I Like Ike, or, The Naive User and the Problem of Chronology

I had a minor breakthrough yesterday. For some now I've been trying to think of a creator known for his or her wide and disparate output, so that I could think about the problems involved with presenting my material without the distraction of thinking about me specifically. I had been using Joss Whedon as an example in my head, but it wasn't really working.

Yesterday, I finally figured it out: Isaac Asimov. I've read more of Asimov's work than any other author, which makes sense because he produced more work than the vast majority of authors. Not only that, but he wrote all kinds of stuff. Science fiction, certainly, but also non-SF mysteries, science essays, science books, opinion essays, guides to Shakespeare and the Bible, six collections of limericks, twice as many autobiographies as Barack Obama, and much, much more.

Plus, he and I are both known for our cheerful egotism and fabulous facial hair. So there's some affinity there.

So that really helps me to think about this with a smidgen of objectivity. Here's the central question: If a friend of mine read something of Asimov's and wanted me to suggest what to read next, what would I recommend?

There are a few good answers to that question. There is also one obvious bad answer to that question: "Whatever he wrote next in strict chronological order."

"Oh, you enjoyed that short story about robots? Awesome, here's a whole book about physics! And when you're done with that, I have an awesome Gilbert & Sullivan parody song for you!"

So why this obsession with chronology on the Web? In many cases, it's justified. I'd rather read PvP or Questionable Content in chronological order than, say, by order of most Facebook likes.

On the other hand, if I wanted to read everything by Kris Straub I'd want to read all of Starslip, then move on to Chainsawsuit or whatever, rather than reading the strips braided together. Which, presumably, is why he has them in different domains rather than one big hellafeed.

Getting back to Asimov, then. If I knew the person, I could make a personalized recommendation, but it seems to me that the best answer to the generic question "I just read a short story from I, Robot and liked it, what should I read next?" is "Another short story from I, Robot."

Similarly, if someone loves Asimov's book on the Roman Empire, then hand that person another of his history books. And if they love the limericks, god help them, their best bet is probably more limericks. Eventually they'll either reach the end of their chosen genre, or they'll get curious about what else this Asimov dude is up to.

So I thought about how to present my material, if not chronologically. There's always the temptation to do what I briefly did before Bad Gods got hacked, which is to turn it into a sort of self-contained bookshelf, with each series being a different "book." But it occurred to me that in the real world, book publishers spend a lot of ink at the end of a given book begging you to pick up another book by the same author.

That's when I realized: I can just have the last page of one "book" lead into the first page of the next. So at the beginning of the site we have all the Ratings in chronological order, followed by all the Lore Brand Comics in chronological order, followed by all of Bandwidth Theater, and so forth.

This actually solves a lot of issues I'd been having:

  • I don't need to have a "show more like this" button. You're already next to "more like this."
  • The slider becomes more useful. If you're looking for a specific Lore Brand Comic, you can quickly move the slider into the Lore Brand Comics section and check it out more carefully from there.
  • Providing access to specific series becomes much simpler; the list is essentially just a Table of Contents, with a links to the first article in the series.
  • I don't have to worry about whether a series is too short. Yes, there are only two Sean and Wormwood pages at the moment, but once a new reader gets through those, they move seamlessly into the next section.
  • Similarly, creating a new series from something currently in Apocrypha doesn't break anything, because the page doesn't need to change URLs.

However, it brings up one huge issue that I'm not sure I've worked out: It's ideal for the naive user, but completely abandons the invested user. How do I give readers the chance to keep up with the latest material if my next Speak With Monsters comic is buried at the end of the Speak With Monsters section?

Here are a few approaches I've considered and set aside.

  1. Separate Domain

    I could have a chronologically-ordered site, say timeline.badgods.com, for returning users, while keeping badgods.com sorted by series.

    The problem: I can't control which URL gets shared with others. If a new reader gets sent to timeline.badgods.com, then I'm back to square one. Furthermore, while I think the actual URL is rarely relevant, users are so used to the home page being the most recent material, I'm reluctant to break that expectation.

  2. Order by Entry Page

    I could use referrers or passed values to keep track of how a user is navigating. If they come directly to a specific page, it's in series order, but if they come to the homepage and navigate from there, it's in chronological order.

    The problem: Referrers and cookies shouldn't be required for basic, no-frills navigation. Furthermore, there are all sorts of ways this breaks, most of which I'm probably not thinking of. One example: You're catching up on the latest material after a while. You start at the homepage and work your way back. After you're six pages in, you need to go to work, so you bookmark the page you're on -- say it's a Lore Brand Comic -- and leave. Later, you pull up the bookmark, hit the previous button, and...you're looking at another, months-old, Lore Brand Comic

  3. Ask the User

    At some point, I'm going to see if I can get the site to remember your position and ask if you'd like to go there, the way various Kindle apps do. Similarly, the site could ask "Do you want to read this in chronological order, or by series?"

    The problem: Once again, cookies and such should add to the experience, not be required. And I'm going to have to come up with a default sort for those who don't have them, so it doesn't actually solve the problem. Finally, throwing up a confounding question with no useful context is a very poor way to serve the naive user. It's like walking into a restaurant and having your waiter ask, first thing, "Do you want the festival menu or the extravaganza menu?"

I have a couple other ideas, but they all depend on cookies. What's becoming clear is that, whatever else I add, I need to come up with a basic default sort.

So here's what I'm going with for the moment: All the old material ordered by series, followed by the newest material in chronological order. I'm thinking the cut-off will probably be the latest 30 entries, at least in the first iteration.

It's a compromise, but I think it might work out. Here's the reason.

First off, I want the naive user to get more of the same, but that doesn't mean it has to be all of the same. If someone reads 170 Lore comics, I don't think it matters if two more Lore comics are saved for the "Latest" section.

Secondly, the naive user who comes to the homepage gets what they expect: The latest stuff in chronological order. Because I'm not a news site, it doesn't matter if, after the first thirty entries, the order switches to series. To the reader, it's the same as if I sat down and wrote a bunch of Speak With Monsters in a row a couple years ago. Hell, even I wouldn't be able to tell you if "Mimic" really came right after "Owlbear" or if I wrote something in between. In other words, as far as most users know or care, it's working exactly as expected.

Thirdly, the invested user will get what they expect; the ability to visit the site every couple of weeks and catch up on what's new. In the future I'd like to make this process even easier, but this way complies with expectations and works without cookies.

So who gets left out?

  • Readers who, for some damn reason, insist on strict chronological order. Maybe they want to see how my art has evolved over the years or somesuch. That's where plicature comes in: I'll eventually put an option somewhere deep (well, deep-ish) in the plicature to force strict chronological order. Power users, the ones who will want such a feature, will be willing to find it, and not-so-power users will get a better default experience.

  • A very specific slice of my readership: people who are invested enough in the site to visit it repeatedly, but not invested enough to visit it at least once a month, and who care that they might miss a few articles, but not enough to find the "force chronological order" switch or to subscribe to the RSS feed (which will remain in chronological order, because that's what RSS feeds are for). All I can say to that is "you can't hug every cat."

Having said all that, the proof will be in the posting. One aspect of design is realizing when something you thought was brilliant actually is not. I thought it was pretty cool that the header and footer elements in the current Bad Gods are semi-transparent. I thought it would make the page feel more open and give a sense of whitespace. However, it's consistently being interpreted as a rendering bug by my readers, which suggests to me that it's more distracting than anything. So I put in a hotfix, and the next revision will see the return of the toolbars.