Authoring and assembling
We’re asking too much from our content management systems
Everybody hates Sharepoint.
That’s as close to a truth universally acknowledged as anyone has managed this side of Bath. We hate Sharepoint with good reason: it tries to do everything, and as a result it does nothing well and saddles users with a complex, confusing user experience.
The sad truth is that a lot of people see their CMS exactly the same way. And, honestly, they’re not wrong—and they’re not wrong for similar reasons. Most CMSs try to cram two fundamentally different types of activities into a single thing.
In which I digress into talking about art
I’m not a particularly sophisticated viewer of art. But when I take a mental health day, I often spend it in the modern art wing of a museum somewhere. I’m the weirdo walking along spending more time reading the signs by the artwork than looking at the art itself.
Curating an art exhibit is fascinating. There are so many dimensions for thinking about art—by artist, by school, by country, by time period, by genre, by influence. It’s astonishing to me the way that a good curator can take a few hundred pieces of art and tell thousands of different stories with them simply by arranging them into different collections and writing up a few signs to go with them.
When I sit on a bench in the middle of a particular room in a museum, I spend as much time thinking about why these things are in this room together as I do admiring the particular set of things.
(Yes, I know. I probably museum wrong.)
Perhaps part of my take on museums is an appreciation for how different the processes are for creating a piece of art and curating an exhibit. I’m not an artist myself, but I grew up surrounded by them. (One of my fondest memories is of the summer during college when my brother and I carpooled 30 miles or so to our summer jobs—me in a jacket and tie for my job as a marketing intern for an insurance company and Josh in ragged, paint-splattered chinos for his job as a teaching assistant at an art studio.)
Creating a piece of art is messy. You leave a little bit of your soul on the floor with the globs of paint and plaster. A curator’s mess is measured in discarded post-its and dry-erase ink in glass-walled meeting rooms.
More to the point: the skills you need for creating a piece of art are very different from the skills you need for putting together an exhibit in a museum.
Back to internet-y stuff
A couple of weeks ago, Deane Barker asked the question that inspired my (now much-delayed) post:
At bottom, this is a CMS question: How do you decide whether a particular set of things counts as a set of categories (a taxonomy) or as a distinct content type? It’s a question that vexes content strategists regularly.
Here’s where we get to the conflation part.
Content is like a work of art. (Yes, I know this analogy may make authors even more precious about what they do. But bear with me.) A piece of content is like a painting—it’s a single, discrete thing that makes a particular point.
Taxonomy, on the other hand, is a work of curation. It’s the connective tissue that binds particular pieces of work into specific exhibits. Sometimes those taxonomies can be quite general (e.g., a gallery map that shows that French impressionists are in rooms 345–349 on the 6th floor). Other times, the taxonomy can be very specific (e.g., a sign explaining that the sketch you are seeing is the 4th draft of Hopper’s sketch for Nighthawks).
Toward a new vocabulary
We’ve used a single term (content) to refer to all the stuff in a museum, when in fact museums are a combination of artwork (content) and curation (taxonomies and metadata).
Part of the confusion owes to the fact that, unlike museums—where curation involves words and art involves images—digital content and taxonomies both involve words. And part may be our own faults. In our haste to find a word that gets beyond format (e.g., article or op-ed or blog post) and thinks about structure (e.g., the underlying components of an article, like a headline or a lede), we’ve landed on a term that abstracts too far, eliding an important distinction between the creative and the curative.
That, in turn, leads to CMSs that conflate creation and curation in unclear ways. Indeed, for all that it generally makes the content strategist in me go weak in the knees, Drupal is arguably the biggest offender here, explicitly treating taxonomies as exactly the same type of entities as content types, even while placing them in different parts of the UI. It’s the worst of both worlds—conceptually, Drupal treats them identically, but practically (for end users) they are treated as different things.
I’ve spent a lot of time over the past couple of years explaining this distinction, and while the analogy to museums often resonates, the language of curation carries a whole lot of content marketing baggage. These days, I’ve landed on authoring content and assembling it for presentation.
In the end, I don’t entirely know what all of this means. But I do have two general thoughts:
- Most of our existing CMSs are not particularly well-suited for the world in which we find ourselves.
- Most organizations are not well-positioned for staffing the assembly side of the authoring-assembling divide.
Authoring inside a CMS is generally an awful experience. For some types of authoring, GatherContent (which I adore) fills that void. But it’s a tool that works best with highly-structured content—product descriptions or service offerings or the like. It lacks the flexibility needed for the kinds of longform, narrative products that think tanks and research organizations produce.
A CMS like Drupal is much better at assembly tasks (e.g., creating metadata or managing taxonomies). But more complex bits of assembly are difficult, as anyone who has ever worked with Views can attest. And you can forget using it to power a multichannel, modular content publishing system unless you’ve a whole team of good developers on hand.
In the think tank/research organization space, we (rightly) recognize the need for expertise in our authors. Those of us working in communications put a lot of thought into helping shift our authors into digital-first ways of working. But too often, we’re saddling that (legitimate) request with too much additional burden. Often, we expect those same authors to handle assembly (by, for example, asking authors to produce tags and categories) or we outsource the job to a web team that typically hires for technical skills, not for curation skills.
Assembling content—like curating a museum—requires a particular set of skills. Those skills aren’t the same as the ones required for writing content, nor are they the same as the ones required for writing good CSS or applying security updates.
Getting where we need to be requires tackling a bunch of interrelated questions:
- What kinds of tools do we need if we’re to move authoring out of Word?
- How can we make our CMS a friendlier place for assembling content, not just for the web but for all our digital outputs?
- What kinds of staffing do we need if we’re to divide authoring from assembling?
- How do we govern a process that divides authoring from assembling?
We’re going to be tackling some of these questions at Soapbox in the coming year. If that sounds like a conversation you’d like to be part of, let me know in the comments.