I’m a fan of emerging technology, and generally tolerant of emerging terminology, but when it comes to job titles I tend to the view that if it was not mentioned in the Domesday Book, it isn’t a real job. I have, on diverse occasions, decried attempts to replace the title “technical writer” with something else, maintaining that as long as that is what the job ads call it, that’s what the job is called.
Thus I have been reluctant to call myself a content strategist. Scott Abel’s recent interview with Barbara Saunders indicates I am not the only one having doubts about the title. Yet many of the people I interact with professionally call themselves content strategists, and more than once those people have used the #contentstrategy tag when tweeting about my articles or blog posts. I seem to write a lot about the issues that content strategists care about, yet still I find myself reluctant to get the content strategist tattoo.
My Domesday Book prejudices aside, there is no doubt that the move to the web has profoundly changed how information is created and organized, so it is not unreasonable that new job functions should emerge, and new job titles to go with them.
In the paper world, there were three main jobs in the creation and organization of information: writer, editor, and librarian. (One could easily add teacher and publisher to that list, but for the broad point I want to make here, the basic three will suffice.) Each of these may have had a strategy (or at least a plan). The editor, particularly the editor of a periodical, would give instruction to writers so that they could produce content that complied to the editor’s strategy. A librarian, on the other hand, may have had a strategy for building their collection, but they did not communicate that strategy to editors or writers. Librarians did not commission books or periodicals; they merely collected from what was out there according to their collection strategy.
Today the units of information are not books, periodicals, and libraries, but web pages, web sites, intranets, and the web. Some websites, such as The Content Wrangler or The Dynamic Publisher do operate on the periodical model, and are governed by an editor (the industrious Scott Abel in both cases cited) who has a strategy for each periodical and recruits and instructs writers accordingly. The venerable title of editor still fits this function.
But many other sites are larger and more diverse. It is hardly feasible to run a large corporate web site or intranet on the periodical model in which all pieces are commissioned and approved by a single editor. Managing these kinds of sites looks much more like a job for a librarian. Yet that term has almost never been used in this context. Instead the emerging job titles that cover this territory are webmaster, information architect, and content strategist.
Webmaster is the oldest of these terms and originally covered the entire territory, but it now more often describes the technical role of keeping the site and its supporting systems running, rather than taking responsibility for the content. Information architect describes the role of establishing and maintaining the structure of the web site, while content strategist describes the role of governing the overall approach to the content and focuses on the content as a business asset.
Here’s the rub, though. Traditionally, the librarian collected and collated material produced by many different authors and editors, each of which was following their own strategy or plan, but they did not attempt to dictate strategy to the writer or the editor. They did not decide what content should be produced; they only decided what content should be preserved.
A content strategist, on the other hand, creates a strategy for what content should be produced, not merely what should be preserved. They attempt to exercise an editor’s discretion with a librarian’s scope. That’s a tough row to hoe. It also cuts, somewhat imperiously, across the functions of many other departments.
But is that really what content strategy is about? The debate between centralized control and distributed authority is eternal. The Web, with its capacity for both personal connection and instantaneous global distribution, profoundly affects this dynamic, generally in favor of distribution of authority. As David Weinberger says, hypertext subverts hierarchy. Can one have a content strategy based on distributed authority?
Nominally, the word “strategy” is neutral on this question. Centralized control and distributed authority are both strategies, and approaching a problem strategically should involve considering both approaches. In practice, however, the word “strategy” is much more often used by those who favor central control over distributed authority. Thus when someone says “we need a unified content strategy” what they are likely to mean is that they want centralized control over content creation and distribution. People who want centralized control may be more likely to create a post of “content strategist” or even “chief content officer” than those who want distributed authority.
But is it really impossible for a content strategist to favor distributed authority over content? Is there a reason that a central “content strategy” function cannot act as a facilitator building bridges and sharing resources between distributed content creation functions, each of which has independent authority over content creation and distribution in their own sphere? I think you can have a content strategy based on distributed authority, and I am sure some content strategists advocate for this, but I still can’t shake the fear that by getting the “content strategist” tattoo I will brand myself as an advocate of central control, which I most definitely am not.
You see, I am entirely in agreement with Barbara Saunders (in her interview with Scott Abel) that you can’t make content better simply by organizing it. That is the whole point of this blog: that every page is page one; that it is the individual pieces of content that matter. As I have pointed out previously, Websites are upside down. People encounter the leaves. For the most part, they never see the branches. The Web, as experienced through the portal of Google, is not a collection of websites, but a collection of web pages. Good content strategy, it follows, is not good organization but good content.
Actually, this is what makes me think that I am a content strategist, and that I should call myself by that name. Every Page is Page One is fundamentally a proposition in content strategy. If I am a content strategist, then my vision of content strategy is that Every Page is Page One. All the strategic and tactical recommendations I make to my clients fall out from that basic idea.
Of course, other content strategists would disagree with this vision. But economists often disagree on the most fundamental propositions of economics, and yet the rivals still acknowledge each other as economists. Actually, that is what distinguishes a genuine job function from a mere philosophy: fundamental disagreements among practitioners about how to practice and what to recommend. If content strategy is a philosophy of centralization of authority over content, then I am not a content strategist. If content strategy is a field that considers and debates the best way to facilitate the creation of good content (and that includes divergent and antagonistic views on that subject) then I am a content strategist.
So, what do you think? Should I get the “content strategist” tattoo?