Some ideas for time limited content

What if content was programmed to self-destruct?

We recently had a visit from Joe Macleod who spends a lot of time thinking about ‘closure’. His basic thesis is that humanity increasingly denies the idea of endings. In the same way that modern medicine allows us to dodge death, consumer society stops us thinking about the true shelf-life of products.

We buy new products to have the latest model. We replace rather than repair. We don’t think about what happens when we throw out an old fridge or phone or printer cartridge. The same applies to digital services — signing up for something new is fast and easy. Leaving it, not so much.

Joe has lots of ideas for how the closure experience can be better and some useful tools and examples on his website.

I was interested in how this relates to digital content — information, news articles and whole websites. At Citizens Advice we’re going through a process of reviewing and rewriting a lot of our information content. There are two big parts to this:

  • understanding what users really want and being brave enough to switch off that content which they don’t
  • not duplicating information that’s already out there

The last point is important but it’s hard. For a long time, www.citizensadvice.org.uk tried to be the single source of truth for our advisers — a kind-of ‘walled garden internet’ which was policed, moderated and safe. It made it easy for volunteers who weren’t confident using the web to know they could trust the information rather than having to make their own judgements about whether information was up-to-date and official.

In a service where we’re dealing with questions on everything from ‘how can I claim Universal Credit?’ to ‘where’s my nearest Esperanto class?’ (true story, answer: Google) the single source of truth model quickly turns into an attempt to be the internet.

Given that’s not an option, the challenge we have is figuring out how we can help our volunteers make good judgements about the authenticity of information online. The change from Directgov to GOV.UK for example, confused many. So we’re working on different ways to increase their digital confidence and help them quickly identify trusted and up-to-date sources.

That’s tackling the challenge from one side. But what about the side of the publishers?

Joe’s talk made think about ways that content creators — Citizens Advice included — could play with closure mechanisms and limit the ever-increasing clutter of the world wide web.

Pages could come with an automatic destruction date, for example, when the relevant policy or service ceases to exist. What about if pages with less than one view per month or year were automatically removed? Could news publishers deploy a simple tagging mechanism to illustrate the latest article on any given issue as a way for readers to be confident they’re getting up to date information? Perhaps old stories could have a ‘get the latest on this’ link or a single line update above each old article.

I don’t think anyone would want to live in world where the only accessible truth was the present — context, archives, histories are fundamental. I increasingly delight in finding old-feeling webpages and think things like Trinity Mirror’s experiment with UsVsTh3m or certain YouTube videos are important cultural relics as well as useful experiments with digital content. But just like I want to know the different between sponsored content and real journalism, I want to know what’s live and what’s not.

So I’m on the hunt — any examples of content creators doing closure well would be very welcome.