Morten Rand-Hendriksen is a broadly accomplished web designer and educator. He is very active in the WordPress open-source project and is known there for his strong opinions on topics like the Gutenberg project. I also learned in this interview that he was originally trained as a philosopher and is currently working on an ethical framework for web content creators.
Morten and I talked about the content strategy behind his Lynda.com content-strategy course, about the implications of Gutenberg for content strategists in the WordPress world, and about his work on web-industry ethics.
Morten Rand-Hendriksen is a senior staff instructor at LinkedIn Learning and Lynda.com with 60+ courses published on WordPress, web standards, design and UX, and future technologies. He also teaches Interaction Design at Emily Carr University of Art and Design, and contributes to WordPress core and community projects.
When he’s not working you’ll find Morten playing with his son, reading philosophy and science fiction, talking to people about the internet and how it shapes our society, and wearing out his shoes on the ballroom dance floor.
Here’s the video version of our conversation.
[Not an actual transcript – just my quick notes on first listen-through]
0:30 – Morten history and background – built first website in 1998 –
2:50 – impact of hyperlinking on how we access, publish, access again, etc. content – huge changes – and we’ll see an perceive, understand and share content – and we’ll see another dramatic
4:15 – origins of his content strategy course at Lynda.com/LinkedIn Learning (which are the same thing) – get those who don’t identify as content strategists to think like one – goal was to show wider scope of content strategy and help everyone understand how they fit into it – it shows up in all aspects of web development – e.g., why would back-end engineer care? – even at database level, decisions about how/where to store content have strategy implications – thinking about how end user might want to access the content can/should dictate aspects of underlying data
8:35 – sorting out data chunks from blobs – make it efficient to display – e.g. go to Google now and search for a product and Google will return shopping options (along with other info) – importance of markup so that Google can understand and index properly
10:00 – and that’s a glimpse to the future – contextual information served up because devices can understand your content and its structure – future technologies (AR glasses, etc.) require same way of thinking – data needs to be split up and connected together – only output data that is necessary, in individual pieces of data, which is stored properly, and properly connected – and THAT is content strategy – “truly contextualizing your data and explaining what it is, and then figuring out which parts of that matter to which users and giving them only what matters when they need it, in a format they can use”
12:00 – process at Lynda culminated with approval of the course
12:40 – Gutenberg initiative at WordPress open-source project – “WordPress Block Editor” – used to be just “posts” and “pages” in WordPress – what Gutenberg currently says is that all of the stuff that happens in a content block – different content types – each paragraph, image, list, etc. has its own context and characteristics – but that’s just tip of iceberg – can get more specific – doing content modeling exercise – figuring out pieces fit in – for each piece of content – currently done in WordPress editor
16:20 – Gutenberg Step 2 – extend block way of thinking outside of the editor – e.g. can define shareable blocks to use elsewhere – e.g. for book reviews “about author” block – can use same block in multiple places – called a “resuable block” in Gutenberg – can change reusable block and all instances will change –
18:00 – Gutenberg team is trying to introduce main missing WP feature: ability to treat content in database as contextualized pieces that are combined into views [to pull chunks out of the blob] – way it’s done on back-end of WP is not great – all block data still in one blob – can be queried but with performance hit, and not scalable – happened because the perspective they came from was that they were changing the editor
20:10 – deep dive into how WP handles data – traditionally, custom fields for new data – put custom stuff in massive array in post-meta table – gives you two blobs instead of one – and meta content has extremely poor performance – so content meta hasn’t really solved the problem –
21:30 – repeatable blocks / block editor creates new custom post type: repeatable block – from his perspective, that’s where everything needs to go – ongoing, no more pages or posts, but views “a meta index of blocks” and blocks live separately somewhere else – which raises issue of what needs to be a separate “block” – when to split them out – does it make sense for every paragraph, list, etc. to be its own block? It doesn’t – requires a content strategist’s perspective
22:45 – things are the way they are now because the Gutenberg project started with a design – went in to change editor – worked within editor context – and editor context implies the content table – if he could turn clock back, he would have been stronger advocate for content modeling and said, “What are the pieces of content that may go into a post? what do they look like? what are their properties? how do we split them out so that they are handled separately on the backend? and then reassembled into what looks like a post – repeatable blocks idea is the very small start of that – hope is that moving forward content data is stored better – in future much more likely to get requests for pieces that user will tie together – currently requires parsing enormous tables and then parsing out information
25:20 – sees potential for performance increase with way repeatable blocks are handled – “I’m the guy who comes in and says crazy things and people go ‘What?’ ‘No! We can’t do that.'” – Gutenberg is our opportunity to jump WP forward – WP is lagging behind in many respects because WP is based on very, very old thinking about databases about what people want, about how people access content – also, WP is based on this idea of backward compatibility, nothing should break if you revert to earlier version – “I believe that this block editor is such a fundamental shift in how WP handles data that we should be saying, ‘Look, this is the break point where WP is no longer backwards compatible because the backwards compatibility is becoming a huge drain on resources and a huge problem for future development.” – he’s been pushing for new thinking around the idea of backward compatibility – “the huge grand piano we’ve been pulling around behind the car right now” – doubts it will happen – what will happen is that people from outside the WP community will introduce new ways of thinking about every aspect of it – throwing out old and trued and tested ways of thinking abou this and thinking about
28:00 – what would WP sites look like if we started from modern technologies and modern design practices and used WP just as a data source – sort of like headless CMS –
28:30 – he’s working on concept of views, rather than pages and posts – views can look a lot like posts – user should be able to choose what they see and decide how blocks are related and whether they want to see all of them – take that into design and have scheme where you drag blocks where you want them to appear – and the blocks should be dynamically updated on the front end, based on the user’s behavior – e.g., if you’re on a site and want to click on a post, just the post component should reload without touching other stuff – and if post component reloads and there’s some related content that is relevant that content should also reload if necessary – e.g. both post and comments reload – should be enabled in way that makes sense to end user – should just logically appear – Quartz sort of does this now, related items appearing –
32:10 – old/original “post” content can be part of these new views – need to start thinking about the function of a post or a page or other piece of content, rather than thinking about . . . – need to be thoughtful about “*What* is a post?” Which of these properties are relevant to the post in which circumstances?” – currently, e.g., see his site, meta content is pretty useless to user, unless they happen to be looking – people using categories now – no structure/system/consistency now in how meta data used on WP sites – whole sites full of “Uncategorized” e.g. – so he’s toying with, instead of explicitly showing connections, inferring connections – and then think about how to enable end users to make choices about how they see content – gets into fundamental issues of how internet works – e.g. AI used to get people to get people to stick around and click on stuff in their echo chamber – only see content that bolsters your views, or antagonizes you –
36:40 – working on site that says if you read an article about a topic, you should be presented with two other articles of different views than yours – force you into seeing other points of view – works in any area: both Marvel *and* DC – both what they read – better inform people – a lot of what we see now is how content interactions change behavior –
40:00 – his background is in philosophy, but no one will pay him to do that – so working on project on thinking about why we do what we do – “What the internet world needs now is
ethics. Not just do the right thing, don’t harm people, that kind of airy-fairy empty promises kind of ethics, but actual deep thinking around ethics.” – working for last two years on article about this – 9,000 words now, hope to get down to 5,000 and publish in spring
41:50 – 4-point question series that you can use to help you make ethical decisions – 1) what world are you building for your visitors? what impact are you having? what future are you driving them to? 2) what kind of person do you become by doing this? and is that the kind of person you aspire to be? ad-blaster? 3) what duties of care do you have to your visitors? would you want every other person in your position to do what you’re doing? you’re establishing best practices – 4) does what you have done improve the lives of those impacted by your decision? is there a negative impact? consider carefully your impact
Here are the four ethical questions everyone should ask:
- What world are you building for your visitors? What capabilities are you granting or enabling?
- What kind of person do you become by doing this, and is that the kind of person you aspire to be?
- What duties of care do you have to your visitors, and would you want every other person in your position to do the same?
- Does this improve the lives of everyone affected? How do the consequences improve the common good?
44:25 – these ethical issues not always well thought out – e.g. app to track your food delivery bike person – solution: GPS tracking and messaging – wait! horrible idea. GPS violates privacy, creates safety hazard; should never text/call someone navigating city traffic – think the whole chain through to make better decisions – holisitic thinking about the power of content strategy – end goal is to get one of those bigwigs to think about this – ads aren’t inherently evil, but engineering behaviors to constantly expose you to ads is problematic –