Inflatable cactus - yours from partyshop dot co dot nzMy daughter occasionally drags me into Hollister for a nose around. Once we have tunnelled our way into the shop, she flits about ooh-ing and aahing, and I walk after her grumpily.  I notice things: the music, the unfeasibly good-looking assistants, and the near-darkness that means you have to squint very hard in order to see the prices.

It is obvious to me (but not to her) that we are in a Marketing Zone.

That amount of bad lighting does not happen by accident.

So, what does this have to do with websites? Well, lately, I’ve been noticing a trend for Big Name Blogs (and some small ones) to have no dates on their blog content. Their content is still organised by date (it’s obviously a blog and you can go back through previous posts one by one), but there’s no actual date placed on the individual posts.

Since most blogging software adds dates automatically, you have to make a pretty deliberate decision to remove dates.

I’ve seen it around a lot lately and can only surmise that this is part of some Big Blogger advice that’s being handed out in a deep cavern somewhere. Evergreen content, perhaps.

Let’s get some data, shall we?

The Dated:

The Dateless:

There is also a third category, the Dateless But (Often) Dated. I tend to see this approach on small business blogs which recycle older posts. The articles themselves aren’t dated, but comments to the articles are. This can produce some odd disconnects: I came across a site yesterday where the comments showed that a series of recently-published posts were originally published two years ago. That’s just odd.

To date or not to date?

There’s a fair amount of discussion on the pros and cons of dates on your content.

The date-removal folk argue that readers neglect old (but great) stuff in favour of the newest and shiniest. Your content is like a fast-flowing river: if people miss it first time round they may not see it again. So not-dating gives you more chances to show off your terrific content.  Some of your site visitors will come from Google search, and they might be less likely to stick around if they realise that the content they are reading is 18 months old. Also (warming to the theme), people don’t usually put individual dates on web pages and that doesn’t matter, so why should dates matter?

The date-inclusion folk point out that the whole point of the blog format is to produce content with dates. New is preferred to old for good reasons. At the very least, your visitor might feel a bit stupid commenting on a post that’s 2 years old. (Dateless tends to go with commentless, though, which might remove that objection).

Do people notice, and does it matter?

I don’t know if people notice. I always notice, but then I notice things like this for a living. I am not necessarily the core customer for those sites.  The really key question is whether the core customer for those sites notices or cares.

Does it matter? Hmmm. My own reaction to dateless sites is a little bit like my reaction to Hollister’s dark, dark shops: my senses tingle a little. It makes me aware that I’m in a marketing zone; there’s a bigger game going on and I’m being spun. I certainly read and love a number of websites which are dateless, but you know? I also take everything they do with a pinch of salt.

Speaking personally, I’m wary: the lights are a little low for my liking.

Should you take off the date?

I don’t know. You really need to find out from your own audience.

Still, my hunch would be, if your brand has honesty and transparency at its core, you should keep your dates. If you have great content that’s older, update it or find a way to showcase it more prominently on your site.

If it embarrasses you that you are irregular in your posting habits, either write more regularly or let it go. It is what it is.

That’s my take on dates.

In the comments, I would love your thoughts on this. Do you notice this, and does it have a particular meaning for you?


Online lions and offline lambs

February 28, 2011

Lion finger puppet

Brave lion. By getdancey_ on flickr

I’ve been thinking about personality, and how it differs between our online  and offline selves.  There is a hope, expressed by all sorts of people, that the internet represents an easy way to understand exactly what people think.

According to this argument, if we listen to internet conversations (scrape them, analyse them, Google-alert them) then we know what’s going on. It’s just a case of data reduction.

I think that’s incredibly problematic, and here are three difficulties that I see with this way of thinking.

1. Online lions may be offline lambs

It feels practically taboo to write this.  In the course of a long and happy internet-mediated life, I have met many people in the flesh that I first knew online.   Many of my closest friends are people that I’ve met like this.

But I have also learned that some extremely important aspects of personality don’t always come through online.  The most obvious example is shyness or social awkwardness.   Here, the online life and soul of the party turns out to be quiet or taciturn when you meet them.

The internet has been massively freeing to introverted souls (and I’d count myself among them), but online vivacity may or may not match the way that person behaves in a real world social situation.

Online hostility also easily dribbles to nothing, whether it’s backbiting on Oh No They Didn’t, misogyny on Youtube, or simple nastiness on the Guardian.

In my Livejournal days, it was practically a given that the most unpleasant, personal, evil  troll in a flamewar would turn out to be a 15 year old girl from Ohio with a locked journal and a penchant for My Chemical Romance.

But some lions really are lions. Wherever they go.

Sometimes, you can’t really tell.

2. We constantly perform ourselves – but some performances are more truthful than other.

Peggy Orenstein in the New York Times has written about  Twitter as a self-conscious performance.   We act for the crowd.  My research colleague Ray Poynter has pointed out that in a sense this doesn’t matter -  all conversation is social, in that it’s spoken with an audience in mind.  The internet is just another location where that is true.

I would argue that, yes, all conversation has an element of performance – but some of those performances are elaborate artifices, while others come close to expressing our essential thoughts and values.

Think of the difference between a job interview and lunch with a close friend.

Our performances are shaped by our ideas of who’s listening, and how free we feel to to express our genuine emotions.

Facebook me is friendly and a little bit formal.

Twitter me can be silly one minute and self-aggrandising the next.

LinkedIn me is a social climbing nightmare.

I’ve written elsewhere about a project I did which involved one-to-one telephone interviews followed by focus groups.  In one interview, I spoke to a guy who had a lot of insight ggained from his time spent on gay dating sites. During the focus group, he didn’t volunteer any of that to the straight-looking people around him.  He simply wasn’t comfortable enough.

We edit ourselves.

3. We want to look bigger than we are

In our working lives, we like to self-present as authoritative and popular.

In our social lives (I have a teenager who lives on Facebook), it’s the same.

In a world where business relationships are founded on Twitter interchange and blog commenting, we  are often playing ourselves as bigger, richer and more successful than we really are.  It can be a guessing game, sometimes: does that man who auto-Tweets his way through the weekend really have a major business?  Or is it just smoke and mirrors?

We might find out, if we meet. (Or we might not)

The truth of who we are and what we value lives somewhere between our status updates and the conversation we might have face-to-face.

I’m tempted to draw some kind of moral (What does this mean for Your Thing), because I think these gaps and misfits have some interesting consequences.  But I don’t think it’s simple.  Thoughts welcome.