Reverse Chronological Order Considered Harmful?
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Categories: Modern

Reverse Chronological Order Considered Harmful?

Most blog templates are full of links, but most traffic is to either recent posts or search results. (And since web search does not work very well right now, and Google forgets the old web, relying on search engines is risky). Maggie Appleton has an essay on people who have thought how link structure shapes how we navigate websites.

Joel (Hooks) also added Amy Hoy’s How the Blog Broke the Web post to the pile of influential ideas that led to our current gardening infatuation. While not specifically about gardening, Amy’s piece gives us a lot of good historical context. In it, she explores the history of blogs over the last three decades, and pinpoints exactly when we all became fixated on publishing our thoughts in reverse chronological order (spoiler: around 2001 with the launch of Moveable Type).

Maggie Appleton, “A Brief History and Ethos of the Digital Garden” (2020)

Amy argues that Moveable Type didn’t just launch us into the “Chronological Sort Era“. It also killed the wild, diverse, hodge-podge personalisation of websites that characterised the early web. Instead of hand-coding your own layout and deciding exactly how to arrange the digital furniture, we began to enter the age of standardised layouts. Plug n’ play templates that you drop content into became the norm. It became harder and more technically involved to edit the HTML & CSS yourself.

(Mike) Caufield’s main argument was that we have become swept away by streams – the collapse of information into single-track timelines of events. The conversational feed design of email inboxes, group chats, and InstaTwitBook is fleeting – they’re only concerned with self-assertive immediate thoughts that rush by us in a few moments.

Gardens are organised around contextual relationships and associative links; the concepts and themes within each note determine how it’s connected to others.

This runs counter to the time-based structure of traditional blogs: posts presented in reverse chronological order based on publication date.

Gardens don’t consider publication dates the most important detail of a piece of writing. Dates might be included on posts, but they aren’t the structural basis of how you navigate around the garden. Posts are connected to other by posts through related themes, topics, and shared context.

Maggie Appleton, “A Brief History and Ethos of the Digital Garden” (2020)

You find this ‘reverse chronological order’ or ‘stream’ design pattern on blogs, newsletter blogs, microblogs, chat apps, Facebook, Patreon, RSS feeders, and so on. It is standard for webcomics too (Freefall was launched in 1998). You do not find this design pattern on online stores. On many sites, its hard to bring something from the past to the head of the stream, the way you can restart an old thread on a forum or mailing list. You can often pin things to the head of the stream, but those take up a lot of space.

Other people have written about the harm of breaking up newspapers and news magazines into a stream of atomic ‘posts.’ The old structure of print media gave many ways to ignore what you did not want and place each story in context (although it did not give a way to skip the ads).

The web 2.0 era introduced another design pattern, tagging. Tags allow you to group pages around themes without each page having to fit in exactly one group. They don’t explain how to organize pages within a tag, and its common to default to reverse chronological order.

The template which bookandsword uses has no list of tags, just a list of categories (ancient, medieval, modern, not an expert). But they are rarely very prominent. The template for sticks Categories (not templates) down at the bottom of the right-hand margin underneath the ten-year archives. I think that one reason for this is that its hard to automatically decide which tags and categories are especially important, and its even harder to decide this when you first create a site. This is a serious issue for websites to be read on smartphones, because every character of visible text displaces something else.

Some of my blog posts are just trifles, but others are substantial and repeatedly updated (eg. the post on wood in shields) or form ongoing bodies of work (eg. the series on the cost of tunics and shirts). And when I add a new Page, there is no way to show it on the feed on the homepage without creating a separate blog post which links to it. I already have this blog, Pages on this blog such as My Social Media Policy, and a separate site and mailing list for some of my other interests, but I wonder if I want to redesign this site to make it easier to navigate by topic than by date. Jo van Every tried that although I have not gone back through her archives since the redesign.

What do my gentle readers think? Which tools to navigate a classic blog with sidebars do you actually use?

(begun 17 January 2024)

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4 thoughts on “Reverse Chronological Order Considered Harmful?

  1. Aaron says:

    I’m afraid that I rarely look at earlier posts, though I may remember particular posts from a blog and look them up again through a search feature.

    1. Sean says:

      1,000 words a week on my blog for 10 years adds up!

  2. Andrew Gelman says:

    I have similar concerns. It can be hard for me to find things amid my 10,000+ posts. Many years ago I used the blog’s search button, then that got superseded by Google, but now, as you say, Google doesn’t work so well. Often I have to play around with my google search even to find a blog entry that I know is there. I’ll try different search terms until the old post shows up.

    Given the challenges I have in finding my own posts that I wrote and that I remember, I can only imagine how difficult it would be for outsiders to find things. The only solution I can think of would be for me to go through the old posts and put them together in some way. It would take awhile, though.

    In the meantime, I set up a twitter feed (StatRetro) popping out all my old posts in chronological order; unfortunately it has very few subscribers. Which bums me out, because I think most of those old posts are great!

    1. Sean says:

      And the basic idea of ‘post briefly and regularly about something you are thinking about’ is good, but how to sort our things like your Statistical Lexicon that you keep building from the offhand comments on the controversy of the day that nobody will care about in a few years?

      Academic publishing in the humanities is slow and finding a trade publisher for some other things I want to publish is difficult. And getting books in front of the right people is hard too.

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