Why Content Strategists Need to See the Unseen

Since starting the first semester of my Master’s degree in Content Strategy in mid-October, I slowly but surely began breaching the surface of fangirling about the web.

The web is exhilarating with its open-road feel. The sky is the limit, but the virtual world has no celestial sphere. It’s empowering, practically handing you the keys to the biggest library open 24/7 and during national holidays. It’s fun, surprising, something scary, but never boring.

As a marketing professional, the web and what you can do with it make up a free-for-all playground. “Make it pop” is code for bolder, flashier, newer, powered by the hyped-up recent tool, and “better than our competitors”. 

As we learned about the process of creating content that is “useful, usable, enjoyable, and persuasive to your audience” (Halvorson & Rach, 2012, p 53), it became pretty clear that the content strategist’s role is to look beyond the visual packaging of a website to what Tim Kadlec called “the unseen”.

In his 37-minute-long talk at the 2016 beyond tellerrand conference, Tim makes a case for retiring our perception of the web being universally accessible and reachable because it simply isn’t. In his own words:

“The web is an unstable and unpredictable environment and every day there are complications that go unnoticed and unseen—but not by the people trying to use your site.”

Tim Kadlec, talk titled “Unseen” at beyond tellerrand 2016.

Join my written unpacking of his talk, where I share with you why we should all fear and respect the unseen. And rightfully so.

The Internet isn’t connecting all people

When Tim Kadlec delivered his talk in Berlin, 3.5 billion people were using the Internet.

In 2023, this number has increased to a mind-boggling 5.8 billion. Statista predicts that in 2024, the internet village will grow by an additional 7% and continue going up in numbers.

To put that into perspective, there are currently 8.1 billion people on our planet (Source: Worldometer), of which 71% have internet access. Even with the slowed-down population growth year on year, internet adoption remains steady.

Promising, right? What a time to be alive, let’s all rejoice.

Not so fast.

We are going to follow behind Tim as he looks beyond the numbers.

Despite the explosive growth of the internet globally, the realities of “universal access” to the internet look less rosy.

The numbers you see in the Statista charts are ballooned by countries where the internet infrastructure supports the increasing demand for connectivity. These are primarily countries that are either doing well economically or have a large population. 

And when I say “countries”, I do not mean the Internet is accessible to every citizen.

As of January 2023, Statista identified China as the leader amongst countries with the most internet users worldwide, followed by India, the United States, Indonesia, and Brazil.

However, once you look in-depth at the connectivity map created for the “State of Digital Connectivity 2023” Report by Ookla (using data from its own Speedtest), it becomes clear that urban areas are not a party to the privileged strong internet signal.

If you scroll down the Speedtest Global Index table for the most up-to-date statistics, the countries that dwell towards the bottom of the list are predictably the poorest in the world.

The EU has an incredibly ambitious plan to make a Gigabit Society a European reality by 2030. In its first State of the Digital Decade report, infrastructure is named as the cardinal point in realising gigabit and wireless high-speed networks for all. According to the Digital Economy and Society Index DESI 2023 dashboard for the Digital Decade, in the EU as a whole, 55% of households had already subscribed to fixed broadband services with internet speeds of at least 100 Mbps.

I can only quote Sylwia Kechiche in her “A Reality Check on the Progress toward a Gigabit Society” article for Ookla:

Before we can start discussing 5G, connecting communities with the internet in general is a priority. Affordable 4G smartphones and targeted financing for under-served demographics are key for bridging the digital divide and reducing poverty, as a World Bank study found that 4G coverage can help cut poverty by up to 4.3%.

Sylwia Kechiche

However, the overall economic health of a country is not the only obstacle to broadening access to the web that we should keep in mind.

The political and social forces vs the Internet

Tim brings up a 2014 McKinsey & Company article titled “Offline and falling behind: Barriers to Internet adoption,” which delineates four types of barriers to Internet adoption:

  • Incentives
  • Low incomes and affordability
  • User capability
  • Infrastructure

The first type of barrier gave me a stop and only became scarier as I dug deeper into different sources.

Here, McKinsey & Company gave the following examples that fell under their definition of user incentives:

  • lack of awareness of the Internet’s value
  • lack of relevant (that is, local or localized) content and services
  • lack of cultural or social acceptance
  • lack of trusted logistics and payment systems
  • limited Internet freedom and information security

It’s difficult to comprehend that in 2023, internet censorship is very much alive and well. Statista reported that,

“As of April 2023, the North Korean population remained almost entirely offline, as internet access for the general public is heavily restricted by the government and only permitted with special authorization.”

In June 2023, Matt Burgess wrote an article for Wired utilising testimonials from North Korean defectors, who described “ a days-long approval process to gain internet access, after which monitors sit next to people while they browse and approve their activities every five minutes.” 

The political landscape is named the sole obstruction to internet access, not the infrastructure. 

Freedom House, an American non-profit organization addressing political advocacy surrounding issues of democracy, political freedom, and human rights, maintains a map of Internet freedom, highlighting authoritarian governments with strict censorship in place:

Internet Freedom Status 2023 by Freedom House - A map visualising the current level of internet freedom in 70 countries.
Internet Freedom Status 2023 by Freedom House – A map visualising the current level of internet freedom in 70 countries. Source: Freedom House.

Unsurprisingly, the culprits are known to us from the media: the aforementioned North Korea, China (identified earlier in this article as first among the countries with the most internet users worldwide), Iran, Turkey, and Russia, to name a few.

According to the same NGO’s “Freedom on the Net 2023” report, “Global internet freedom declined for the 13th consecutive year,” with Iran, China, and the Philippines named as the most repressive.

Then, there is the topic of access to internet services during conflicts, as well as the neutrality of the content. 

The war in Ukraine is the most recent example of weaponizing internet access when the digital space became a battlefield used to disseminate disinformation and sow unease among civilians. “The first thing that the Russians do when they occupy these territories is cut off the networks,” said Stas Prybytko, the head of mobile broadband development in Ukraine’s Ministry of Digital Transformation, in conversation with the TIME magazine.

The telecommunications shutdown in Gaza was another strategic move to prevent information from flowing out to the leaders of the world. The cybersecurity watchdog NetBlocks reported a “near-total internet blackout” on December 4, 2023, as Israel unleashed intense airstrikes on the occupied strip.

If you think that access to the internet in the centre of Europe is free from these worries, I am very sorry because the bubble is about to burst.

In one of my most fascinating reads of 2023, “The Secret Life of the 500+ Cables That Run the Internet”, Stephen Shankland paints an image of fragile infrastructure that carries “more than 99% of traffic between continents” across 552 active and planned submarine cables (Source: TeleGeography).

The network of subsea cables is vulnerable to military attacks at any given time. The article quotes examples from Russia and China, which can strategically destabilise countries relying on their infrastructures. For example, “Taiwan has 27 subsea cable connections that the Chinese military could see as tempting targets in an attack.” 

The beautiful submarine cable map by TeleGeography shows you the extent of the network of cables running alongside the bottom of the ocean.  

If you are properly spooked (like me), let’s jump into the next eye-opening desk research:

The user incentives barrier to internet adoption in the context of gender inequality.

The Internet and emancipation in low and middle-income economies

Tim Kadlec brought up a recent at the time 2016 article by the Wall Street Journal about the gender disparity when it comes to owning a smartphone in India. In the article, a village elder is quoted saying that “girls are more susceptible to bringing shame upon themselves” if they have a mobile phone.

Since 2016, India has achieved improvements, closing 64.3% of the overall gender gap, ranking 127th on the global index (out of 146 countries) according to the Global Gender Gap Report 2023 by the World Economic Forum –  that’s an improvement of 1.4 per cent points and eight positions since the 2022 edition.

However, despite the progress in increasing women’s participation in economic opportunities, education or politics, there is still a large gap between men and women when it comes to internet usage.

Statista reported that between 2019 and 2021, 33.3% of women in India used the internet vs 57.1% of men. “The gender internet usage gap was also evident in rural India, with only one out of four women aged between 15 and 49 years having ever used the internet before, compared to just under 49 per cent of their male counterparts in the region.“

According to The Mobile Gender Gap Report 2023 by GSMA, progress on digital inclusion has stalled in India after 2020 after some significant gains and remains around 30% for the third year.

The report names the top three barriers to mobile internet adoption for women in India, specifically literacy, the cost of a handset, and lack of knowledge of how to access the internet.

In 2023, nearly 63 per cent of women in the world accessed the internet, while the share of men going online was 68.6 per cent.

Looking at pure numbers, India, regardless of social attitudes, is still behind, but the country is not isolated in its struggles.

The same GSMA report highlights that there are “900 million women in low- and middle-income countries who are still not using mobile internet, almost two-thirds of whom live in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.” 

Women are, on average, disproportionally affected by climate change, poverty, and war.

Without access to the internet, women are left without the opportunities to explore paths to education, financial freedom, as well as help and guidance. Having not been exposed to the benefits of the internet due to the lack of positive case studies, as McKinsey & Company states, women do not even know the cost of what they are missing. 

Knowing that low and middle-income economies are bypassed in accessing the collectively built library of human experience is one single reason why we cannot say that the Internet is currently available to all.

The average web user has a short life

Tim Kadlec shifted the focus from the goings of the world (which we mostly cannot control. Go vote!) to the aspects of our work that we certainly can.

One of the guiding paths of a good web experience was, according to Tim Kadlec, laid out by Paul Lewis in his article, “Web Components and the Three Unattractive Pillars”.

The three culprits are accessibility, security, and performance. 

Before I dive in, let me set the stage:

I am based in Austria, where my biggest concern is a fluctuating connection in an otherwise perfect streak of five-bar internet days. 

I was raised on dial-up internet. 

I consider myself tech-savvy.

I do not have any disabilities. 

I am your average user who only needs a usable interface, which, if not accessible on a smartphone, will be an annoyance and not an obstruction to my experience. 

I am the average user developers think of when designing applications. 

Except, I will soon cease to exist. 

Developers will design applications fit for a person without disabilities, with a stable internet connection, experience in common UX conventions, and a sharp mind. Tim Kadlec described the developer’s commitment to that one average user as myopic because it does not take into account the changing circumstances of how humans use the internet. 

Let’s take accessibility. 

Char James-Tanny defines accessibility as “The extent to which content is available, understandable, and usable by all, regardless of disabilities or impairments such as sensory, physical, cognitive, intellectual or situational” (Char James-Tanny, The Language of Content Strategy).

If you feel that the definition does not apply to you because you are also an average user, here comes another bubble-bursting moment:

On April 15, 2023, I was sitting in the yellow bulb-lit lecture room at the University of Vienna’s Altes AKH. It was WordCamp 2023, which was my fourth event in the series at that time.

I was sitting in that sizeable room surrounded by the Viennese WordPress community, and Miriam Nabinger sowed the seed of worry in me with this one sentence:

Only 3% of the internet is accessible.

(Source of the statistic: The WebAIM Million 2023 report)

It’s a worrying number for a person who works in digital marketing and realises that some of the target audience might struggle with accessing the content she created. But that is not what got me.

In the span of 15 minutes, my unease was spoonfed the following:

As I walked out of the lecture room, I began worrying about the day I would need to zoom in on the internet font or struggle to make sense of a website. The day I will stop being an average user.

Health-related situations are only one of the myriad of issues people face when trying to be part of the online society. Exploding costs all over the world began impacting digital participation. This doesn’t mean the inability to browse Wikipedia – many governmental service points that used to exist as physical locations were completely moved online.

For example, the NHS’s project on digital inclusion reports a set of statistics, one of them stating that ”30% of people who are offline feel that the NHS is one of the most difficult organisations to interact with”. In this case, being unable to access the British healthcare online service comes at a cost to people’s well-being.

What Paul Lewis called “Unattractive Pillars™” is really an umbrella term for components that make up resilient projects that look beyond average users.

When considering the pillars, the focus is shifted from catering to that mythical persona with no ailments to designing an experience that is within reach of as many diverse users as possible. Context, circumstances, and changes are taken into account to deploy, update, and maintain websites that provide value.

The path ahead

Tim Kadlec’s recipe for kicking off the process of creating a resilient web is to remove assumptions, particularly in regard to the end user.

By choosing to ask instead of assume, we have a much bigger chance of creating something useful.

And this doesn’t just apply to people directly involved in a web project.

Tim Kadlec speaks from a developer’s point of view, but very quickly, he establishes the need for applying collective responsibility in any web project, regardless of role or rank. 

Building for inevitability is not a solo venture because it requires multiple perspectives and diverse voices. 

This is where content strategists step in. By understanding the price of inaccessible content, combined with unclear or inexistent content strategy, confusing messages or lack of information architecture, content strategy professionals have the potential to be the force of education. Bringing awareness of the unseen to the table is already an incredibly important contribution to any project.

As Microsoft phrased it in its Inclusive Design guide, “if we use our own abilities as a baseline, we make things that are easy for some people to use, but difficult for everyone else.”

To wrap up this lengthy post, I will quote Ariel Cotton, another speaker at the beyond tellerrand 2016 conference, whom Tim quoted in his talk (full circle!)

“I mean, no matter how cool your object looks, if your users have a tough time using it, then it’s a failed object.”

Ariel Cotton