Jakob Nielsen, the controversial text-centric usability expert, argues that experts shouldn’t blog in his latest UseIt column. As I read it, his argument is as follows:

Even if you’re the world’s top expert, your worst posting will be below average, which will negatively impact on your brand equity.


The beauty of the blogosphere is that it’s a self-organizing system. Whenever something good appears, other blogs link to it and it gets promoted in the system and gains higher visibility. Thus, the 24 postings that are better than our expert’s very best attempt will gain higher prominence, even though they’re written by people with lower overall expertise.

So if you’re that top expert, you’ll still have trouble convincing the rest of the world that you’re the top expert because not all your posts will be equally excellent – and some will be worse than people who have less expertise than you.

Clearly Nielsen is speaking here to a traditional, old-school expert, and is advising him or her to maintain his or her position as the expert through continuing to use the traditional means for asserting authority. Which might in fact be good advice to such a person. Inversely, I assume, anyone who isn’t already known as the top expert on something should definitely go ahead and blog!

Nielsen doesn’t think experts should stay away from the web, just that they should stick to longer, more detailed and comprehensive articles rather than quick blog posts. These, he writes, will be more highly valued. Of course, he’s right that such articles are important and valuable – but if you don’t engage in other discussions they might never be found.

Of course, Nielsen’s post has already annoyed bloggers. Robert Scoble has a rather venomous post about it, and takes it entirely personally. No wonder, really – just as Henry Jenkins’s first column on blogging called bloggers “cockroaches” (this was the editor’s term, not Jenkins’s, but still not a good look), Nielsen chooses to call bloggers “monkeys”. Thanks, mate.

In contrast, in-depth content that takes much longer to create is beyond the abilities of the lesser experts. A thousand monkeys writing for 1,000 hours doesn’t add up to Shakespeare. They’ll actually create a thousand low-to-medium-quality postings that aren’t integrated and that don’t give readers a comprehensive understanding of the topic — even if those readers suffer through all 1,000 blogs.

Jakob Nielsen does in fact have lots of useful advice in his columns on usability, and I’ve used his work in teaching often. He has very clear advice which has lots of good points – as well as leaving plenty of scope for discussion, which works great in the classroom. The most common student comment is that his website is so ugly, which in a way is true, but in another way, simply fits his message: focus on textual content, make it succinct and easy to find, skip fancy graphics and visual design. I believe visual design is a lot more important than Nielsen would, but I also think textual organisation is crucial. See, for instance, Microcontent: How to Write Headlines, Page Titles, and Subject Lines, How Users Read on the Web, and other Alertbox columns. Note also that these URLs have been stable for a decade, a usability achievement in itself!

I’m really glad that there are lots of us monkeys willing to blog, though, aren’t you?

2 thoughts on “if you’re already an expert, don’t blog, jakob nielsen says

  1. Martin GL

    God yes, and I think Nielsen doesn’t quite get the point.

    First, the individual blog post is only one unit of measurement in a blog. Despite all the focus on single posts, the entire blog adds up to a comprehensive, multipronged argument or a lot of little nibbles at the big bite of subject matter(s) which the blog discusses. One needs to look at how the blog accumulates over time. It’s not each individual piece of jill/txt that makes it interesting, its the whole thing when read over time. Bloggers are constantly writing hugely long articles covering all sorts of subject matter over hundreds and thousands of individual posts. The accumulated argument is huge and can be as in-depth as anything. I just finished my MA thesis in May, where I among other things have an analysis of Michael BÈrubÈ’s blog which when taken all together adds up to many thousands (tens of thousands, counting comments) of pages of work of all kinds, both academic, political & satirical.

    Second, Nielsen assumes that the in-depth, completed thinking is all an expert is really good for. Sketches and improvisations have different value, must be read differently from the completed article. He misunderstands the whole mindset of the blog reader, I think.

    me and my monkey(s).

  2. […] Henry Jenkins also initially used this us vs. them rhetoric to talk about bloggers, as Torill and I discussed in our essay Blogging Thoughts (pdf). Now he blogs himself. Jakob Nielsen, a well-established though today somewhat controversial usability expert, argues that experts shouldn’t blog. Habermas has expressed concern that intellectuals are “suffocating from the excess of this vitalising element, as if they were overdosing”. […]

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