Summary: As content consumers, we love hypertext. As content creators, we still believe in content management, even after years of disappointment. Content management disappoints because it does not scale for culture. It is time to embrace hypertext instead.
I should know better. Every time I put the word “hypertext” in the title of a post, my readership numbers plummet. Hopefully “content management” will help pull them up this time, because as content professionals we need to come to terms with hypertext.
Here’s the thing: we are locked in a war between hypertext and content management. We’re losing, because we are on both sides.
As consumers of information, we are firmly on the side of hypertext. We use the Web to find stuff. We use search. We follow links. We skip from one resource to another unconscious of institutional boundaries. We share, we Tweet, we like.
As creators of information, however, we are firmly on the side of content management. Actually, we are firmly on the side of the idea of content management. We hate all the actual implementations. Everyone hates their CMS. Most people are planning to fix or replace their CMS with a new system that they will rapidly grow to hate in its turn.
Despite all the bad experiences we have with content management, we still seem to believe that the only way forward is more content management, and content management on an ever larger scale. We may consume content bottom-up, but we are determined to keep creating and managing it top-down.
The problem of scale
I had an interesting conversation with Michael Priestley (one of the inventors of DITA) following his presentation to the Toronto STC. We were talking about maps, and whether it is possible to do DITA without them. It is, in fact. As Michael pointed out, maps were not part of the original DITA spec. And then Michael said, “But I still prefer maps, because bottom-up does not scale.”
For some time now, I have been saying just the opposite: that the problem with top-down approaches is that they do not scale, and that beyond a certain point, bottom-up is the only approach that does scale. I very commonly cite Wikipedia as an example of an information set that is huge, easy to navigate, and has virtually no top-down structure. So Michael’s statement was a marked point of contrast for me. He embraces maps for the exact reason that I reject them: scale.
The difference between us, I suspect, is more about what processes we are trying to scale. I take it that Michael was talking about content management (I’m looking forward to follow-up conversations to validate this), and if so, I agree. Bottom-up content management does not scale. I’m talking about hypertext. Bottom-up hypertext does scale.
Why you hate your CMS
The problem is, as I see it, that top-down content management does not scale either. Which is why you hate your CMS. More specifically, it is why you loved it in the pilot project when things were small and simple, and hate it now that it is in production and things are big and messy.
A serendipitous piece of hypertext brings a perfect example to my inbox even as I was writing the paragraph above, in the form of Larry Kunz latest blog post, which is on the Library of Congress. (Yes, email subscriptions to blog feeds are hypertext, and bottom up.) The Library of Congress, you would think, should be good at content management. Not so much, it seems, with vast parts of the collection sitting uncatalogued in warehouses. The obvious slant on this it to call for more use of technology, and to a certain extent, that might help. But the story that Larry cites also mentions a string of technology failures, and “string of technology failures” is the sort of phrase that a good CCMS would definitely flag for reuse in stories about content management issues. Maybe the technology problems lie not in the machines but in the approach.
Larry says that the Library of Congress “houses more knowledge than any other institution in the world.” That depends, I suppose, on how you define “knowledge” and “institution”. In fact, as Leslie Johnston points out in a post on the Library of Congress’s own blog, “library of congress’ has become something of a unit of measure for very large information sets — in the sense of how many times they are larger than it. (Data is not the same thing as knowledge, of course.)
I found Johnston’s article on the Web, using the search string “size of the library of congress vs size of the web” in Google. It took me less than a minute to formulate that query and get an answer. Any guesses how long it would have taken to find the same information in the Library of Congress?I’m not sure if we should count the Web as an institution, but its collection absolutely dwarfs the Library of Congress. And yet, you can find stuff on the Web. You can often find stuff on the Web with absolutely ridiculous speed and ease.
And yet, somehow, we still believe that the answer is content management. Why?
Perhaps the answer lies in that old bugaboo, information overload. The problem with hypertext, in many ways, is that it works too well. It delivers far too much information far too quickly. It is like turning on a drinking fountain and getting hit with a firehose.
Drinking from the firehose
In the paper days, the drinking fountain produced a nice trickle of water. The problem was, it could take days, weeks, or months to find the right drinking fountain.
Today the drinking fountain is always immediately available, but it delivers the pressure and volume of a fire hose.
What we hope for is a ubiquitous drinking fountain that delivers just a drinkable stream of the finest purest water. We hope that content management can deliver it.
Stuck at the beginning
Michael was talking about just this in his presentation to STC Toronto: enabling content flow, and specifically content reuse, across the enterprise, with particular reference to IBM, where he works. Someone asked him where IBM was in implementing this. His answer, essentially: at the beginning.
For the last 20 years, at least, we have known how to create large content sets around large products and systems using structured writing techniques and content management (though widespread adoption has only come in the last 5 years or so). For all that time, we have seen horizontal extension of these techniques as the next logical and necessary step.
And where are we, after 20 years? Where is IBM, one of the largest companies in the World that has been a leader in the practical implementation of these ideas, and which developed and donated to the world the most commonly used tool (DITA)? At the beginning — forming a committee, trying to get departments to commit. And from what I have seen and heard, that is where most other companies are too.
Scaling for diversity
Why? Because content management does not scale. While it can scale, to a fair extent, for mere size of the data set, providing it is highly consistent in structure and vocabulary, it does not scale for diversity of content, subject matter, structure, or vocabulary.
Indeed, content management is the declared enemy of diversity, preferring to preach standardization and uniformity — necessarily so, for without these things it can’t function.
We have been trying to standardize terminology within and between industries for 20 years or more. Where are we? With a few notable and specialized vertical exceptions, at the beginning. Why? Because the things that people talk about across the many departments of an enterprise, and many walks of life are highly particular to the local concerns of those domains. There are no universal categories of thought to which we can assign universal vocabulary. It is stories, not words, that have meaning, and everyone tells their own stories in their own ways.
The many meanings of “content management”
Take, for example, the words “content management” as I have used them in this post. You have doubtless been asking since almost the beginning how content management is in conflict with hypertext. (And thank you for indulging me thus far without a satisfactory answer to this obvious question.) And, of course, any time you create a piece of content, or a set of content, and do anything at all to manage it, you are doing content management, and this would apply to the creation of hypertext as much as anything else.
But “content management” today means something much more specific than this. It means a specific approach to managing content that is based, fundamentally, on top-down control and hierarchical organization. It is the imposition of traditional management styles and traditional paper-derived forms of content organization on the production of content, even when that content is intended solely for the Web.
The broader meaning of “hypertext”
My contention here is that this approach does not scale, and also that hypertext is not merely a word describing text with links, but a management style and organizing principle that is very different from this conventional content management model. This does not, of course, mean that there are no systems that support this model. In many ways, wikis are just that. But wikis are seldom if ever called content management systems, despite being used to manage content.
And this subtlety of usage is one of the reasons that content management does not scale well for diversity.
Diversity and the role of stories in communication
The word “content management” as used today, encapsulates a story about top-down management and top-down organization of content. But while we have spent the last 20 years, and more, seeking top-down ways to allow people to tell, organize, discover and understand each other’s stories, while not advancing beyond the beginning of the quest, the world has quietly gone and found a different solution — one that is simple, inexpensive, and available to everyone: hypertext.
Yes, the Web tends to act like a fire hose when we would prefer a drinking fountain. But content management makes it so hard to find the drinking fountain, and so hard to operate it when we think we might have found it, that most of us have learned that it is easier to fill a cup from the fire hose and drink from that. As David Weinberger says, and I frequently quote: “Include it all, filter it afterward.”
Hypertext works because it works with, rather than against, the immense diversity of stories, of interests, of vocabularies that are the real stuff of how we communicate. Content management tries to squeeze it all down and make it fit a limited set of categories and structures. Hypertext takes it all in and provides multiple filters, both social and algorithmic, to help us sort it and make sense of it.
And this is the vital point here. Making sense of all this diversity is hard, and always will be hard. The world is vast and complex and we all have our specialties, which shape not only our vocabulary but our categories of thought, the way we see the world and think about it. Understanding other points of view in other fields is genuinely hard. It takes time, discipline, experience, and patience. Communication is genuinely hard. A taxonomy or a cataloging scheme is not going to fix this. You may need to drink from the firehose to get a real understanding of someone else’s world.
The problem isn’t culture, but it is
For as long as we have been stuck at the beginning of implementing cross-functional content management, we have been saying that the problem is not technical, but cultural. And while we have invented a bunch more technology over those 20 or more years, we are still stuck on the culture part. It is time to turn a more skeptical eye on that part of the content management proposition.
In saying that the problem is cultural, what we tend to mean is that the machine works fine; the problem is getting people to use it. I think that if you have been trying for 20 years to get people to use it, there may be something wrong other than their reluctance to change. (People have made some really big changes in how they use machines over the last 20 years — many of them related in one way or another to hypertext.)
But yes, the problem in content management is cultural. But it is a far deeper cultural problem than any amount of “change management” can address. It is the diversity of culture, and the diversity of how people in different fields and with different background think, write, and share information — ways that are optimized for the roles they play in life, and are therefore not open to tinkering for the sake of making content management technology work. Thus any actual system that they are asked to use ends up at odds with how they work, think, and communicate. And they hate it.
Breaking silos doesn’t bridge cultures
We talk about breaking down silos, as if everyone would be able to transparently talk to and understand each other if only we pushed all their desks together in one big room. But that doesn’t work. It doesn’t work because the differences between us are deep, based on years of focus on different domains of experience. And they are necessary, because those different domains of experience are based on real jobs that need doing, and the language that we develop that enables us to do them. Diversity of language may be a barrier to communication, but it is an absolute necessity for us all getting our respective work done. (Diversity of experience, not language, being the real barrier.)
We should be focusing, therefore, not on breaking down walls but on building bridges.
Bridges built with content, not content management
But if you want to build bridges between diverse fields and departments, you do it with content, not content mangement. And the best way to build those bridges is often to let the people who wish to cross build them for themselves. And this is what hypertext does: it lets people build bridges organically, and it builds up and strengthens those bridges that more people cross.
Not back to chaos; forward to hypertext
Am I saying, go back to the status quo before you bought your CMS? Not at all. A bunch of word docs on a server is not a hypertext. Unstructured hypertexts like the Web provide tremendous value, but even there, the content that works is hypertext content, not a pile of documents. But I am not advocating an unstructured approach to hypertext. I am advocating a highly structured and disciplined approach. The alternative to content management is not chaos, but disciplined hypertext.
If we want to enable people to build the bridges that they themselves want to cross, we need to give them the tools and training to do so: not content management tools and training, but hypertext tools and training.
We have assumed that structure has to mean top-down, that it has to mean content management. We’ve tried it. We hate it. We are stuck at the beginning, still blaming “culture” for the inability to move forward. It is time to take a structured approach based on hypertext. Because, you know, it actually works.