writing about front-end/respect your ghost audience

I'm not good at New Year's resolutions myself, but that doesn't mean I'm not allowed to give some pointers to the people still looking to fill their own list of 2011 resolutions. One thing I noticed this past year is that our supposed best practices decline pretty fast when technologies like html5 and css3 arrive on the horizon. While testing and pure experimental fiddling is crucial to further development, without context it can quickly turn into the downfall of our profession.

the act of blogging

According to ALA's Web Survey 2009 a good 70% of all you guys out there have a blog of your own. According to that same survey a good 95% uses the web (at least to some degree) to stay up to date with the current evolutions in our job. You are probably amongst those 95%, if not you wouldn't be reading this blog in the first place. You'd think that this would put a lot of weight on the shoulders of all us bloggers out there, but the act of blogging completely eclipses this supposed responsibility. With that comes a certain danger.

Writing for the web is quite unique in the sense that the whole world is your audience. Of course not everyone will read what you write, but with a minimum of effort that part of society that has access to the web can reach your article in mere seconds. We all know this, but truly realizing this is something else entirely. If you have stats running on your site, I challenge you to take a look at your demographic and try to image actual people reading your article on their computer in Palau, Kiribati or Gabon. To be honest, before I checked I didn't even know these were actual countries.

Most of us would rather look for our answers on the web instead of flipping through a book. I am definitely one of those people, I never even looked at a book on web development before. If I need info, I turn to Google. And even though I often compare different sources to check the validity of information, I'm fully aware that information found on the web is potentially not as researched or factual as information found in a book or magazine.

Seen from a writer's perspective, if you write for paid press you can somewhat safely assume that the people reading your articles will be dedicated enough to grasp the unwritten implications behind certain techniques and theories. After all, they paid to get to the information so they mean business. But when writing for the web we can't assume anything about our potential audience. Oh sure, we all love to believe we have a hardened clan of followers that still remembers what we wrote 20 posts back, but in the end the majority of people reading our articles will be a less defined mix of amateurs, passers-by and professionals. Assuming they have sound prior knowledge to get the basics of what you're trying to tell them is simply erroneous.

taking responsibility

Recently a lot of new people have been flocking to new standards and technologies like html5 and css3. These are often people with little prior knowledge of concepts that took a long time to finally ground themselves as best practices. It's not that these newcomers are lazy or uninvolved, but if they lack the proper background knowledge they will be making all the same mistakes we made 10 years ago. Graceful degradation, accessibility, separation of content/style and function ... these are all important axioms to make the next 5 years in front-end development work.

That's why it is important to realize the responsibility we have when writing about our profession. We're not just writing for professionals or dedicated enthusiasts but also for an audience that just happened to stumble on our article by accident. These people might be picking up a lot from our articles, but without a proper context they are doomed to fail.

This is not a plea to provide a detailed explanation of each pitfall for each how-to article we write. A simple notion, link or reference to the needed information is more than sufficient to point people into the right direction. What they do with this information is up to them of course, you can't force people to read anything, but by omitting this info you're denying them the chance to catch up on essential knowledge.

conclusion

I'm the first one to admit that planning for the worst when writing an article can get a little tedious. It's a lot easier to suppose people already know all the important bits on which you can build your article. But providing proper information is key to ensuring our profession grows in the right direction. We've fought long and hard to establish the slim base of best practices currently available, it would be a shame to lose them just because there are some new flashy bits peeping around the corner.