve seen this line of thinking come to web design with Mobile First principles and Responsive Web Design. Designer and writer Liam Spradlin had a great piece back in July where he makes a compelling argument that the hierarchy of presentation is more important than the density. He even references my personal favorite hobbyhorse when discussing effective communication: the inverted pyramid.

But regardless of you lead with method or message, it all comes down to being mindful of your users and readers. Whether you are writing a newsletter, a blog post, a tweet or something even more atomic, the time and attention of your reader is a precious commodity. Respecting the investment that they are making is the first step to building real human connections over the Internet.

Periodically yours,

Bob Sherron

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P037: When a Glance is Enough

Lately I’ve been obsessed with a seed of an idea planted three weeks ago by Dan Shanoff over at Nieman Journalism Lab. Titled “Wearables could make the “glance” a new subatomic unit of news,” Shanoff geeks out about the ever-accelerating pace of the industry and the rise of what he calls “glance journalism” – a piece of news distilled to its bare essence and distributed as opt-in notifications. Money quote:

Glance journalism makes tweets look like longform, typical news notifications (and even innovative atomized news apps) look like endless scroll, and Seward’s list of essential Things (chart, gif, quote, stat) look unresponsive… That is the user experience that the news industry has a pending opportunity to address — the message delivered must be that clear and concise: I’ll describe it as a “neutron of news,” which — if done right — is enough for that moment.

So instead of a never-ending stream of information where the primary unit of currency is “nowness,” the value of a glance rests in relevance, and – thrillingly – contextually-appropriate relevance. Think about that for a second. We already know that our search histories and social interactions are being used to serve us ever-more-targeted advertising. And we currently have some manual control over interruptions from phones and even some people, but this is just the beginning. As our devices become more and more center to our human experience, the information emanating from those devices will by necessity become smarter, less intrusive and infinitely more targeted to the users current state.

How Much is Enough?

For me, the number one knock again the Apple Watch is the idea that I’ll be even more connected than I already am. Because we know so little about how the watch actually works, we’re left to imagine a world where our wrist is buzzing and demanding our attention instead of our pants pockets. To me, that doesn’t sound like a great tradeoff. And it’s not that I’m approaching this from a Luddite’s position – I’m actually super bullish on personal technology – rather, I fell like I’ve reached my capacity for connectivity.

Patrick Rhone is a writer, podcaster and consultant who put out a truly wonderful ebook back in 2012 that touches on some of these themes. In a chapter titled “Use Technology to Enrich, Not Distract,” Rhone absolutely nails it:

[The smartphone’s] ability to distract is only as powerful as our ability to let it do so.

Substituting “smartwatch” (or television, or boss, or kids, or spouse, etc) for “smartphone” gives us a way forward, but it still puts the onus on the user to erect and maintain barriers to protect our sanity.

The Awareness Layer

Just as a thoughtful person wouldn’t bombard their coworkers with email when they are out of the office on paternity leave or bicycling their way across the state (hi guys), thoughtful journalism will leverage the pace of technology to deliver these sub-atomic news particles to the reader at the appropriate time and place. Where today we have human editors and experimental Twitter Bots pushing useful and relevant updates, in the future we will be able to opt-in to a frictionless, self-curated ambient awareness system. It starts with just a little glance, now.

Periodically yours,

Bob Sherron

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