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Oxford England

  • The End of the Road
    These photos are separated from my Travels album because Oxford is something of a second home. I still manage to visit it several times a year. So the pathway between Manotick and Oxford is well trodden and I can likely do it with my eyes closed - and probably have on more than one occasion.

Royal Roads University

  • Hatley Castle
    This series of photographs was taken over the last few years. I have stayed at the campus of Royal Roads on several occasions and I have been repeatedly impressed by the grounds. They are in many ways a little-known treasure.


  • Kafka Statue
    Here is a selection of pictures I have taken during my travels over the last few years. I am very obviously an amateur photographer and it is not uncommon for me to forget my camera altogether when packing. What the pictures do not convey is the fact that in these travels I have met, and gotten to know, a great many interesting people.

Manotick Ontario

  • Springtime in Manotick
    Manotick Ontario Canada is the part of Ottawa that I call home. Much of Manotick stands on an island in the Rideau River. Interestingly, the Rideau Canal, which runs through and around the river, was recently designated a World Heritage Site by the United Nations. So this means that the view from my backyard is in some way on a similar par with the Egyptian Pyramids - although the thought strikes me as ridiculous.
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« A Short Primer on Intelligent Content | Main | The Nature of Books »

April 05, 2014


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Brook Ellingwood

Hi Joe,

I haven't had the opportunity to see you present, though I've been aware of your work for quite a while. A few years ago I was doing a lot of work with XML and architecting an ecommerce publishing solution built around XSLT. These days I'm doing something different: Managing the creation of online content for a public TV station. Perhaps inevitably my work is taking me back into the broad Information Architecture realm again.

My answer to the question "So Do You Still Want to be a Content Engineer?" asked on the last slide of your presentation "So You Want to be a Content Engineer" is "yes." Perhaps I'd have a different answer if I'd actually been at the Intelligent Content Conference and not merely seen the slides on Slideshare but my first reaction to the term Content Engineer was "Finally there's a label that describes how I think."

That said, I'm definitely coming at the content definition problem from a different perspective than you are. I started thinking about this when I was coming to grips with the Document Object Model in XML and HTML contexts. My view is definitely very colored by the fact that my job has always ultimately been defined by my ability to deliver effective user experiences, usually without the time and resources to build coherent domain models.

So, with that introduction and preface out of the way here's the way I think about content...

Content is not a thing. It is a human experience. Content is presentation and meaning combined.

Information is structured data. It has context and definition. It is the pupal stage between data's caterpillar and content's butterfly.

Data is, well, data. It is not structured per se, but it contains keys that can be used to create structure during input, output, or management operations.

So, my conceptual model is Data - Information - Content, which doesn't seem that different from your Data - Information - Knowledge pyramid, except for my concept of Content as a temporal experience.

My idealized content lifecycle is an hourglass shape. On the input side, creation is a human content experience that generates structured information, which is then stored as data. On the output side, stored data is retrieved and structured into information (say as semantic HTML), and then made into content by applying experience in the form of styling and behavior.

Maybe my way of looking at it is motivated in part by the feeling that applying the term "Knowledge" to many of the messages I must deliver as content experience is to give them weight they don't deserve. It's also arguable that I'm really talking about Model - View - Controller software architecture, but I'd counter that the difference is I'm setting Content, and my definition of it as a human experience, into a position of primacy that the term "Controller" can't express.

Thanks for an interesting read and a chance to explore my own thinking.

-Brook Ellingwood


It's nice to see respectful disagreement about a topic and keep the tone thoughtful. Joe and I have been through this dance before, and I'm still of the mind that there is a slightly different paradigm.

Data is, well, data. It can be quite important (think cost) but without any context, it's useless. Example: 50. 14.
Content brings context. Example: Pay only 50% of the parking ticket if you pay within 14 days.

So content is what makes data actionable. But content itself is not information. Information is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as something "provided or learned" or "what is conveyed". Using this basis, information needs to be communicated to an audience and absorbed or learned. In other words, information is learning a fact from experiencing ("reading" in the broadest sense of the word) content.

Knowledge is a whole other beast. Again, going to back to the basic definition, it is the assimilation of information to be able to understand and apply it. Continuing my example from above, the knowledge could be: I'd better pay that parking ticket now, to get the discount.

Given the graphic where content it subsumed into information, I'm not sure I agree. I believe that the graphic should show knowledge, information, and content (with data being a subset of content). When I think about this in the last few contracts, and particularly now, which is squarely in ecommerce, the role of data and content is front and centre in my mind - and reinforces my position. It does mess up the acronym, but hey, we all have to make sacrifices.

Joe Gollner

Thanks Brook and Rahel for contributing to the mix. And I will have to thank you both as well for sending me off on another "thought-circuit".

It is to be expected that a term such as "content" which is so central to the professional lives, or product investments, of so many people, should be a bit of a work in progress. I salute anyone who ventures beyond "words and stuff". I also sympathize with those who hang back and say "that shark infested lagoon doesn't look like a lot of fun".

The thought-circuit that I am now embarking on is how our different perspectives may in fact be reconciled or at least seen in a way where the differences in definition are fully understandable once the right lens is set. Some of my earlier efforts on the term "knowledge" were necessitated because, as a form of rough karma, I found myself in two communities (one made up of KM practitioners and the other made up of "hard scientists") and I needed to reconcile the apparently irreconcilable definitions of knowledge that were in use. Of course, I probably managed to satisfy neither camp.

At root, one of the key issues to be tackled, or at least situated, is where to place the "locus of definition" (a point of reference for all subsequent coordinates). Underlying my entire project is the not so subtle conceit that it is better to center our definitions of knowledge, information, data and thus content outside the cognitive behaviour of any agent that may be on the receiving side of such external resources. This is a big shift for some and one that cannot be made by those, for different reasons, prefer to place the locus inside the cognitive bahaviour of agents (people or autonomous agents for my AI friends). I find that centering the locus of these definitions outside of cognition places them in the domain of communication and this in fact enriches the landscape because it permits other constructs and strategies to be leveraged in the effort to tackle the inner workings of cognitive agents. This way the complexities on both side, and there are many, as well as their interactions, can be excavated and scrutinized. In working with Max Boisot's information space, for example, I found it better to make a sharp distinction between perception and representation, with the latter being associated with "data".

I tend to argue that once we place the locus of definition outside of the agent's cognition and decision, then it becomes possible to genuinely talk about managing knowledge, information or content. I will confess that I saw this as a worthwhile step.

So with that disclosure out in the open, you can see how indeed my rubric becomes inapplicable if we place part, or all, of it inside the cognitive behaviour of an agent. Content as a temporal experience would do this. Information defined by its receipt as learning or knowledge by its display in action would do this as well.

Now in wrestling with terminology, the goal is not really about winning. It's about exploring. And you have both raised points that I need to think a lot more about. Stressing that content is an experience, and both for the recipient and the creator (and stressing both of these is frequently not done and this is a problem), does resurface things within my rubric. For example, my definitional approach, and in many ways the entire "management project" applied to content, runs the risk of making things "cold". One of the challenges on content management projects is to avoid severing the vital link between creators and users. (Somewhere on my blog I follow Jack Kerouac into this topic

There is also remembering how important formatting really is - again something lost in many CMS projects where people get it into their heads that the goal is to abstract content away from format with the unintended consequence that all renditions subsequently underwhelm. The reason we abstract content from format (or perhaps some would prefer to say, structure from format) is so that we can deliver better formatted content not worse.

With all that said and done, there is more to be explored here - which was the real message in my post. I am thrilled that you have taken up that thread and sent me off in new directions. I would submit though that the larger point I have raised here about the placement of the locus of definition does a lot to explain, if not resolve, our differences. I would also submit that the model that I have sketched out can be used to accommodate and explain the specific details you have identified as needing sound handling - whether they be eCommerce data or content experiences.

Joe Gollner

One more thing. In truth I suspect that there might not be too much difference between Rahel and I on the definition of content after all. I remember thinking that the first time I saw her present her definition.

In my rubric, information is the meaningful organization of data, communicated in a specific context and with the purpose of informing others and thereby influencing their actions. This definitely picks up on the transactional dimension that I am forever emphasizing (a la Speech Acts). If we pull away the transaction part of this definition we would presumably be left with "content" which is potential information (aka what precedes the transaction or transactions). So another way to define content, in a way that is less obtuse (something I excel at, if you haven't noticed), would be to say that "content is the meaningful organization of data" which is not so different from "content is contextualized data". Not so different at all. And the transactional wrap-up in my definition of information does try to connect us to the world of the recipients who are "informed" by the receipt.

All this to say, that even with my specialized placement of the locus of definition, there may not be a whole lot separating some of the objects that the different perspectives are zeroing in on.

And yes, my diagram could be redrawn with content being the band between Data and Information. Definitely. But what then of my acronym? And how would I showcase my "skills" with Visio? You have to leave me something...

Marcia Riefer Johnston

Such thoughtful analyses by all parties. Here's my less-nuanced way of thinking about the main distinction: content is to knowledge what food is to energy. But then, as the acronym goes, I clearly don't know D-I-...

Geoff Dutton

Just discovered your stimulating blog after reading a bio that Stilo posted on an advert for a webinar. I'm a simple technical writer (OK, communicator; I also design diagrams and other graphics) working in a software factory. I would never call myself an information architect, though some of my peers do. I do call myself an author, and write for fun when not writing for profit.

I believe I understand the various distinctions that you and your guests make about data, information, content, and knowledge; some I find intuitive others seem a bit labored. But at the risk of seeming to demean your life's work and appearing to be a publishing Philistine, I cannot help but wonder aloud why such distinctions really matter to someone like me, or to people who read what I create.

Consider a relational or other database that contains numbers and text, and functions and procedures to process them into snippets of content that can be assembled into documents. Now add sets of rules so that the docs can generate automatically based on user requests and the page's mission. Sounds like what happens on DHTML web pages.

Through the lens of a DBA, the contents of the database are pretty much just data. "Ah no," says the content manager, "this is a store of information and knowledge." People who wordsmith text might regard the database as content. People who lay out the web pages and orchestrate interactions with them may think of it as information design. A visitor to the page might think "Some of this information is useful", "the information I'm looking for is too hard to find," "the presentation is attractive/unattractive", & etc.

They all have their jobs to do, and will do them well or not based on their skills, tools, objectives, and motivation. Does how they categorize "stuff" actually help or hinder them?

As an aside, in the end, the user's experience is the contextualization that really matters. All the machinery and activity to contextualize data on the publishing side may or may not create a satisfying experience if it is not congruent to what the user expects, desires, or needs.

Discussions of these terms and their distinctions remind me of the blind-men-and-elephant parable, and I come off feeling that whether we label something data, content, information, or knowledge is rather immaterial. If the distinctions are material to doing my job or to the creative writing process, I'll need some help to understand why I should commit further effort to thinking about them. Thanks.

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