Although this probably does not come as good news to what readers I have for this blog, I am not entirely comfortable with my handling of content as a concept. I have made a couple of attempts to establish a relatively pithy definition for it, most ambitiously in my post The Truth about Content. In this post, I am going to put forward a number of formulations from past and present that effectively complicate my efforts further. I don’t think I will be able to reconcile them all in this post but I thought I better throw all of them into the mix and see what comes out. Perhaps others will be able to suggest a master formulation that makes our understanding of content more solid and more useful.
One of the things that has been entering recently into my thinking about content is the question of how content relates to narrative. This thinking has been sparked by reading Max Boisot’s most recent book, Explorations in Information Space (which I highly recommend along with its predecessors). In one of the papers in this book, Mr Boisot and his collaborators identify narrative as a mode of knowing that exists between purely embodied knowledge and knowledge that has become highly codified and abstract. In this model, narrative stands out as very prominent, spatially in any visual representation and as the mechanism through which embodied experiences come to take structure and thereby become amenable to sharing and ultimately formalization.
I am susceptible to a line of thinking about content that considers its potential connection to narrative for at least two reasons. One is a past interest in the topic of narrative itself as a fundamental building block in the ways in which people, both individually and, more importantly, collectively, come to understand things. As one example, I would cite the work of Hayden White on Metahistory which I encountered during my undergraduate days and somehow still remember. Another reason I find it fruitful to consider content from the perspective of narrative is more practical.
On projects with customers where we are looking at technologies with which to manage and publish content, one of the recurrent observations is that content, in the wild, is always a composite structure. Content incorporates, implicitly and explicitly, data structures and it always features one or more functional objectives that we might tie to the goals of envisioned informational actions. Content also incorporates a measure of what we would designate as knowledge, the expression or assumption of a shared understanding. Any given unit of content then is somewhat akin to a ball of twine that is difficult to untangle into its constituent parts. What I have been thinking about is the question of what holds the ball together. The answer that I keep coming back to is the role played by narrative.
Also on the practical side of projects seeking to improve how organizations manage and publish content, I observe a regular mismatch between how people seem inclined to view and work with content and how others would like to see it controlled. What I observe is that people tend to prefer working with content in a highly informal way, in a way that lets them interact with others dynamically. This ties into the topic I was touching upon with Connecting with Content. This informality strikes me as being integral to the sharing of stories, of revisiting and refining narratives, that help to give structure to our experiences and help groups of people synchronize around those structures. The mismatch I often see occurs when the advocates of management and accountability want to bring to bear formalities and controls that actively undermine the communication processes among people that actually do need to work. It is a mismatch that emerges partly from a desire, on the part of those seeking elevated control, to treat content as if it was a firmly contextualized, and discernably transacted, information item, and partly from a failure, on the part of those same people, to appreciate the narrative quality of content.
Now back to some of my past approaches to this topic. The following is a slide from a talk I have given occasionally and with which I seek to explain why managing and processing content is so challenging.
In this treatment, which dates back several years now, I underscore the physicality and persistence of content as key considerations. Given the serialized mode in which content is exchanged in information transactions, the dominant structure that seems to be evident as the organizing principle is that of narrative, the telling of a story.
In a more recent treatment, I have been discussing content as the narrative context for data, information and knowledge and for the interactions between these three discursive states.
In this model, content is the form in which these three entities actually occur “in the wild”. It is through narrative content that data is framed and its codification and classification is established within a community. It is within the context provided by accumulating narrative content, what I have referred to earlier as a content ecology, that information transactions occur and are interpreted. It is out of this context that knowledge emerges, disseminates and consequently evolves. And it is by the mechanics of content that data comes to be organized into information and information into knowledge.
I am not sure whether these observations help my cause of improving our definition of content or hinder it. It seems that content, in these ruminations, is a physical entity that is most directly governed by our need to frame and share stories and that these narrative processes in turn provide the context within which data, information and knowledge actually occur. Seen in this light, it should not come as a surprise that it is tremendously difficult to bring management discipline to the full reality of content in the wild. It should however impress upon us the importance of handling content in ways that recognize and respect its unique role in how we frame and formulate shared understandings.