An international web

Paul Boag

I hope you will excuse the slightly self-absorbed nature of this post. It is mainly an apology but also hopefully an opportunity to learn some lessons and look at how communicating on the web is a unique experience.

When I first started the podcast I had a very specific tone I wanted to strike. I wanted it to feel like it was a bunch of mates sitting in the pub talking about web design. A simple enough goal you might imagine but in reality it may well be almost impossible to achieve. Let me explain what I mean…

The apology

Yesterday I received an email from a first time listener to the show complaining about me teasing Americans. At first I thought nothing of it. I have learnt to be fairly thick skinned. Whenever you put content out on the web you are bound to attract criticism from time to time. However, I did post on twitter about it and this kicked off an interesting conversation.

It quickly became apparent that my “jokes” could be seen as offensive by some of my American listeners. So, before I go any further let me say that I am sorry if this is the case. It was certainly never my intention to offend anybody and I will certainly try and tone things done in the future.

Analyzing the mistake

That said, lets go on to look at what went wrong and what broader lessons can be learnt. Lessons which can apply to us all rather than to just an insensitive podcaster.

When you screw up as much as I do you quickly learn to analysis your mistake to avoid repeating history. As a result the email obsessed me for much of yesterday afternoon. Thanks to contributions from Thomas Vander Wal and Anton Peck it quickly became clear that the problem lay in my failure to accept the nature of the medium in which I work. Unlike my original desire for the tone of the show, producing a podcast cannot be like chatting with your mates in the pub. I think there are three specific problems with that premise:

My audience are not my mates – However much I would like to convey that feeling, ultimately my audience do not know me. They do not understand my sense of humor or know that I mean no offense when I overstep the line.

They are not sitting with me – The listeners to Boagworld cannot see me. They cannot pick up on my body language or see the grin on my face. They have only the tone of my voice to judge the intent behind my words. As we all know body language is a huge part of how we understand what is being said.

“The pub” and “mates” are very British centric – Even in my thinking about the tone of the show I was exhibiting a very British outlook on the world. Any web based content is very international in its reach. It isn’t confined to a people group even if that is your intention. Even though the British and Americans speak the same language we have very different cultures. I am not going to embarrass myself by trying to guess the differences. However, I know that when programmes such as the Simpsons or Family guy portray the english as buck toothed, weedy, posh blokes this doesn’t offend me. To me they are poking fun at a stereotype, not me personally. Perhaps this has something to do with the perception of national identity. I don’t know. All I know is there is a difference, a difference that until now I have largely ignored.

Lessons learnt

So enough peering at my navel. What lessons can we learn from this. We all run websites. Most of us blog. We are constantly speaking to a world wide audience. How can we ensure that our communications do not cause offense or indeed drive users away. Here are some suggestions.

Be careful with humor

I think my personal mistake makes it very clear that humor can be a particularly dangerous area. For example British humor is very sarcastic, subtle and self deprecating. There is a good reason why most UK sitcoms don’t do well abroad or have to be remade.

Don’t be fooled by a common language

Just because people are reading your website in your language doesn’t mean they have the same cultural background. I am constantly amazed at how different the english speaking world is. I think the fact that we speak the same language lulls us into a false sense of security. Of course there is also a mass of people who will still read your website, but english is their second language. These need even more care because it is easy for them to misunderstand what you have written if their english is not perfect.

Consider getting a copywriter

If people struggle to understand humor in a podcast, where you can hear somebody speaking, how much more of a problem is it in written word? I often talk about the fact that the copy on your site should be engaging and draw users in. It is hard to do this with the written word alone. How do you communicate enthusiasm, empathy or indeed any other emotion without body language or tone of voice. This is a highly skilled area and I think as website owners we need to seriously consider using professional writers to help us get it right.

Review before posting

Think twice before posting anything. We all know that don’t we? You read through the copy of your website over and over again, right? Same with your blog posts? What about your posts on twitter? Hmm… maybe not :)

Look beyond the written word

Finally, I just wanted to mention that I don’t think this problem of cultural differences and misunderstandings due to medium is limited solely to the written word. We have already seen it applies to audio, but what about the video or the imagery on your site. A lot of websites contain imagery that convey huge cultural meaning. I am not even talking about the obvious stuff like showing bare flesh in an Islamic country. I am talking about the more subtle things too. For example recently I went to a website that offered a service which allows users to record audio messages for the podcast by calling a normal telephone number. I have looked at loads of these sites before and they always only provide a US phone number. Well I arrived at this new site hoping it would be different but took one look at the design and use of imagery and immediately left. The look of the site was so US centric and the stock imagery was full of people who were obviously American that I left before even checking the details.

So there you have it. My screw up, my apology and hopefully some stuff we can all learn from it. Am I going to dramatically change the show? Absolutely not. Am I going to give more consideration to some aspects of how I present stuff? Absolutely.