In the heady days of the dotcom bubble, management-speak reached new levels – or depths. In fact, a number of websites such as www.dack.com/web/bullshit.html made it even easier to write that business plan on the back of a cigarette packet by stringing together buzzwords into mantras.
One of the more sage-like was 'content is king'. As the giant multinational entertainment companies signed up 'content plays' like frantic Monopoly players, they chanted the same refrain as those small publishing outfits desperately hoping to syndicate their output, or better still get bought out. Trying to appear real and relevant and to position themselves as creative and customer-focused, they sought to move attention away from frightening technology and even scarier business strategies to something we could all understand and form a relationship with: content.
Content was great. It was tangible. You knew it when you saw it. You could tell good from bad and it had a track record. The founding fathers had dealt in it for decades. If it was good enough for the BBC, The New York Times and the FT, it was good enough…
Where previously financial backers looked for management experience and business acumen, now they assessed a business plan on the basis of whether there was 'content'.
And, of course, around this preoccupation grew a technology and a science in the form of content management and an art in the form of information architecture.
The former was and is sold as a solution for handling large amounts of content and delivering it via the web, or increasingly into parallel publishing environments. The same document can lie in the content management system (CMS) and be published in print, online or in any required format. Content as raw material. Content management as Fordist production. The debate became one of which particular CMS to go for. Just recently, a major CMS vendor trumpeted a deal with Clifford Chance, and it claims to have 50 per cent of the top 200 firms using its technology to manage their content.
Running alongside a preoccupation with managing content grew a fascination with arranging it. Prophets cried in various wildernesses about inefficient sites, self-indulgent design and unusable content. A new breed of designer/programmer/consultant emerged – the information architect, who would generate massive maps of connections identifying, defining and shaping user journeys through a site. Under the architect's direction, the complexities and subtleties of interactive media would become a family tree, with nuggets of nested content, 'children' and 'parents', a visualisation of cyber consumption which could be signed off, if never fully understood.
|The content you lovingly create and publish is one piece in a broader content world that you cannot control|
What both CMS and information architecture (IA) have done is to make people believe that the practice of reading in a networked environment can be managed, controlled and predicted. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, it cannot.
Reading in a networked environment, whether it is a company's intranet or the wider internet, is a matter of relationships. Words and text are merely one part of the complex set of relationships that emerge across networks. It is not the old truism of literary theorists that 'readers are active with the text' and create their own meanings. It is more fundamental. Readers create relationships online and content is one element in that. Content on networks is a not a fixed entity, and that is what CMS and some information architects demand.
You can spend your IT budget on a state-of-the-art CMS that takes every word your company produces, tags it, files it, finds it and delivers it without a human ever having to touch it. An architect can engage your readers and create a navigation system and site structure allowing the user to never be more than three clicks away from their chosen content. But this will not determine what the user does, nor the content relationships that they set up. Because on networks we are not talking content, but 'content relationships'.
The rhetoric has been there about relationships. Content has been sold as the cement that sticks together the clicks. So-called 'sticky content' that brings people back and makes them loyal has been the Holy Grail. But this has still been to position content as a fixed entity that enabled the relationships rather than an element of them. Which is not surprising, because if you dare to say that content is not a fixed entity that can be filed, mapped and positioned, then the real power of the network effect starts to dawn on you.
Content relationships arise on networks because networks are about conversations. Users take the words and pictures you put online and integrate them into their conversations. They cut, paste, quote, parody, pass on and play with them as part of the broader network of relationships they create online. Some of this is formal in terms of groupware programmes allowing multiple authors to work together on a document, but much of it is informal. Users of networks forward emails, pass on URLs, annotate documents, ask questions and search for other material. In short, the piece of content you lovingly craft and publish is one piece in a broader content world and set of relationships that you cannot, and indeed should not, control.
Some proponents of IA would have you believe that users can be steered through content and that, if a site is designed well enough, the user will do your bidding. Much of what IA enthusiasts have to say is very valuable – a necessary counterbalance to ill-thought-out, interactive self-indulgence masquerading as creativity. The basic principles about letting your reader know where they are, where they can get to and what they can get should indeed form website creation 101.
But like the CMS salesperson who says that building on their foundations will guarantee a manageable and successful website, this only tells part of the story.
Of course, the words on which your business runs and with which you talk to your customers must be manageable. You, your staff and your clients must be able to create and find them. All must be clear about where those words, graphs, spreadsheets and pictures are and how they relate to broader business strategies and practices, but that is just the start of the content relationship.
Law firms generate an astonishing number of words. After all, that is what they are paid for. But those words only become 'content' when they form part of people's lives. Nowhere is this more true than on networks.
Of course, some words are sacrosanct. They may require copy-protecting and exist as (legal) entities, but such content is not the focus of a website or even an intranet. These networks are about workspaces and cultural spaces where new stories are told and relationships created. That finished legal contract may be archived online, but it does not live there. Conversations about it might, but the finished legal relationship embodied in the text is not what we are talking about.
What has to be addressed and cannot be factored in, no matter how sophisticated your CMS or subtle your IA, is how that content 'lives' on the network. Although IA will build a coherent framework that should be transparent to the user, it does not address a user's relationship with the content. Indeed, it can provide a very rigid format into which an organisation has to bend content to fit and which attempts to dictate to the user how they will respond to and use the content.
What is needed is a similarly rigorous and strategic view of content and the user's relationship to the 'stories' that a site tells and the experience it provides, what I call 'content architecture' (CA).
CA provides this by gleaning from the user their expectations of the content and cultural practice of reading. While IA concentrates on the journeys through the content, CA focuses on the relationships with the content.
CA does not try to predict a user's journeys, let alone try to control them. It attempts to scope the relationships that could emerge with that content, the stories the users could tell, the conversations it could trigger. When a site manager moves the focus onto the relationships, they are truly looking at the user (a common refrain of IA advocates).
All fine, dandy and potentially a nice little consultancy in the works; but what does this mean for a law firm with thousands of documents for internal use, client use and public consumption?
The first thing it means is a different planning procedure. Of course, there is a need for a content audit – what documents do we have, what do we produce etc. This can be used to separate 'words' from 'content', but what is also needed is a relationships audit. Who are the users? What will they read? What will they do with the content and with each other? What emerges from this planning phase is a map of networked relationships both human to human and human to content. This will not be exhaustive, as you cannot predict what users will do or want to do.
Once this very open structure has been identified, the focus shifts to the website(s) or interactive services. The aim of developing these is to enable those relationships, and for your visitors – whether staff, clients or public – to use your content as part of their broader relationships with the firm. You may decide to publish in formats that enable the user to pass the document on to colleagues, to find, cut and paste sections or integrate them into other documents. You may want to encourage users to comment on, feed back on or even annotate your content, perhaps rate it as to usefulness or even reorder it by importance on the page. By devolving power down to where it is most effective online – the user – you are playing to the strengths and logic of the internet, not fighting against it.
Such a focus, then, determines the sorts of technologies you employ and the questions you ask of your CMS vendor. Does your proposed system allow users to engage with the content rather than merely access it? Can they seamlessly integrate it into their online and offline lives? Can they get it where, when and in the formats they need? Can your content creators integrate the users' feedback into the content flows effectively? Does the design and structure of the site(s) facilitate and encourage networking or seek to frustrate it?
Content must be understood as a relationship, the effect of your readers meeting your information. Content management is not just about filing information or trying to control those relationships, it is about enabling them and profiting from them. The famous network effect that emerges when internet or intranet networks work at their most effective can be facilitated by good content relationships built on the information in your CMS, but not dictated by it.
Paul Caplan is senior e-content manager at COI Communications, the Government's communications agency.