Back in the days when my job mostly involved hacking through sizable tracts of web content undergrowth (which it still does, sometimes), I believed in something: that content on the web should be short, to the point, and pared down. It was a one-size-fits-all mantra and it was there for a reason. Instead of ‘content first’, I was really saying ‘cut the crap first’. Because there was an awful lot of crap out there.
Today, I think about content in broader terms, perhaps less PowerPoint-able but more intriguing. That’s because I’m thinking about content types more broadly: not just corporate and retail sites or apps, but content where the words themselves are the product, as with journalism, literature or nonfiction essays.
Because how can there be fixed rules for such vast fields of expression? Instead, maybe the shape content takes should depend on what it is – the big idea that inspired it – as well as what, or who, it is for.
This line of thinking doesn’t discount the old rules: we shouldn’t revert to treating web content like print. But as much as it’s a business asset, content is first a conceptual asset; it’s intellectual property, and as such it ought to have that intellectual purpose at its core.
Most industries are just starting to grasp this, not because the idea itself is so groundbreaking, but because it requires a shift in ways of working. Publishers, like other businesses before them, have entrenched habits. The habits that gave rise for the need for content strategy in large organisations are also present in publishing and creative industries – really, until I have evidence otherwise (because I am obviously the arbiter of this), in every large organisation that’s methodically run.
So. Show a designer a problem and they will work out 16 different ways to fix it – so we’ll probably figure out the book-as-object soon, or realise it’s now lots of things.
But writers (as far as I can see), outside a digitally-obsessed minority, don’t voice many aspirations about content formats. Which is a shame to me, because the people behind the concepts and styles of writing that are being created should ideally be inspiring the future forms they’ll take.
If you’re reading this blog you’ve probably also read this one, which lays out the case for an approach to formatting content based on semantic purpose – so that form follows meaning, not the other way around.
This is one of those things that seems blatantly obvious when it’s pointed out: and that’s because format and semantics have always been interlaced.
Our existing content formats were around for so long that we didn’t think twice before knowing that a long imagined story should go in a book, a short serious article should go in a magazine, a poem should be published in a ‘slim volume’ if you’re just starting out, or a chubby ‘collected’ edition if you’re an elder statesman (or woman). Form and purpose were so entwined it’s hard to know which came first (it was format, sorry – after all, the first writers were for-hire scribes filling pre-formatted scrolls).
And if writers have been loath to push against the constraints of format imposed by their industry, no wonder the corporate world has taken so long to relinquish its most familiar formats — the brochure, the advertisement, and the annual report.
I’ve found a lot of inspiration in the world of transmedia (though I hate that word) storytelling, over the past year. Like content strategy, it’s a vastly and aggressively misunderstood term for something rather simple: the notion that, much like conceptual art, a story should start with an idea, rather than a format. Instead of writing a novel, poem, TV show, movie or game, you start with a concept for a world, and see how far that idea will evolve. It’s based on something we already do, quite naturally – and something the internet has enabled, through allowing people to engage with stories at various levels outside of the main format or storyline (though ‘true’ transmedia could be seen as something without no single main narrative, only conjoining threads).
In a similar way, we have a chance now to do something wholly different with all kinds of content; to make it fit for purpose by making purpose the bedrock of its format; rather than dressing it up and pouring it into predefined blocks of type.
The thing is, I suspect a lot of writers like predefined blocks of type. Writers don’t always want to grow up to be content strategists; even in the design world, a lot are, quite reasonably, happiest producing words and focusing on the creative.
But that’s a risky position to take. It means we’re saddled with whatever the publishing companies and software companies, and of course Amazon, decide the size and shape of a format should be: website or ebook. Blog or tweet. Or something else entirely.
If we’re ever going to have the stability to focus on the ‘what’ and not the ‘how’, we need to get more involved in the design conversation, the roots of how digital things are made, not just managed and kept alive. We can do this by looking to other worlds making their work digital-first, like parts of the art world, and see what they’re trying – we don’t have to settle for reflexive, skeuomorphic text formats, much as our nostalgia for paper and ink might tug us in that direction.
Constraints matter, as part of any format; I know I found it a lot easier to write 600 to 800 word articles for a newspaper than I do to keep to limit-free, self-imposed blog post deadlines (and I sense I’m not alone in that). But unless we free ourselves from those constraints for a little while, we won’t see if there’s anything just beyond our limits that could provide an even richer platform for our imaginations to inhabit.
Image credit: ‘Bookmobile vespers in Vienna’, by The Shop House