Two recent blog posts, Structured Content is Like Your Closet by Val Swisher, and Content Strategy Can Save Us All From Slobdom by Meghan Casey, both illustrate how content management works today by analogy with a well organized closet. It is a perfect metaphor for current content management practice, and provides the perfect starting point for examining what is wrong with the current state of content management, and why (as I noted previously) people hate their CMS. The closet analogy shows us just how much people have tended to model electronic systems for managing bits on the same principle they use as humans to manage atoms. The basic principle of closet organization is to place like with like. Thus, we place shoes with shoes, coats with coats, and hats with hats.
But there are problems with like-with-like organization. Things can be like each other in different ways, all of which matter at one time or another. For instance, you could have red shoes, red coats, and red hats, and it is likely that you would want to wear these things together, to create a coordinated ensemble. But in a closet organized by garment type, rather than by color, you have to go to multiple places to find a red garment of each type.
Other complexities arise: do you place winter and summer clothing together by type, or do you segregate the seasons, at the expense of having two places for hats, two places for shoes, two places for coats?
The closet approach also has problems with scale. A typical closet belongs to one person. What happens when you want to start sharing? Do you create one closet for the whole household? For the whole street? For the whole city? A city-wide closet could eliminate a huge amount of redundancy but it would also create big problems in terms of storing like with like as it would introduce more aspects of likeness, such as size, into the organizational schema.By increasing the number of items in each group of like things, it would take individuals far longer to find the particular set of clothes they want to wear today (even without factoring in the commute time involved).
In the physical world, there is no way out of this dilemma. When you store like physical things together, you must choose one aspect of alikeness as the principle axis of organization at the expense of other aspects of alikeness. You can choose garment type, or color, or season, as your principle axis of organization, but you can’t choose them all equally.
But in the digital world, that restriction exists only if we impose it on ourselves. In the digital world, like can be stored with like for every aspect of alikeness without limit. Red socks can be stored with black socks on the basis of their sockness, and with red gloves on the basis of their redness, and with winter wear on the basis of their warmth.
In the physical world, putting something next to one thing means moving it further from another thing. In the digital world, you can put something near to an infinite number of other things in an infinite number of dimensions.
Organizing digital assets like clothes in a closet, therefore, is imposing physical world limits on your digital storage scheme. We do it not because we are constrained by the media, but because our thinking about how to store things is constrained by our habituation to the physical world. But subjecting ourselves to that constraint robs us of much of the power of the computer to manage, organize, connect, and display information.
The ability to place an object near to an infinite number of other objects in an infinite number of dimensions of alikeness is one of the fundamental properties of digital computers that makes them so powerful for managing information. The Web is but one example of this power. On the Web, any page can be placed near any other page simply by creating a hyperlink between them.
The only thing that makes any two points on the Web distant from one another is the failure to create a link between them. Of course, you can’t make every web page near to every other web page in this way, because it would involve creating an impossible number of links, but you can move a web page next to any other web page, for any reason, without in any way affecting its nearness to other web pages.
In the digital world you can move two things closer together without moving them away from any of the things they are currently close to. Relational databases (which, of course, lie behind many web sites and CMSs) also show this property of enabling nearness to an unlimited number of things in an unlimited number of ways. The relations expressed in a relational database are expressions of nearness between two sets of data, and there is no limit to how many relations you can form, and creating a new relationship does not make the existing relationships more distant.
And yet, though we work in the digital world, though we use the web and databases every day, we still do content management as if nearness in the digital world was constrained in the same way that it is in the physical world.
Why do we do this? In part, perhaps, because when we view relationships in the digital world, we do so on physical screens, where physical-world constraints on nearness apply. But the representation of nearness on a screen is just one projection of one set of relationship in the underlying data. Alternate projections can show other dimensions of nearness, but only if the structure is in the data to allow the machine to discover and display that aspect of nearness.
Ironically, the way that you free yourself to express nearness in multiple ways is to free yourself from thinking of relationships between objects in terms of nearness at all. Rather than thinking in terms of nearness, you have to start thinking in terms of alikeness alone. You must learn to express alikeness in the data itself, semantically marking up content to capture each dimension of alikeness that is relevant to your content.
In order to organize content on more than one independent axis of alikeness, you have to become location independent. You can’t express alikeness through location if you have more than one independent measure of alikeness, so location has to go away as your organizing principle.
The interesting thing is that this can actually free you up to use the ordinary file system for shared space, which we see very commonly in the programming world, in which even the largest projects are managed on the file system via a version management system. The reason this works is that while each individual programmer organizes their code on their own individual file system, the overall organization of the code into a product isn’t done that way.
What happens is that the linker builds a database of symbols from all of the files in all of the parts of the file system included in the build, and uses that database to link the parts together regardless of their location. So, the overall system build is location-free, and the individual programmer is free to organize their own files on the file system.
The reason that content management systems are so big, so expensive, and so frustrating to use is that supporting the closet model of organization for a large shared collection is inherently difficult. It artificially makes some properties more important than others, which makes navigation, aggregation, and linking difficult, and it simply does not scale well when you start adding more objects and more users.
Isn’t it time to bring your content out of the closet?