Monday, March 1, 2010

The mess at Megan McArdle's

I read Megan McArdle’s blog at the Atlantic website daily. That’s “read” as in present tense. But I’m feeing annoyed enough that I may soon either be saying “read” as in past tense or changing “daily” to “when I can stomach it”. The Atlantic changed the format for her blog. Actually, they apparently changed the format for all the blogs. So what’s the problem with the new layout, you ask? Let me tell you.

1) I have to click through to read any article longer than a few lines. Since McArdle rarely writes anything short, I have to click through for everything.

2) Once I click through and read one article, there are no navigation features. That is, I cannot ask to read the previous article or the next article. So if I go to her site and she’s got four new things up, I go:

- click and read article 1
- back to main page
- click and read article 2
- back to main page
- click and ...

Well, you get the idea. James Fallows assures us that:

what tech-world people call "performance" -- how fast things happen on a site -- seems a lot better with this new system.

That’s not much consolation when any time saved by better performance is lost by the need to constantly manually move from page to page.

3) And speaking of improved speed: perhaps the system loads faster because we’re getting far, far less functionality. Less text, of course, since we’re not seeing whole posts but also we’ve lost the thing on the right side that tells us what each of the other Atlantic bloggers has last written about. Since I read no one but McArdle regularly, I loved this. If someone else’s blog title looked interesting, I’d click through. Now they could be writing about how to do cold fusion on my kitchen counter and I’d never know it. And I’m not interested enough in them often enough to make it worth my while to click over without some kind of lure. And the pictures - which are all we now see of the other bloggers - are not going to do it.

There are also no archives. That is, I can’t click on a month to see what McArdle was saying in, say, October 2008 when the financial system was melting down. I can see last week and I can see a particular day but that’s it.

4) Commenters lost their handles. They switched to a new comment system so everyone had to create a login on that system. If someone else somewhere else was already using your handle, too bad. I got caught with this (curse whoever decided “Elise” was now a somewhat popular name) and found it mildly annoying. I imagine people who have commented regularly for years found it maddening. At least this explains why they didn’t port over commenter logins: they couldn’t. Hearing that should have given someone pause about whether this was really a good idea.

5) If there are a lot of comments, they now run to multiple pages. Under the old system even a zillion comments just took up one page. And - at least with my computer - splitting them into multiple pages isn’t making displaying them go any faster.

6) A link to what McArdle has written for the magazine stays stickied at the top of the list of her posts. Since I’m mildly absent-minded, I’ve now clicked on that three times thinking it was something new. Minor but oh, so annoying.

7) This is the one that I really, really, really hate: I can’t figure out a way to search just through McArdle’s columns. Prior to the new design all her columns were grouped together under:

If I wanted to find everything McArdle had to say on, for example, Toyota I could use Google’s advanced search to do so:

toyota site:

Poof! Back would come all the McArdle posts that mentioned Toyota. Now McArdle’s posts are partitioned out into various categories: Business, Politics, Personal, whatever. McArdle’s writings on Toyota might be under Business (, they might be under Politics (, they might even be under Personal ( if she owns a Toyota. If I search just the Business URL, I’ll miss anything she’s written about Toyota under the other categories.

Plus even if I do guess the correct category* and search, say, the Business URL for Toyota, I’ll get not only what McArdle has written but what other Atlantic contributors have written. I can narrow it down a little by adding McArdle as a search term but then I get her posts; pages that list her posts; and worst of all posts by other contributors where the name “McArdle” appears anywhere else on the page - like, say, under her picture next to the post.

So, I hate the design and I don’t think it’s just because I’m a curmudgeon who is cranky about change. I think it’s because I don’t read the Atlantic: I read McArdle. Imagine my horror at discovering that Andrew Sullivan - oh, no! - expressed my sentiments exactly:

a blog is inherently a live process and conversation and anyone who actually understands blogging's intimate relationship to its readership - and the critical importance of conversation to the endeavor - would never have dreamed of turning it into a series of headlines. That's what worries me deeply. Not the inevitable transitional glitches but the philosophy behind it.

Or, as a commenter as McArdle’s post announcing the changeover said after the event:

Worse, is how Megan herself seems to be diminished by the Atlantic. Her blog, which predates her arrival at the Atlantic. Has now become a mere collection of links to recent work.

The bottom line is that the redesign has made McArdle’s blog function like a magazine: a table of contents; go to page 37 to continue reading the article; pages have to be “turned” manually; she’s lumped in with everyone else in the “issue”; no consideration for people who want to read or write comments. I understand that the Atlantic has to make money and I gather than they believe this new design will increase revenue. Maybe they’re right and if the 345 comments on McArdle’s post about the health care summit and the 113 posts on her recent open thread are any indication, I’m the only person annoyed enough by the new design to cut back on my visits. (Although a quick skim indicates some people are using the open thread to complain about the re-design.)

And perhaps the Atlantic will put at least some of it back the way it was. The Fallows’ post I cited above is dated Friday, February 26. In it Fallows recognizes that the blogs don’t quite work in the new design: he does not like the click-through and believes the individuality of each blogger has been lost by the compressed, no picture, standardized format. He says that he will put up some posts over the weekend and will work with the tech team to see if the new layout can be modified. He concludes : “As ever, I am optimistic.”

A later update to that post says:

Update: I am optimistic that this will change, but find the new approach such a straitjacket that I won't even try to work within its constraints until it is fixed.

I’m with Fallows.


* Interestingly, today I see that most recent post on Toyota - written before the conversion to the new system - is showing up twice on her main page, once under Business, once under Politics. I don’t remember noticing that a couple of days ago although I may just have missed it. All the comments are under only one of the posts, in this case the one in the Politics category. Two other recent posts are also under two categories with the comments under only one category. I guess this makes it more likely I’ll find the posts if I can guess right on any category when I do a search but this is some seriously ugly stuff.

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