October 29th, 2007


Cat Cuteness Continues

I have to say, there are few things as cute as watching Jedi stalking That Cat In The Mirror. Sitting, samurai-like, eyes fixed on the other cat's, waiting for his opportunity to strike, utterly still except for his furiously wiggling tail. Making his strike, and then backing off immediately as he sees that the other one has countered him. And eventually getting so spooked by this other cat, who is clearly reading his mind, that he runs off, sure that he's about to be attacked himself...


So here's a rant I've had floating around in my head for a few days...

There I was, listening to NPR the other day, and the commentator was talking about the DHS response to the California wildfires -- in particular, their press conference about it. I didn't catch all the details, but I gather that DHS called a press conference on about 15 minutes' notice, stocked it with cronies who would ask The Right Questions, and used the whole thing as an excuse for some publicity, making sure that they indulged in as much self-back-patting as humanly possible. Since DHS hadn't been a *total* screwup this time, the reporter was rather surprised that they didn't do a more honest press conference, since it might have been some of the most sympathetic coverage they've gotten in a while.

And somehow, I am left wondering if this is simply one of those Ideas of Our Times: the Fake FAQ. You know: the ones that don't actually answer peoples' questions, but are instead all about the questions you *want* them to ask, or wish that they were asking. The use of "question and answer" as a propaganda mechanism.

This doesn't have to be sinister: sometimes it really is nothing more than wishful thinking. Take, for instance, the SCA. Did you know that the SCA has a FAQ? In fact, it has several, but the ones I'm fondest of comparing are the Official SCA FAQ and the SCA Questions FAQ.

The Official SCA FAQ can be found right there on the Society homepage. Big front-page link of "Frequently Asked Questions About the SCA", nearly a Meg of PDF. It goes on for 94 pages, with sections on SCA Infrastructure, Warrants, Events, and so on, going into enormous detail about How Things Work. It's ever-so-complete, covering a great fraction of the Society's rules and regulations. Thing is, the one thing it *isn't* is a FAQ. I'm pretty confident about this, having spent the past 20 years as one of the Society's main question-answering people online. Most of the questions in that immense document just aren't frequently asked. Heck, in some cases I've *never* heard them asked, in that whole 20 years. I mean, for heaven's sake: the first question in it is "Where can I find out about the SCA Corporate Infrastructure?". Come *on*, people -- who actually asks that? The first question should probably be something like "What the heck *is* this club, anyway?".

So instead, I keep the real (but unofficial) FAQ on my own site -- it's what you get when you begin clicking through to the SCA Questions Mailing List. That represents the questions that genuinely *have* been frequently asked, of the Questions List and of me personally when I was doing that job on my own. We keep that list down to things that we really get asked, and it's very different from the official one. Rather than being a recapitulation of the officer's manual, it's just about 20 short questions like "How do I find Lord So-and-So?", "How do I merchant in the SCA?" and "Can you help me run my medievally-themed wedding?". It gets a few hundred hits a month, and as far as I can tell accounts for about 80% of the questions people really have, both from within and without the Society.

Thing is, it's not as if anyone is trying to be malicious or misleading about the Official SCA FAQ -- it's just wishful thinking. That document isn't what people *actually* want to know, it's what the Society's hierarchy *wishes* they were asking about. It really is just a restatement of the high points of the officer's documents, attempting to be in a friendlier form. And as far as I can tell, nobody actually reads it except young idealistic officers who are voraciously reading *everything* they can get their hands on: it's simply too long, complex and unfriendly a document to serve as a functional FAQ.

In short, it's propaganda -- it's a statement of "these are the things we think you should care about". There's nothing nasty about that, and I'm sure everyone involved had only the best of intentions; indeed, I suspect that's true of the DHS case at the top of this posting as well. It's just a mindset we've collectively gotten into, that you publish these question-and-answer things as a soapbox, not because you're really listening to what people are asking. I don't think it's peculiar to the government, or to the SCA: it's a meme, in the truest sense of that word, which has slowly spread over many years, that it's appropriate to answer the questions you want to answer, not the ones being asked.

So consider this a plea from me to you, dear reader. (And a reminder to myself in future.) If you find yourself writing a "FAQ", or putting things into question-and-answer form, ask yourself if you're being honest about it. Are these really the questions the listener wants to know? Or are you really just using the Q-and-A format to express what you want to say? If it's the latter, I'd like to suggest that you level with your readers, and choose a format that calls a spade a spade...