The power of the dark side (of digital content)

30 November 2015

I’ve been watching a lot of Star Wars recently, and I think I may be missing something. It seems way too easy to turn to the Dark Side.

Look at poor old Anakin. He really wanted to be good and for quite a while he was. The Jedi took him from his mother when he was 6 years old, then he watched her die minutes after he next sees her – yet still he’s on the Light side.

OK, so he kills a lot of Tusken raiders, but ‘good’ Jedi run around killing people as part of a normal working day, so was that really Dark?

He’s forbidden to fall in love, yet he’s practically thrown at that sexy minx Padme. Sure, the relationship’s a bit rocky to start with, but it doesn’t get in the way of his Jedi-ing (at first). And really, can love be considered Dark?

Yes, I know the Emperor uses the threat of Padme dying to turn him, but I’m not convinced it was is love that put him at risk, there was a fair amount of ego-stroking there too.

So, what was so Dark about him? He seemed like every other sulky, arrogant 18 year old I’ve ever met. The first time I saw Revenge of the Sith, I had difficulty telling him apart from my brother at the same age – has an answer for everything, usually in mono-syllabic grunts, and he’s angry at the world for not spinning his way.

But he was moody and arrogant way before he became Dark. He spent half the trilogy arguing with poor old Ewen McGregor about pretty much everything.

It seems like he only became Dark when he stopped listening to Ewen and started listening to the corporate big wigs – you know, the Emperor (think Marketing Manager) and Darth (Product Owner?).

Maybe that’s it. Maybe being Dark isn’t about giving into your hate and anger, as the Emperor keeps saying. Maybe it’s giving into the corporate mindset? Thinking only about the bottom line, rather than what the customers need?

That certainly seems to be the case out here in Web World.

Think about it, what is the content that immediately turns us off?

Blogs and tweets and content marketing that says “Look at me. Listen to me. Buy my product / service…” but doesn’t really offer the reader anything useful. Ego-centric and attention seeking puffery, talking up the company / product / service but not really telling the reader anything useful.

Advertising in general often fits in this category.

Most of us start out the same way as young Anakin. We may not be chock full of mediclourians, but we’re equally full of ideas, writing styles, grammar (hopefully) and good syntax. And we all have high ideals about writing clear and useful content, helping web visitors with useful, usable content and generally making the web a better place.

We start out writing highly worthy content, maybe even pieces for not-for-profit organisations. We remain true to the ‘force’ and edit our content carefully to keep it clear, concise and beneficial to our readers.

But then the mighty dollar comes into play. We have to make a living out of our Jedi writing talents. Whether we end up working for large corporations, or we simply contract out to the highest bidder, money becomes the driving force behind why we write.

After all, we have to make a living don’t we?

And it is kinda nice being paid to do what you love.

Whether it’s the first time you see your name as the by-line on an online news site or your manager complements you for writing 20 pages of marketing content in one week, just producing content can give you a buzz.

To tell the truth, with all the sign-offs you need, and all the arguments you need to have with ‘non-content people’, to get the content approved on a corporate website, just seeing the stuff published can be a real high (or sigh of relief).

This is where the Dark Side waits.

Writing content can very easily stop being about providing useful information to your readers and become something darker.

It happens like this.

You write some useful, interesting, beneficial content and submit it for signoff.

Marketing say that it lacks brand appeal and needs more selling points.

Product says that it doesn’t talk up the new functions of the product enough.

Communications say it’s not using the company voice.

Legal are concerned that it may put the company at risk, but won’t tell you how or what changes to make.

Your manager is happy with it but feels that it needs an image to catch the reader’s attention.

You try to take the feedback constructively, tuck your UX ideals firmly back into a box and write a second draft.

Marketing are happy with the brand aspect but are concerned that the selling points aren’t obvious enough.

Product say the product functions are there but you haven’t given them enough prominence.

Communications concatenates all your text to make it more ‘personable’.

Legal feel you’ve lessened the risk, but feel you’ve talked up the product features too much and may be over promising.

Your manager likes the image but the text is too long to fit around it without readers having to scroll.

You take five, have a coffee and try not to pull your hair out.

After the coffee, you rewrite the content to fit everyone’s comments, shorten it to please your manger, take out all the useful information so that Legal are appeased and fill in the blanks with adjectives and hyperbole so that Product are happy.

Everyone loves the content. You feel pleased, but somehow a little hollow.

And little bit by little bit, you slip over to the Dark Side, where the corporate agenda takes the place of useful content.

It is a slippery slope.

Sadly, we can’t just convince the Product Owner (that’s our Darth Vader) to turn to the Light side and throw Marketing into a convenient generator shaft. We have to do it the hard way.

Each time we get feedback that pulls our content towards the Dark side of corporate marketese and puffery, we have fight back with usability and common (or not so common) sense.

We may not have light sabers but we have our writing skills, an Internet full of best practice content writing examples and the force on our side.

Well maybe not the force, but we do have usability testing, site statistics and live chat. You can always turn to the Rebellion (our customers) if you need more fire power.