Those of us who read the documentation for software before installing it (though we are, it seems, members of a pitifully small minority) know that the most illuminating part is the “Known Issues” section. It’s here that, hopefully, you discover all the problems you are likely to face – and can make an educated decision as to whether to continue. So I wonder if it’s time that blogs were forced to include a Readme document that points to known issues with the content.
OK, so this obviously makes sense for blog posts that contain technical content and programming tips, but I reckon we should also adopt it for more general ravings, diatribes, news, comments, and definitely for those describing the writer’s latest vacation to some conference or exotic location. It could even contain a list of prerequisites. Something like: “Before attempting to read this post, ensure that you are not already in a bad mood and that you are not currently in possession of a container of hot liquid or a sharp instrument”. Or “This post is not designed for use unless you are totally bored, semi-comatose, or there is nothing even remotely interesting on television”.
Maybe another approach would be to mandate a rating system for blog posts. Instead of violence, bad language, nudity, and discrimination we could have ratings for “Likely to annoy you”, “May cause drowsiness”, “Will break your computer”, “Contains technical stuff that you won’t be able to make work”, and “Code samples only run on Windows 95”. You would be able to adjust your RSS reader to only show posts that meet your specific required combination of such factors, or see a warning so you are properly prepared for the effects of the content before you start.
Of course, this would involve additional work for bloggers as they would have to categorize their posts before submitting them, but even this may be open to some automation. For example, I find that the weather affects my posts quite dramatically. When I wrote lasts week’s rather downbeat post about security and privacy on the web it was cold, windy, and raining. This week I’m sitting in the conservatory enjoying a lovely warm summer day, with the fan spinning lazily above me and the cat asleep on the chair next to me. So the post has a much more positive outlook and upbeat content.
Surely it wouldn’t be hard for my post editor to look up the local weather for my location and set the corresponding rating for “Upbeatness”. And there are other automation opportunities as well: for example, it could scan my machine for part installed and broken software installations and set the “Likely to break your machine” rating. Or measure the force with which I’m hitting the keys to set the “Contains aggressive and bombastic rants, possibly including bad language” rating. Maybe also analyze the content for photos that contain holiday scenes and set the corresponding “May cause drowsiness” rating.
Of course, there are other approaches that are easier to implement in the short term while we wait for W3C to approve this proposal and for developers to create the appropriate blog editors. Most blogs have the ability to tag individual posts, so authors could have relevant categories. I find this technique useful for categorizing all those posts that tend to prompt comments such as “what the heck is he on about now” or “what is this guy smoking” by tagging them in the Weird category. Which, surprisingly, seems to get the largest number of hits…