We used to be in the writing business. Then we were in the communication business. Now we are in the content business. It’s probably getting time to change the monika again. I have a candidate: “story.”
There have always been two schools of thought about the word “content”. Some love it. Some hate it.
I hate it. It is an ugly generic word chosen specifically not to mean anything specific. We can’t say “writing” because sometimes we use pictures. Etc. Etc. It is the sort of word you use when you don’t care what is in the container. (Many years ago I asked a Documentum rep what Documentum meant by content, to which he replied, “anything you can store in Documentum.”)
But the problem for “content” haters is to propose a suitably comprehensive alternative. Which is catch-22 because anything equally comprehensive will also be equally generic. The only way out of this catch is to go meta, to focus not on the artefact but what the artefact represents: story.
“Content” exists to tell stories. All the forms we use to tell stories are incidental to this. What matters is the story, and any media you can use to tell that story is merely a tool of the story business.
Now, lets see what happens when we drop “story” into some well-known “content” phrases.
From Content Strategy to Story Strategy
Content strategy has always struggled to define itself. This is no doubt due in large part to the generic nature of the word content. If content is anything that fits in a container, then content is everything. Some definitions of content strategy seem to embrace this broad definition, claiming that content strategy is about everything an organization thinks, does, knows, says, and is. Others limit it in various ways. To some it is specifically digital, or specifically Web-oriented, or specifically marketing oriented. To some its seems to be little more than a fancy word for copywriting.
What happens if we talk about “story strategy” instead. This seems clearer to me. Story strategy is about how an organization tells its story (overall) and how it tells its stories, of which it doubtless has many.
Clearly technology and media are part of that strategy, but they are not the focus. The focus is story. Clearly too, this is not a strategy for every piece of data the organization holds. It is about its stories and how they are told.
That is not going to immediately banish all arguments about scope and jurisdiction, but I think it is a step in the right direction and is an immediately more concrete way of expressing what the discipline is supposed to be about.
From Content Lifecycle to Story Lifecycle
Here is where we would start to see the change in emphasis making a real difference. Content lifecycle puts an emphasis on individual artefacts: bits of text and graphics being created, published, and retired. Story lifecycle puts the emphasis on the story to be told and how it changes over time, how it becomes of interest and ceases to be of interest.
That a story has a lifecycle that needs to be managed is an idea very familiar to the news media and to politicians. News media produce many artefacts to tell what they often call “a developing story”. Politicians often seek different ways to tell their story to different constituencies.
It should be clear that for any organization, the story, and its lifecycle, is more important than any individual item of content. For any organization, many individual content artifacts will be created, modified, and retired over the lifespan of a story, and that story will be told in different ways, in different media, for different audiences. Managing the story is far more important than managing the individual artefacts. Indeed, managing the story is, or should be, the main reason for managing the artefacts.
Thinking in terms of managing the story lifecycle also puts us back in the realm of the writerly mindset, rather than the database mindset that often informs content management design and decision making.
From Content Management to Story Management
Which brings us to content management. How different does the role of story manager sound from the role of content manager? The former is clearly an editorial role; the latter sounds more like an IT role.
How differently might a content management system look and behave if it was conceived of as a system for managing stories rather than generic blobs of “content”?
Yes, of course, we would still need systems for managing texts, graphics, videos, and any other communication artefacts. But suppose that we thought of what we were asking that system to do in terms of the stories to which the individual artefacts were merely contributory?
What do you think, is it time to move on from “content” to “story?”