Content as Furniture

Summary: Content is no longer furniture; it is a utility. We have to learn to treat it as such.

I am in the last throes of our move from Ottawa to Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario, which involves moving a lot of content. Boxes and boxes of great heavy lumps of paper and ink content. Great gaping room-swallowing wooden content storage units. Think those old hard drives in the computer museum (or your basement) were costly and low-capacity? Let me show you a book case. More to the point, help me move it.

The content strategy of moving house

One could make a good case, I think, that the whole of content strategy can be learned by moving a house full of books. Start with the content audit. Some of this stuff is definitely not worth paying to move. To the thrift store.

Then there is governance. Why did I buy this volume, which has sat on the shelf unread for some 15 years now? Perhaps it was on sale. And I might read it one day, when I have the time. When I retire. By which time, if whatever faint interest prompted the purchase has flared to a gutting spark, I will have invested exactly how much money in transportation, storage, and tied-up capital in this now dated and yellowing volume? And its fellows? The bargain bin may not represent the best content investment. Don’t buy it until you are ready to read it.

Then presentation, storage, and retrieval. Fiction in the living room? Tech in the study? What would work best on that shelf we put in the dining room because that was the only space for it? Organize by author (for ease of filing), by genre (for ease of selection), by size (for maximum utilization of space), by height of the most likely reader (kids books at their eye level) or by order of social pretense (what will imply the greatest erudition, catholicity of taste, and correctness of opinion to my visitors). (Oh yes, content strategy ain’t about logic, it’s about impact.)

The age of conspicuous content

Portrait with bookcase.

Content as furniture, and as mark of social status.

Beyond all this, though, I have come to realize how much our pre-digital civilization made content an article of furniture. Books in book cases, paintings on walls. We did not simply acquire, own, and use content: we furnished our homes with it. The amount, quantity, and nature of the content we displayed in our homes was a mark and statement of our social, cultural, and economic status. A home without books was a home without education. (If TV wants to make a commentator look smart, they still film them in front of a book case.)

And one’s status depended not on mere bulk or yardage, but in the detail and subtleties of the choices. I am reminded of how Charles Ryder redecorates his Oxford rooms after he meets Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited. A change of society calls for a change of conspicuous content. Content made the man, as much as clothes, perhaps more. My undergraduate days were somewhat down market: we considered a pile of shabby paperbacks on a cinderblock and pressboard bookcase higher status furniture than unbroken leather spines on polished oak — as long as the titles were the right ones.

The age of conspicuous devices

But we have been passing for a while now from the age of conspicuous content to the age of conspicuous devices — the age of iPod and iPad. Cool is not measured by what you read, but by what you read it on. This is a good thing, I think. I am all for a society in which you don’t have to hide your Batman inside your Proust (or your Proust inside your Batman). But it is a hugely different thing.

(I grant you, Amazon now knows exactly how much time you spend reading Batman, and how much Proust. That is troubling in its own way. Though not as troubling as that the NSA knows, at least in the politically savage times we live in. Liberty, egality, and zero tolerance. But let’s not go down that road. There be dragons. And Gulags.)

Content as utility

Here’s the thing: It makes no sense that I am moving so many books and so many book cases. They are laborious to pack, heavy to move, occupy too much space (which costs too much money to rent). Very few of them are active content for me. Most represent affection for past pleasures, the indistinct hope of future pleasures, vague aspirations to learning or adventure, and a sliver of social/academic pretension. They are furniture, not content. They are there for comfort, not utility.

I’d like to tell myself that they represent an investment, but content is a depreciating asset. Compared to the maintenance cost of the the collection, buying Kindle versions when I am actually ready to read them (or read them again) would almost certainly be more economical. (And I would far rather read on my Kindle than on paper.) There are perhaps a couple of dozen childhood favorites too long out of favor to appear in ebook form, or to remain in print, which it might make sense to hang on to. (Oh the hours spent trying to track down a copy of Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf!) For the rest, it is vanity. Or, at best, comfort.

Taking comfort in content as furniture is perhaps an acceptable vice for those of us whose lives span the digital divide. It is not the most destructive vice, nor the most expensive (though both books and book cases are made with dead trees, and carbon, and hurricanes, and baby seals).

But it really isn’t an acceptable vice for the profession of technical communication (or content strategy, for that matter) today. Content has become a utility. Like the water and the electricity, it is just supposed to be there when you turn on the tap or the switch. We no longer need to stockpile our own little caches of content against the needs of tomorrow. We have access to content on demand as we need it.

There is, of course, far more of a romance about the idea of being a cabinet maker than the idea of being a line man for the county. For many writers, being makers of the fine furniture by which people expressed their social, intellectual, political, or religious positions and affiliations was doubtless part of what attracted them to the profession. Certainly, content does still play that role. You can still mark yourself by how you discuss Game of Thrones in the break room (unwatchably tedious — there, I’ve said it). But if you want people to judge you by your taste in content, you need to be much more vocal about it. Content is no longer furniture.

And technical communication (and marking communication) is, today, pure utility. People expect it to be there when they turn on the tap. End of story. As pure utility, none of the features that make content work as furniture have any place in our work any more. Content just needs to come out of the tap, pure, correct, in the right proportion, and as and when it is wanted.

And (here’s the coda!) it comes out of the tap one page at a time. Every Page is Page One.

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8 Responses to Content as Furniture

  1. Jorunn 2014/05/11 at 07:13 #

    Good analogy for a content audit (and spot on about Game of Thrones).

    It’s funny how difficult it can be to let go of conventions in writing and publishing even when they go against every principle you’re writing about. My favorite example is the first book I tried to read about lean development, which of course preaches “eliminate waste” above all else.

    The book had a foreword, a preface, AND an introduction.

    • Mark Baker 2014/06/03 at 08:28 #

      Thanks for the comment, Jorunn.

      Indeed, one of the most interesting phenomena I see in this space is the current divergence between the accepted cultural norm of information design and the way people actually use information. The old ideas about the “right” way to design and organize information — ideas that were perfectly correct for paper, with all its limitations — still dominates our sense of what is the “right way” to do things, even though no one seeks or uses content that way anymore.

      This does not just affect writers, but the product manages who give us our marching orders and even the customers that we ask for input. Study after study shows that people overwhelmingly use search and consume information in small snack-size bites, but ask people what they want and they still ask for manuals and PDFs.

      Steve Jobs said you can’t design great products by asking customers what they want because people will not know they want something new until they see it. But the situation, for content at least, is worse than that. If you ask people what they want, they will ask you for something old that they no longer use — something their fifth grade English teacher told them they were supposed to want, and have been asking for ever since to avoid being seen as stupid or lazy.

  2. Larry Kunz 2014/05/12 at 08:59 #

    Thanks, Mark. You’ve hit on something really important by pointing out that content has become a utility. People expect to get content when they need it, as they need it, just as they get water by turning on the tap.

    Yet….and I admit that this baffles me….lots of people still go to the grocery store and buy plastic bottles of water. Do you think there’s an analogy for content: that even though content needs to be easily and readily accessible, there’s still a market for content as craftsmanship?

    • Mark Baker 2014/06/03 at 08:44 #

      Thanks for the comment, Larry.

      I do think there is a market for content as craftsmanship. The question is, how big a market is it, and where does it exist?

      It is certainly true that exceptional prose can improve the reader’s speed and comprehension. The problem is that, when you look at the overall process of sense-making that the reader has to go through, the contribution that superior prose makes is generally relatively small. Much of the sense-making process does not rely directly on the content at all, and the part that does relies far more on the content saying just the right thing than it does on it saying it in just the right way.

      Actually, I would argue that technical writing has far far more to do with saying just the right thing than with saying it in just the right way. Indeed, good style is a commodity. We can complain all we like about the people with something to say who don’t possess good style, but the real curse of all forms of communication are the people with good style and nothing to say. The former are hard to read, but rewarding; the latter easy to read by disappointing.

      Then again, we could (and should) recast our idea of craftsmanship to focus on saying the right thing. What a utility demands, though, is not craftsmanship, but engineering. Engineering is where we get the consistency that a utility demands.

      But engineering is nothing but systematized craftsmanship. And the craft of saying the right things can be systematized and made into an engineering discipline. This, I would suggest, is what structured writing is — or should be — really about. It is not a publishing technology (except incidentally), nor a content management or reuse technology (except incidentally), it is a technology for engineering content that consistently and reliably says the right thing.

  3. Vinish Garg 2014/05/14 at 00:20 #

    What an excellent way to explain how our content strategy principles fit into our daily life.

    To purchase a new book and add it to the shelf, we should be clear whether it is luxury, or a utility. There were times when people got a new dishwasher as a luxury but that is now a utility, an absolute necessity. Likewise, for content.

    • Mark Baker 2014/06/03 at 08:51 #

      Thanks for the comment, Vinish.

      Interesting analogy about content going from luxury to utility as society gets richer. It raises interesting questions about the implied transition of content providers from luxury good makers to utility providers. It is a very different mind set with very different value and metrics. One wonders if people brought up in the old way can — or would wish to — make the transition to the new. And if not, where are the content utility workers to come from?

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