In her fabulous autobiographical work, Just Kids, Patti Smith tells the story of her life in New York City as a young struggling artist in the 60's together with Robert Mapplethorpe, who would go on to be a renowned art photographer. In the beginning, however, Mapplethorpe wasn’t a photographer at all: He made collages. Not until someone gifted him a polaroid camera, did Mapplethorpe realise his artistic potential. The tool and the artist merged together in what you might describe as a technology driven creativity.
Mapplethorpes polaroid camera is one example of the relationship between an artist and his tool. Ernest Hemingway’s Harpa typewriter is another. Last year, it sold on auction for USD 65.000. It’s a great example of how someone might’ve thought that the typewriter embodied some of Hemingway’s spirit.
Now, consider this: Today, much of the most important writing is being done and published in Content Management Systems, including Medium. Would anyone outside engineering circles buy an old CMS installation on auction, years from now? Or even assign any level of emotional value to the CMS? I doubt it.
Over time, people have connected with their tools, grown attached to them and maybe even loved them. It’s not just artists: Many people love their car, their Macbook, their kitchen knife or their installation of Microsoft Excel. But no one outside engineering circles love their content management system. Your CMS is something you at best tolerate: “Oh, it’s not as bad as the old one.”
No one outside engineering circles love their content management system.
Why is it, that we haven’t grown more attached to the content management systems, that we spend so much time with? After all, over the last decade or so, the CMS market has really matured, and the systems (including e.g. Drupal, Umbraco, Sitecore, Typo3, Wordpress etc.) have grown a lot easier to use. For instance, most new Wordpress-users don’t really need any kind of training.
This better usability has led to a grand success for content management and in effect, much more content is being brought online.
However, I suggest, that the time has come for content management systems to go from being something you tolerate to being something you love. To go from an ordinary notepad to a Moleskin notebook, from a calculator to Microft Excel. To achieve this, the ambition for the systems should go from easy publishing of content to creation of better content all together.
To make content better, we need another level of ambition than to create “a content management system that doesn’t suck.”
To make a lovable tool, we need to appreciate that the realm of content management is in the overlap of technology and culture.
Content Management Systems are (as most things that are hard) living in the realm between technology & culture (alongside e.g. intranet projects and Tinder dates…)
Even though this overlap is immensely important in the world of today, I would claim that way too few people understand both sides. Too many tech people ignore the culture side of the equation (for a CMS that would rougly equate “the content”). And too many culture people try to ignore the development and tech, where they should be helping shape how technology affects culture (and not leave it all up to the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world).
Both technology and culture must yield to one another, to make a better content management system. Culture must be allowed to influence technology. And technology must be allowed to influence culture.
But how so? The following are my four recommendations.
Step 1: Loose the Management
I think that the problem starts with the name: Content Management System. This wording has meant too much focus on the management — and too little on the content. The word management brings associations of control, structure, logic and production.
Think the name change is some quasi-intellectual branding bullshit? Maybe. But try thinking about the different directions, a system might take, if it rebranded itself as e.g.:
- Content Facilitation System
- Content Production System
- Creativity System
- Content Improvement System
If you’re anything like me, the above four examples shell out totally different routes for the product.
Step 2: Focus on the entire process
I know plenty of developers who love their system. But I know very few content people, if any. One of the reasons, I believe, is that the systems have grown to be better and better tools for developers to accomplish something. If you’re a content person, all you can accomplish is the publishing of your thoughts.
The System of the future needs to focus on the entire process of content creation.
I believe, that The System of the future needs to focus on the entire process of content creation. This means a tool that allows us to develop ideas together, to cooperate around those ideas, to prepare content and improve it, to give each other feedback etc., etc. Much like tools like Git, Jira and Trello have improved the work processes of engineers.
Take for instance the much heralded user interface of Medium. No doubt, much work has gone into producing the write new story-screen of Medium. No disturbing buttons. No lists, filters, controls. It’s so easy.
In fact, it’s so easy that I’m writing in it right now. But there’s another side to that blank canvas — and that other side has a terrifying name: vacansopapurosophobia (yes, I kid you not — this is apparently the latin word for fear of the blank canvas). We have all been there: Staring at the blank canvas (or screen): Not knowing what to write.
Counterpose the Medium-interface with the crowded interface of Write or Die. Write or Die gives you a number of different writing modes, including a consequence mode that challenges you to keep on writing fast (500 words in 15 minutes) — or be met with taunts and terrors in the form of sound effects.
There is no doubt, that there are situations where what you need is Medium. Other situations where you need Write or Die. And situations where you need something altogether different.
The editorial process can typically be seen in the following phases:
- Idea (whether it comes to you in the proverbial shower, from the mind of your boss or in a brainstorm)
- Improvement (let’s make the idea feasible)
- Preparation (e.g. research, interviews)
- Production (actually producing the content — for instance writing the article)
- Quality assurance (e.g. proofreading or fact checking)
- And finally review
I would claim, that the only phase where Content Management Systems of today really shine are Publication and to a lesser extent production and quality assurance.
However, I would like a system that can help develop and improve ideas, prepare subjects and help reviewing the content afterwards.
An example: In an online newspaper, you might see a system where reporters and users can submit and interact on ideas. When the idea goes into the preparation phase, The System might work as a research and knowledge management tool, suggesting sources and showing similar stories online. In a review phase, the reporter might meet different sources of feedback, including qualitative feedback from their editor and quantitative feedback such as page views and time spent on the piece by users.
Step 3: Adapt to the organizational context
An organization is not just an organization.
Most CMS vendors know this, but their answer to it is a bit lacking to my taste. The idea usually is, that you can remove or hide functions, so that they don’t go in the way of the user.
That’s a good thing to do — it makes the system easier to cope with and faster to come on terms with. But it ignores that the basic needs might be very different from one organization to another.
For instance, consider an online retailer selling shoes and a NGO trying to attract new members.
The user in the online retailer might wish to be met with a dashboard showcasing analytics metrics of the goods, the user is responsible for and suggesting experiments and improvements, they could try out. Today, that user needs to log in to a number of systems (typically including e.g. Google Analytics and Optimizely) to see this information.
The user in the NGO, on the other hand, might want to be met by a dashboard showcasing the performance of recent news articles, campaigns and social media activities, and to what effect they have motivated new memberships.
Today, these levels of customization hardly comes “out of the box”.
I can’t put this much better than Buzzfeed CEO Jonah Peretti:
Most publishers build their site by stapling together products made by other companies. They get their CMS from one company, their analytics package from another, their ad tech from another, their related content widgets are powered by another, sometimes even their writers are contractors who don’t work for the company. This is why so many publisher sites look the same and also why they can be so amazingly complex and hard to navigate. They are Frankenstein products bolted together by a tech team that integrates other people’s products instead of building their own.
However, not everyone have the resources of Buzzfeed — and not everyone should build their own CMS. But wouldn’t it be wonderful, if CMS vendors took notice of what Peretti is saying?
Step 4: The System should influence choice of media
The life of a creative is not easy. Constantly, new ways of expressing yourself are made available, and finding your way in the jungle is not easy.
A Content Facilitation System would help the user choose the right medium, challenge them to not be satisfied by the status quo and warn them, when they’re running after the latest fad.
At the same time, the technology scene should keep on pushing new ways of expressing yourself, as we have seen with rich interactive data journalism, and thousands of tools such as ThinkLink, StoryMaps, Odyssey.js and Timeline.js.
However, we need the culture scene to help shape these tools, so that they create even more value. A great example of a small but valuable innovation is Vox card stacks, where the news site aims to bring context to news. We need more of this kind of cooperation between culture people and technology people.
The time has come to not only help users publish,
but to help them create better content and unleash their creative potential.
Something is happening in the Content Management-market. However, much of the most interesting innovation on the content side is being made in news organizations and with proprietary systems. Some of the best examples are Vox Media buying Editorially, NY Times’ Scoop and of course Buzzfeed.
I believe, that content management systems where a fantastic innovation. An innovation that helped millions (of organizations as well as individuals) gain a voice online. But now the time has come to not only help them publish, but to help them create better content and unleash their creative potential.
This article is a write up of my keynote I gave by invitation to T3con, the 10th international Typo3 conference in Berlin, Germany, October 2014. During the talk, Thomas Heilmann actually coded a Write or Die-interface for Typo3 Neos. Gotta love open source developers!
Morten Gade is a concept developer & digital strategist.