Hierarchy as a form of content organization is dying. A major milestone — I want to say tombstone — in its demise is the shutdown of the Yahoo directory, which will occur at the end of the year according to an article in Ars Technica, Yahoo killing off Yahoo after 20 years of hierarchical organization. (Actually it seems to be offline already.)
As the article observes, a hierarchical directory made some sense when Yahoo was created:
In the early days of the Web, these categorized, human-curated Web listings were all the rage. Search engines existed, but rapidly became notorious for their poor result quality. On a Web that was substantially smaller than the one we enjoy today, directories were a useful alternative way of finding sites of interest.
But as search engines have grown more capable, and the Web has grown exponentially larger, they just don’t work anymore:
As the Web grew, directories became less useful—there was no way they could ever hope to be exhaustive—and Google, in particular, made search engines useful. The directory fell out of fashion. … it clearly no longer captures the interests or imaginations of Internet users today.
The phrase the article chooses is particularly telling: “The directory fell out of fashion”. Search, as well as various forms of social curation, have risen in popularity because of the simple impossibility of maintaining or navigating a directory of the whole Web. But in doing so, they have driven the very idea of such a directory out of fashion, even at a scale where it might still be effective.
The reader is search-dominant
Readers are becoming more and more search-dominant. Their directory-using skills are eroding. This means increasingly that you cannot improve information access by building a better directory because directories themselves are out of fashion. Improving your TOC won’t make it easier for someone to find information if it never occurs to them to use the TOC.
It isn’t just search and social curation that is hammering nails in the coffin of hierarchy. Other forms of categorization are hastening its demise as well. There is faceted navigation, for example, in which multiple different criteria are presented as peers and users can drill down according to whatever criteria they choose, rather than according to a fixed hierarchy.
One thing search, social curation, and faceted navigation all have in common is that they are dynamic: they require a active algorithm, a sufficiently large datastore, and a means to connect to both. Hierarchy, by contrast can be implemented statically. Hierarchy’s dominant position pre-Internet is thus in part due to its ability to be implemented in bricks and mortar, in shelves and bins, and on paper. A networked digital world has destroyed that technological advantage, and is busy ripping apart the social consensus about content organization that was built on it.
A scale that can only be handled by filtering
Another factor in the ongoing demise of hierarchy, as the Ars Technica article notes, is the sheer scale of the Web — not only how truly vast it is, but how rapidly it changes. A content set this huge and this volatile can never be mapped. You might as well try to capture the topography of the rolling ocean. The Web can never be comprehended. You can never be sure that you have pinpointed the best it has to offer. The whole approach to discovery has to be different: to use the Web you must filter it.
To use David Weinberger’s words (which I quote so often), the new default is “Include it all. Filter it afterward.” In other words, we make no attempt to constrain the initial set of content that we consult — we consult everything and then we apply filters to it, usually in the form of search terms, which rely on the search engine’s ranking algorithm and everything the search engine knows about us, in order to filter forward the most likely results.
This works far better than trying to navigate a hierarchy of the whole — even if one could be created and maintained, which it can’t. And much of the time it works better than navigating the hierarchy of a small portion of the whole, since the main problem for the reader is finding which small portion contains the information they need. There are multiple ways of solving this problem, but searching is the first and most obvious — and the one that adapts best to changes in the content.
One of the things worth noting about the difference between the Yahoo directory and Google search is that the directory indexed sites whereas Google indexes pages. The Yahoo directory was a hierarchy of hierarchies; Google search is a filter of pages in which the site plays only a partial weighting role through its reputation. Yahoo attempted to take you to the top and help you work your way down. Google takes you straight to the bottom and leaves you to work your way up or sideways.
The reader’s new default
These are profoundly different information seeking paradigms. There is no a-priori way for a reader to know which will be the most successful for any given enquiry, therefore their natural tendency will be to turn always to the one that is more often successful and that is intellectually less demanding: search. Thus people increasingly turn to search even in information sets that are still small enough to be navigated hierarchically.
People encounter content bottom up, and we need to meet their needs with a bottom-up information architecture.
Not dead, just resting
This is not to say that hierarchy is entirely dead. This is not that kind of death. As with so many other technical and economic deaths, this is not the death of extinction, but the death of insignificance, the particularly harrowing death of falling out of fashion. The death of smokestack industries does not mean that no one makes refrigerators anymore. It simply means that the making of refrigerators is not what drives the economy today. Hierarchy can still work for some forms of content organization, but it is not what drives information finding today.
The death of hierarchy means that it has lost its dominant and normative position as the gold standard of content organization. It still has notable secondary uses. Computer file systems continue to be hierarchical, for instance. Even the URL addressing system of the Web is nominally hierarchical, though it does not consistently express any hierarchical relationship of the content that URLs point to. Its role today is utilitarian, not normative. It does not dominate the patterns of thought and action of the modern information seeker.
Writing in a post-hierarchical world
The difficulty for writers is that we are struggling to figure out how to work in a post-hierarchy world. In a recent post on the Techwhr-l discussion list, Getting users to RTFM, David Tingley writes:
My tech support colleagues continually get calls from customers for which the response is RTFM. The manuals do contain all the information needed, but it seems the customers would rather pick up the phone to tech support. We have been brainstorming ways of making it less intimidating for the customer to find information in the manuals. We deliver pdf, fully indexed, cross referenced and with a comprehensive logical TOC.
He signs the message:
David (who never reads manuals unless it is to critique them!)
In the comments that follow, other writers confess that they don’t read the manual either. Even those who claim they do, seem conscious that doing so makes them an anomaly. We continue to make the old hierarchical artefacts even though we ourselves have become post-hierarchical in our information-seeking habits.
David’s company is doing everything right by the old rules of the age of hierarchy. They “deliver pdf, fully indexed, cross referenced and with a comprehensive logical TOC”. And nobody uses it. Because hierarchy is dead.
There are doubtless some customers who will always call customer support as a first resort. There is not a lot we can do about them. But there are also a large number whose first resort will be to do a Google search. Locating and using a hierarchically organized manual, on the other hand, will usually be their last resort, if they resort to it at all.
Improving the manual, therefore, will do nothing to deflect tech support calls. There is nothing you can do to persuade people to abandon their information seeking defaults. There isn’t even a way to get them to be aware of your efforts to do so. As long as you stay in the hierarchical world, much of your intended audience is simply blind to you.
The opportunity to deflect support calls now lies in the ability to address the user’s needs at the time they do their Google search. To do that, you must first put your content where Google can index it. You must then design it so that it works for the reader when they encounter it bottom up. Every page must work as page one. It must be self-contained, establish its context, and link richly to pages on associated subjects.