I often find myself reading a web page with no conscious idea of what site it's on or who the publisher is.
- Yesterday, I followed a Google News link to an article about the Olympics. There was a fairly obvious typo somewhere in the first few paragraphs, which led me to wonder whether I was reading an official article from a serious news site or just someone's blog or something. I scrolled to the top of the page and saw the site's logo: the letters "ajc" in a circle. I thought, "Huh, this must be some minor news organization trying to make it online." And then down at the bottom of the page I discovered that in fact it was the website of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a prominent newspaper; but at least to me, "ajc" wasn't sufficient to signify that. (This may just be a question of what a reader's familiar with; "WSJ" would be plenty sufficient to indicate Wall Street Journal to me, and Wikipedia says that the Journal-Constitution is known as the AJC.)
- An article about Zero Hedge mentioned Jim Cramer, then added an aside: "(also a New York Magazine contributing editor)." It took me a moment to figure out why they were saying that: because the article is on the New York Magazine website. Can't tell that by looking at the top of the page, though, not unless you're already familiar with the magazine's "New York" logo. (To be fair, the phrase "New York Magazine" does appear in the window's title bar.)
- Similarly, I often see little disclosure statements like that on various other news sites; they tend to say things like "Jo March is employed by Zongo Enterprises, the parent company of FnordStar," leaving me wondering why that's relevant and what FnordStar is until I happen to notice that I'm on the fnordstar.com website.
- TechCrunch articles are (sometimes? often?) reposted on washingtonpost.com. They sometimes lose some context along the way; for example, a piece about Google Wave refers to "the video below," but the video isn't included in the reprinted article. The articles never explicitly say "This was originally published at TechCrunch and is being reprinted here on the WaPo site"; readers are just supposed to figure that out by seeing the word "TechCrunch" in the page's section header. And I don't think WaPo provides links back to the original articles. (In the specific case I mentioned, the video is included in the original article.)
- My old Words & Stuff columns give no clear indication that they're part of anything larger than themselves; I've received email occasionally from people who encountered one column without realizing that there were others. I've been meaning to fix this for years, probably by porting them to my language blog.
- Related issues can be a problem in non-online media as well: for example, the audio track of the TV show NewsHour is broadcast on some public radio stations, but on the radio they don't say "this is a TV show, so you're missing the visuals." I thought it was a radio show, so I was very confused the first few times I heard them do things like refer to a chart or graph that I couldn't see, or say they were presenting a list of names of soldiers killed and then playing music for a couple of minutes (presumably they were showing the soldiers' names in writing on the TV show, but they didn't say them out loud).
If you're reading a paper article, chances are pretty good that you know what you're reading, so leaving out the publication context makes sense. On paper, there's no need to say "(also a contributing editor to the magazine that you're reading, which by the way is New York Magazine in case you didn't happen to notice our name splashed in big letters across the front of this bundle of pages you're holding)." Sure, sometimes an article is photocopied and distributed out of context, but mostly a paper publication can expect readers to know what they're reading.
But the web is different. I followed a link to get to your article, and chances are pretty good that the link (a) was from a different site, and (b) didn't explicitly mention the name of your publication.
Also, it's entirely possible that I'm reading your article without visiting your site at all. Maybe someone emailed it to me, or maybe I have an RSS feed reader, or maybe the article was syndicated to some other site.
So when you're writing material that may appear online, be aware that your readers may encounter that material without knowing anything about the context, and try to give them some guideposts.
And if you're publishing a website, consider putting the full name of your publication or site, in plain text, somewhere near the top of each page, and consider providing an About link for more info about your site. (Also: put a date on each piece you publish!)
More generally, when you're writing material that may appear online, try to look at it from the point of view of someone who has no context for it, as well as from the point of view of one of your regular readers or customers. You may end up deciding that the no-context people aren't your core audience and therefore aren't worth supporting; but there may turn out to be easy/simple things that you can do that would support the no-context people without hurting the experience of your core audience.
(For some semi-related thoughts from a while back, looking at design and presentation issues around online material appearing out of context, see my 2007 blog entry Separating form from content.)