A couple of days ago Clay Shirky put up a blog post on his WordPress blog that got a fair amount of play. I don’t have anything to say about the post itself because I haven’t read it, for reasons that I will explain momentarily. I do have something to say about Clay’s blog, however, and it’s something I first noticed last year, when another of Clay’s posts was being bandied about.
What caught my attention then, as now, is that the man who wrote Here Comes Everybody is making some odd choices in presenting himself and his thoughts to the public. To see what I mean, pop over to Clay’s blog, where you’ll find a minimalist, two-column WordPress template, with one nagging concession to form over function. (And I say this as a decidedly form-follows-function person, which is going to be driven home in embarrassing fashion in the following paragraphs.)
Specifically, Clay’s desire for a streamlined look prompted him to use justified text in his blog formatting — meaning spaces between words are varied on a per-line basis, so each line is the same length, regardless of the words in the line. Like this.
Now, I’m not making the case that justified text is universally problematic. The great majority of newspapers use justified text, so obviously it works in some situations. Newspapers compensate for the problems inherent in justified text, however, by presenting text in narrow columns. The justified formatting makes the column itself readily apparent and easy to follow, while the narrow column width prevents the eye from becoming lost or confused as it sweeps back and forth.
Problems arise with wider blocks of justified text, such as those on Clay’s blog. First, the eye has more of a chance to stumble while reading a longer line because there are more spaces between more words, and the spacing between those words is not consistent. In order to get both the right and left sides of each line to be flush with all other lines, the spaces between the words in a line are varied, meaning the eye has to adjust to those spacings on a word-for-word basis. (If you think about hopping across a stream on evenly-spaced rocks, versus hopping across a stream on rocks with variable spacing, you’ll see the problem.)
Second, when the eye reaches the end of a line of justified text there is no clear reference point by which the eye can then navigate to the left side of the text and pick up the next line. With a flush-left block of text, where the word spacing is consistent and the right-side margin is ragged, the eye can use differences in the end of each line for reference as it moves back to the left. (The paragraphs on this blog are flush-left.)
Now, I mention all this not because the home-page posts on Clay’s WordPress blog are particularly difficult to read. The left side of the text is anchored by the edge of the white content area in the layout, and that helps the eye find each new line. But when I originally linked to both of Clay’s blog posts, I wasn’t taken to the home page for his blog. Instead, the links I followed took me directly to the post pages, one of which you’ll find here.
What you’ll find if you click that link is that the blog post is now displayed down the center of the background image, emphasizing the symmetry of the justified text by centering the column of text. The problem with this is that it removes yet another landmark (the left side of the background image) by which the eye can track its location on the page.
To see what I mean — and to see if you agree — I’d encourage you to click that link and start reading, and keep track of how long it takes before you get lost, or feel like you’re lost, or generally just lose your ability to concentrate on Clay’s words. Because in both instances it didn’t take me long. And it kept happening. And after a while I started thinking maybe it was just me: that I was tired, perhaps, or unable to keep up with Clay’s forward-thinking wattage.
As I kept reading, however, I noticed that it was happening constantly, and in the same way. Read…read…read…uh…where was I?
Now, if this was anybody else, I wouldn’t say anything about it. Or I might drop Clay a private note about my experience. But when you’re in the business of telling everyone else how things actually work, it seems to me that conceding form a more prominent role than function in your blog formatting goes a bit against the grain of your own message.
The punchline? If you go to Clay’s web site, you’ll find that every last bit of text is flush-left.
Bonus weirdness? If, like me, you end up on Clay’s blog pages from a link, you’ll find there’s no way for you to link to Clay’s web site from the blog. By the same token, if you start at Clay’s web site there’s no way to link to his WordPress blog. (If there is, I couldn’t find it.) And these are not separate sites on separate hosts: the WordPress blog is in a sub-folder on the web site domain.
Super-bonus weirdness? The first post on Clay’s web site (not the blog) talks about Here Comes Everybody. There are two links that reference the book in the same post: one to a page that contains purchase info, one to a blog for the book itself. The blog for the book looks nothing like Clay’s web site or his WordPress blog. In effect, it’s as if all three of Clay’s sites exist in their own world, with none linking to the others through any sort of consistent navigation. (The most recent post on Clay’s book blog is from May 5, 2008, meaning the site has essentially been abandoned.)
I’m not kidding when I say that it would be very easy for someone who runs across Clay’s web site or Clay’s blog to assume that they were looking at the entirety of Clay’s offerings. Which raises a number of questions. If the internet is as big a deal as Clay and others say it is, why does he have such a confused, inconsistent (and in places outdated) web presence? Or has Clay’s celebrity moved beyond the limits (and obligations) of good web design, to the world of lecture halls and TV appearances?
Relative to the ongoing debate about the importance of celebrity and platform for individual authors, Clay Shirky’s web presence brazenly flies in the face of conventional wisdom. Why hasn’t Clay devoted time to creating up-to-date order out of his own web-presence chaos? Is he too busy? Does he care? Does it even matter? Clay?
— Mark Barrett