Author Archive

A lot of web apps do something I don’t like, and I think it needs a name. I’ll call it voicejacking.

Pinterest is where I’ve most recently noticed it, so I’m going to pick on them, even though I like their web app. Or maybe because I like their web app. I want to hold them to high standards.

Voicejacking is the practice of communicating on someone else’s behalf without telling them you’re doing it. It’s commandeering someone’s voice. I wrote against the practice in my book Microstyle, and I want to bring the discussion online.

Here’s what happened on Pinterest: I signed up, and I was given the opportunity to invite other people to do the same. So I invited myself using a different email address. I was given the option of writing a personal message when I sent the invitation, which I declined. However, I did receive a message at my second email address. Here it is:


I set up a Pinterest profile where I can share the things I like and I want you to follow me so you can see it! Once you join Pinterest, you’ll be able to create your own collections and share your taste.


The Name Inspector

The subject line on this message was “Check out my stuff on Pinterest”.

When I sent the invitation, I didn’t know this message would accompany it. If I hadn’t sent the invitation to myself (and I suspect most people don’t send invitations to themselves), I might never have known about the message at all. And yet there it is, speaking in my voice in the first person: Check out my stuff. I set up a Pinterest profile. I want you to follow me. And even signed with my username.

Am I alone in finding this practice distasteful?

I don’t think there’s any bad intention behind it. I would guess the people at Pinterest consider it a convenience for their users because it saves them the time of composing a message. They probably think the use of the first person makes the message more personal, friendly, and natural. They might even assume I would expect them to send a message like this.

But I think it’s bad practice to attribute a message to a person who is unaware of the message and has no ability to control its content or its style.

Let’s not let companies get in the habit of speaking for us.



30 Apr 2012

Pinterest, stop voicejacking!

Author: Christopher Johnson | Filed under: Email, Microvoice, Web Apps

Mitt Romney recently displayed the slogan “Obama Isn’t Working” on a banner at a campaign event. The slogan has actually been on Romney’s website since last June, along with a discussion of where it came from. “Obama isn’t working” is a “tribute” to Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 campaign slogan, created  by the legendary ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi: “Labour Isn’t Working”. The poster featuring Thatcher’s slogan was chosen by readers of the ad industry magazine Campaign as one of the best ever to appear on UK streets.

Some people are angry because they find Romney’s slogan racist. While it is racially insensitive for a white candidate to imply that our first black president isn’t working hard, this unfortunate implication is made possible by another perhaps more fundamental problem: the slogan makes a presumptuous, overly personal attack. What’s more, it does so in a way that’s not at all clever.

Romney’s slogan is a flat-footed appropriation of Thatcher’s slogan. What made “Labour Isn’t Working” so great was its double meaning–it claimed both that the Labour Party wasn’t performing its job well, and that workers didn’t have jobs. A person might have agreed or disagreed with those claims, but would at least have recognized them as respectable contributions to civil political discourse. The criticism was aimed squarely at a political party and its policies.

Romney’s variation on the slogan simultaneously strips it of its clever double meaning and turns it into an ad hominem attack. That, I think, is what really makes it offensive.  Of course, American presidential campaigns have always been personality contests, and slogans attacking individuals are not unprecedented. In 1940, for example, Wendell Wilkie used the slogan “Roosevelt for Ex-President”. But most presidential slogans present some kind of positive vision, however tersely and vaguely. Obama cheered us all on with “Yes We Can”. Ronald Reagan promised us “Morning Again In America”. Romney’s own more positive slogan is “Believe In America”.

It’s hard to see how anyone could have thought the clumsy and negative slogan “Obama Isn’t Working” would work. But maybe this linguistic insensitivity shouldn’t be surprising coming from the campaign of a man who described himself as “severely conservative” and said that he was “not concerned about the very poor”.

27 Apr 2012

Romney copied everything but the clever part

Author: Christopher Johnson | Filed under: Political Discourse, Slogans

I’m excited to be part of the speaker lineup for the Seattle Interactive Conference, taking place November 2-3 at the Conference Center of the Washington State Convention Center. The conference explores “technology, creativity, and emergent trends”, and apparently aims to become a sort of SXSW of the Pacific NW.

I’ll be talking about verbal strategy and verbal creativity in branding, social media content, web content, and UX design. If you’re interested in attending, you can knock $150 off the price is you register using the code SICSPEAKER2011. I hope to meet you there!

6 Oct 2011

Seattle Interactive Conference

Author: Christopher Johnson | Filed under: Copywriting, Events, Microcontent, Microcopy, Microvoice, Speaking, UI copy

Friday is the official publication date of Microstyle in the UK. Welcome to you readers who may have found your way here as a result. Perhaps you saw my article in the Independent. Perhaps you read this article in the Guardian, and were undeterred by Robert McCrum’s characterization of me as an “engaging hustler”. Don’t worry, I’m not here to sell you anything. Except a book. And my extremely valuable consulting services.

20 Sep 2011

Welcome UK readers

Author: Christopher Johnson | Filed under: Uncategorized

UI copy, or microcopy, as some people call it, should help users do things with confidence.

Here’s a case of microcopy that doesn’t work for me. Whenever I sign up for a service on the web that wants to access my Twitter login credentials, I see a message like this one:

When I get to this message, I always press “Cancel.” I stop signing up. I can’t get past the first set of bullet points, the ones under “This application will be able to:”. The first bullet point is fine; I assume the application will be able to “read” my tweets. The next three make me panic, though:

  • See who you follow, and follow new people.
  • Update your profile.
  • Post tweets for you.

This microcopy achieves great brevity by personifying the application. That in itself isn’t a problem–we discuss software in human terms all the time. We think and talk about it as if it had intelligence and performed cognitive tasks. It’s a metaphor that’s useful and usually harmless. But in this case it obscures the issue of who’s in charge.

The problem with these bullet points is that they assign all the agency to the application, making it the subject of see, follow, update and post. They give me the impression that the application will be able to make decisions for me and speak on my behalf, putting words in my mouth. You know those messages you see on Twitter sometimes, like “I just signed up for ______!”, that are boilerplate copy not even written by the person they’re attributed to? That’s what I’m talking about. I hate that stuff.

When you use text-based social media like Twitter, your writing voice, your microvoice, is all you have. Do you want someone else taking control of it? I don’t.

It would be easy enough to fix this:

  • Access your followers so you can follow new people.
  • Access your profile so you can update it.
  • Post your tweets for you.

These small changes in wording make the copy longer, but not so long that it’s a problem. And they would reassure me. They make it clear that decisions about who to follow, how to update my profile, and what to tweet will be made by me. So I think they’re worth the extra words.

Short is good, but shorter isn’t always better.

5 Aug 2011

Microstyle in UI: A Twitter case study

Author: Christopher Johnson | Filed under: Copywriting, Grammar, Microcontent, Microcopy, Microvoice, UI copy

We need a new kind of popular discourse about language. We need to talk more about what makes everyday language delicious. I’m not talking about literature. That’s the world of Michelin three-star restaurants and the finicky critics who dine in them. I’m talking about popular verbal culture, which is all around us: jokes, song lyrics, funny headlines, slogans, taglines, brand names, sound bites. Our linguistic pot-luck buffet.

Verbal culture is different from most other kinds of culture because everyone contributes. Everyone talks (or signs) and everyone writes: tweets, blog posts, email, Craigslist ads, Amazon product reviews, messages on greeting cards, little signs stuck into cheese–something. Language is democratic that way. You don’t have to take lessons and you don’t need any special equipment. Verbal culture is woven into everything we do. It’s work and play, sometimes at the same time.

In practice, our verbal culture is lively and hardworking, playful and pragmatic. But when we start to talk about language, we tend to get a little uptight. The main problem is that we’re obsessed with the idea of correctness. Those of us who think we know how to use language correctly get bossy, and the rest of us worry that the Language Bosses will find out we’re stupid and make fun of us.

We have reasons to be concerned about correctness in certain contexts. But we focus on it while ignoring almost everything interesting about language.

At their most helpful, the Language Bosses are linguistic poison sniffers, like Remy the rat in the Pixar film Ratatouille. (In case you haven’t seen the film: Remy has a gift for cooking, longs to be a chef, and lands the opportunity to work, surreptitiously, in a Parisian restaurant. At one point, however, he abandons his dream and puts his sensitive nose to work sniffing out poison in his rat colony’s food. It’s useful work, but uninspiring.) The Language Bosses help us avoid deadly mistakes when we’re writing important documents that will be scrutinized and judged, like college application essays and job cover letters, but they pay little attention to the flavors and textures of language.

When we “loosen up” and look on the fun side of language, we tend to focus on arcane things like obscure words (“Did you know that thing on the end of your shoelace is called an aglet?”) and surprising etymologies (“Did you know that the words glamour and grammar come from the same source?”). There’s nothing wrong with these fun facts, but they’re valued precisely because they’re exotic and don’t have much to do with our living verbal culture. It’s as if we can’t see the poetry in our own everyday language use.

Let’s start looking.

27 Jul 2011

What makes language delicious?

Author: Christopher Johnson | Filed under: Uncategorized

Though the official publication date isn’t until Monday, Microstyle is already out there, fending for itself in the big bad world. The photo above shows it on the shelves in the Writing section at Elliott Bay Book Co., right underneath some copies of Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One. Hmm, that’s kind of a microstyle-friendly topic…maybe I should review the book, as my agent Lisa suggests!

23 Jul 2011

Microstyle is really out there!

Author: Christopher Johnson | Filed under: Uncategorized

The Kindle version of Microstyle: The Art of Writing Little is now available for purchase and instant delivery. Who should read it?

Business people: Microstyle will help you name your company or product, create a tagline or slogan, write better web and ad copy, and use Twitter and other social media platforms to grab people’s attention.

Language lovers: Microstyle describes what’s happening with our language right now. Robert Swartwood, writer and editor of Hint Fiction, calls it “a must-read for anyone who cares anything for the English language“.

Science and tech geeks: Microstyle is a work of popular linguistics. Author Christopher Johnson isn’t your typical branding consultant. He got a PhD in linguistics from the University of California, Berkeley, was a professor at the University of Chicago, and has worked as a natural language processing software developer at AT&T Labs and elsewhere.

Design fans: (You probably want to order the hardcover, because the book design is so cool.) Microstyle is about verbal design. Short, attention-getting, memorable messages have much in common with graphic design, and work together with it in logos, ads, posters, comics, and other works. The author grew up with graphic design, because his dad’s a retired commercial artist who designed, among other things, cereal boxes for General Mills.

18 Jul 2011

Get Kindle version of MICROSTYLE now!

Author: Christopher Johnson | Filed under: Uncategorized

The July 1, 2011 issue of Booklist has a great review of Microstyle by Donna Seaman.  She describes it as “cogent, interesting, and genuinely useful,” and writes, “With advice for writing compelling blogs, pitches, ads, slogans, and social-media postings, Johnson’s sophisticated, richly referenced, and example-filled microstyle guide is distinctive, instructive, enjoyable, and inspiring.”

7 Jul 2011

Great review in Booklist

Author: Christopher Johnson | Filed under: Uncategorized

Would you like to have a free sneak preview of Microstyle? I have some author copies to give to my favorite people, and some of my favorite people are people I haven’t even met yet–would-be readers who want to help spread the word. So here’s what I’m going to do: whoever writes the best tweet mentioning @Microstyle in the next week will get a copy. What do I mean by “best tweet”? That’s purely subjective. I alone will the be the judge, jury, and distributioner. (Yes, I know that’s not a real word.) This tweet might be especially clever, or it might get lots of new people to follow @Microstyle. Or both. On Thursday, June 30th at 3:30pm PDT I’ll pick and contact the winner, then send out a book. If everything goes well, maybe I’ll do it again the following week. Sorry, due to shipping costs and legal hassles, this contest is only open to grownups in the U.S. And you have to be following @Microstyle to win.

So everyone warm up your brains, crack your knuckles, and get ready to tap out some mad tweets!

23 Jun 2011

Win a free pre-pub copy of Microstyle!

Author: Christopher Johnson | Filed under: Uncategorized