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A Case Study in How Not to Communicate with Readers of a Blog

May 13th, 2012 by Paul Hutchinson

A post on the Document Foundation Blog last week confused all the readers, including myself, and the author has only compounded the confusion. So, I thought I’d use it as a case study to point out what I feel are best practices for blog writers.

Here’s the post:

There is currently a discussion going on about removing our Facebook group in favor of a regular page. If you want to join the discussion, we look forward to your comments!

The initial responses where all basically variations of, a regular web page is better than requiring Facebook enrollment. While the link at the end of the two sentence post pointed to Facebook, it didn’t occur to anyone commenting that the author had a very different idea of what a “regular page” is.

After seven comments the author added this comment:

Before we get into endless threads about who likes Facebook and who doesn’t: …

So, the question to discuss here is not whether to post at Facebook at all, but rather whether to have two pages there or only one.

As soon as I saw this I realized that the author was either unclear in his initial writing or attributes a very different meaning to the phrase “regular page”. The final sentence of the comment makes it very clear that in his initial post he meant, removing our Facebook group in favor of a Facebook page. Most bloggers would have modified the original post so that it aligns with the author’s comment but this didn’t happen, the post was left as is with its original confusing language intact.

I replied to his comment with this:

Oh sorry, I misunderstood your blog post.

IMHO, if you are asking solely about having one or two Facebook pages then it’s best to not even mention it on the blog, keep it on Facebook only. Then I and other non-Facebook users won’t see it and respond.

The next day my reply was replied to by another person:

He meant not two pages _there_ (on Facebook), rather one there _and_ one outside of Facebook.

This reply clearly demonstrated the problem with not modifying a post that is clearly confusing all the readers. This commenter had a third variation in interpretation of what this post and later author comment were trying to say.

After seeing this further confusion, my hope was that he would do one of the things that other bloggers do when a misunderstanding happens. The first and IME most common way to rectify the situation is to acknowledge the problem in a comment and also edit the original post to clarify or correct the information. An example of this technique is this post on the Bad Astronomy blog. Another viable option is to skip the comment and instead only edit the post to clarify the information. For this specific Document Foundation post a third viable option is to simply delete the post altogether since it only applies to Facebook users not general blog readers. Generally it’s not a good idea to delete posts as it can lead to odd conspiracy rants about disappearing information, but in this particular situation I think that risk is minimal.

Over the following days more comments piled up showing that the confusion was in no way reduced. On the sixth day a comment was left stating the commenter would just use Microsoft Office since the only place to discuss LibreOffice is Facebook. This was yet another way of misunderstanding the authors intent and definitely over the top but that is to be expected on blogs.

When I saw that comment I thought that maybe this further showing of the confusion would prompt the author to fix the situation but sadly I was wrong. Rather than own up to the problem the author posted the following comment.

Did anyone actually read my posting? ;-)
As said, it is good to “pick up people” where they are. To spread the message about LibreOffice and free software, we also use Facebook, because it helps to reach an audience we would not reach otherwise.
However, the only official communication and discussion channel was and is our mailing lists, so don’t worry.
Comments like “I do not use Facebook” do not help this discussion at all.

Ugh, that is perhaps the absolute worst possible way to handle a situation of misunderstanding with your readers. If every single comment on your blog shows that your readers are not understanding what you’re writing don’t accuse them of poor reading comprehension (even with a winking emoticon). The author should face the fact that they have not been clear in communicating with their readers and take steps to clarify the post.

To wrap up, here’s my recommendations for avoiding the problems that occurred.

  1. Don’t post items to your blog when you don’t want comments from all of your blog readers. In this case it was a topic only meant for Facebook users so it should only be posted to Facebook. An exception to this would be when you are trying to encourage your readers to sign up for another platform. In that case go ahead and post but make it crystal clear that you are recruiting for the other platform.
  2. When 100% of your readers are not interpreting your words as you intended, assume you are not clear in what you wrote. Then take the time to figure out why there is confusion and attempt to clarify your wording by editing your post (and optionally add a comment acknowledging the confusion and apologize for creating it). Even when only a minority of your readers are misunderstanding, you should re-think what you wrote and if possible rephrase it to minimize misunderstandings.
  3. Be humble, don’t accuse your readers of poor reading comprehension. As an author it is your responsibility to write in a way that conveys your intent clearly to your readers. While there is no way for me to know for certain, I suspect some of the Document Foundation blog readers will be turned off by the way this played out and will stop reading that authors posts or the entire blog.

There is an exception I’ll make to these recommendations. If it is a personal blog and you don’t care about readership then do whatever you find fun. In fact specifically trying to be unclear and creating confusion is considered a fun pastime for some people (trolling). I don’t enjoy it but with personal blogs the primary goal should be for the author to have fun so if it’s your cup of tea go for it. But when you are blogging for an organization you should always try to be as clear as possible and make it easy for the blog readers to get your point.

A final word, being only an amateur writer I may not have clearly expressed my thoughts in this post (or any post I ever make). Also my blog is set to close comments one month after the last comment is received, if you come here later simply email me and I’ll reset the system so that you can add a comment.

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