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
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.