Weblogs, Date/Timestamps, and Time Travel

A couple of weeks ago, when we both spoke at the Da Vinci Institute’s Blogging Bootcamp seminar, my colleague Dave Taylor made many good points (as he often does).

Of course, I disagree slightly with something he said there (as I often do).

In a nutshell, Dave explained that he doesn’t like to feature a date/timestamp prominently on his weblog postings. He thinks that tends to diminish the perceived long-term value of the content. He encouraged business bloggers to generally follow suit: to focus on providing “evergreen” content, and to play down or possibly even omit the date/timestamp on their blogs.

Personally, I think Dave’s approach puts the blogger’s desires ahead of the needs and reality of the weblog audience – in a way that could be a problem for many blogs, and their readers. Here’s why…

EVERY WEB USER IS A TIME TRAVELER

One of the most wonderful – and endlessly annoying – aspects of the web is that it makes content easily accessible, regardless of when it was created. From the user’s perspective, jumping from site to site means constantly having to reorient your sense of time. When content was created or last updated often plays a key role in defining its current relevance, significance, or meaning – even for many “evergreen” topics.

Time, after all, is a cornerstone of human experience. Events, issues, ideas, and perspectives constantly evolve, often through interaction with each other over time. I am hard-pressed to name topics which would be written or perceived in exactly the same way today as they would have five years ago. Yes, our world is moving that fast. Personally, I don’t expect it to slow down anytime soon.

Reorienting your time sense is generally a small matter when visiting one or a few sites. However, when you multiply that task across dozens or even hundreds of web sites (not an uncommon figure for a few days’ worth of browsing), it all adds up to a fairly significant and tiresome cognitive load.

I believe in making all online content as easy to access and grasp as possible, taking into account the needs, expectations, and realities of the target audience. For this reason, I think it’s important to put your date/timestamp at the top of your weblog entries – probably not ahead of the headline, but certainly before the body of the posting.

This approach allows readers to orient themselves before they start reading your article, not afterward. This makes their time reorientation effortless. Because it will be effortless, don’t expect anyone to notice or thank you for it. Still, whenever you remove cognitive or accessibility barriers to your content, you’re making room to build a relationship with your audience.

And that’s what blogging is really all about: building relationships between human beings by sharing knowledge, information, and perspectives. After all, relationships are the basis of every positive human endeavor, from society to business to education to crisis management and more. (I’m pretty sure Dave would agree with me on that.)

I’m not saying Dave’s wrong. I’m not saying I’m right. I’m just saying that there are different and valid ways to approach the date/timestamp issue. If you blog (or if you want to start blogging), do yourself a favor and consider this matter carefully. Don’t just do what other bloggers do. What would work best for your target audience?

You don’t always have to put the needs of your target audience first of course. However, when making decisions that will affect every posting in your blog (rather than just a few items here and there), it probably is best to put the target audience first.

…That’s my take, anyway. I’m sure Dave will chime in on this one, either here or in his blog.

9 thoughts on Weblogs, Date/Timestamps, and Time Travel

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  1. In a nutshell, Dave explained that he doesn�t like to feature a date/timestamp prominently on his weblog postings. He thinks that tends to diminish the perceived long-term value of the content.

    I actually think that he has it backwards…

    If I land on a blog and see that a still-relevant article was actually written two years ago I make a point of exploring the blog, since it is probably full of high quality content.

  2. I agree with Amy. When I visit websites and blogs, I actually look for Timestamp to know when was it last updated. I wish not only blogs but even other sites gave more importance to ‘the last updated timestamp’ than ‘current timestamp’ which is more frequently displayed.

  3. I think you both have valid points. Although recent additions/postings that allow people to see how recently you have updated your site may be ‘time sensitive,’ some postings remain relevant many days/years past their posting.

    Posts regarding ‘current events’ like the release of the iPOD nano or another news-breaking story may be relevant for a short period of time because everyone quickly becomes aware of the issue/topic. However, a blog post regarding on-line anger and frustration and the causes of emotional outbursts where one or more parties get angry and become critical of others may remain valid many days/months after the date on which it was posted.

    Another example is one where a blogger is providing technical support. I have gotten tired of explaining how to solve a technical issue with the Treo 650–the phone continues shutting off, sometimes 4+ times a day. This Treo problem has been stated on several on-line forums. A post (way down on a page or archived away) might still be very relevant 3 months after the solution being posted because not everyone gets their Treo 650 at the same time. [The solution? place a piece of paper (folded up to to size of the SIM card) between the SIM card sled and the SIM card so that the SIM card remains in contact with the phone…]

    I think Dave might be saying that Bloggers (and blogging software such as Drupal, WordPress, etc.) might should be able to keep certain posts ‘active’ (not archived) may days past the posting date since the topic is not a ‘current event.’ As web browsers who are used to the rapid dissimination of news and information, we may be placing to great an emphasis on WHEN a topic was posted on-line.

    As has been posted here, if a site doesn’t have ‘current’ posts, people, such as Avneet and myself, do look to see when a site has been updated. If a site is not updated often or in the recent past, we might simply decide to view other pages and not read what has been posted.

    While the posting date or other ‘update’ date may provide information on how up-to-date a site might remain over time, the relevance of a given post may not be diminished even if it was posted ‘far back’ in the past. I agree that we might should place less emphasis on when a given post was placed on-line. I would hate to try and tell my mother that we should not have to study William Faulkner because his ‘posts’ are old and not up-to-date.

    Counsel

  4. A timestamp is a necessity for a business blog.
    The reader really wants and needs to know if today’s rant is really relevant when he or she
    picks up on it 1 year from now. Remember, our entries are living forever in cyberspace now.
    Cut the reader some slack.

  5. I would add and request that date/time stamps state the timezone (and standard or daylight savings time also) and be reasonably accurate as well. My favorite blog allowing comments appears to be 12 hours fast (I have emailed the blogger but to no avail). With the internet breaking down geographic barriers, it is also important to state timezone rather than assuming all of your readers will be in the same time zone.

  6. Dan:

    I have the same problem at my site. The ISP is looking to fix the time difference because the post states it was made roughly 12 hours after its initial posting (e.g., a post at 7pm shows up as being posted the next day at 7am). If anyone finds what happens on your site, please let me know.

  7. I don’t see what the problem would be with putting a time stamp on every blog – even if it is supposed to be timeless. It’s a good way to cover your bases, and make the information more useful to users. Let future users judge whether a posting from three months ago could still provide relevant information.

  8. I think most of us do post dates/times for our posts (or our software does it for us). However, I was just trying to rationalize the thinking behind why some might disagree.