Novelty, Perversity, and Randomness

John Ohno
5 min readJul 1, 2016

I recently read a blog post (never mind which one, since this is a pretty common position) railing against “rules of thumb” for writers that make generalizations about readers. This post made the argument that a readership, because it is heterogeneous, cannot be generalized about. Such an argument is untrue (one can take the mean, median, and mode of extremely diverse data sets and still get somewhat valuable information from that), but more crucially, it’s untrue in a boring way. It’s true that rules of thumb that make generalizations about readership are problematic, but this is the case for a much more interesting reason that I’ve never seen articulated.

First, I’d like to get something out of the way. These rules of thumb and generalizations about readers exist for a reason: specifically, they are useful to two different groups of authors. One group is expressly commercial: people whose primary or sole goal is to maximize their sales will want to optimize for a large readership, and will therefore want to model their readership and appeal to this model. The second group is the aspiring amateur: someone with no experience and no model at all of a readership or of the way in which one goes about writing benefits greatly from the confidence provided by any direction at all, even if the direction in question is anecdotal, misleading, limiting, or false; arbitrary advice benefits these people.

The real reason why rules of thumb are a problem is that readers read in order to satisfy a hunger for perversity. By this I mean…

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John Ohno

Resident hypertext crank. Author of Big and Small Computing: Trajectories for the Future of Software. http://www.lord-enki.net