Books, newspapers, TV shows. Our technology has outpaced our language, leaving us with these pleasant linguistic anachronisms that call content by its container. I still buy records, but as bits, not vinyl. These “form words” stick around because they’re useful to us. They imbue an object with feeling. For example, “film” has power that mere “video” does not.
“Content,” that dreadful, vague word, is left to do too much. It has to describe information that moves to evermore devices, platforms and channels, regardless of form, irrespective of container. We don’t have time to pause to give it a better name.
The Internet hasn’t just been a “disintermediator.” It’s a “disassociator,” stripping away forms from the stuff within them. Now digital is dissolving the Web’s foundational form—its most basic container—the page. Our content is spilling out, flowing into feeds and streams.
How can we prepare for a new era of content with many containers, or none at all? By adapting to a new model of content creation and distribution—one that accepts the dissolution of the page and embraces the meaningful, modular chunk. Karen McGrane’s talk, Adapting Ourselves to Adaptive Content, is a sharp wake-up call to anyone involved in modern publishing. If you’re reading this, that’s probably you. Watch it.
Structured for Movement
We need structure to be able to move. Without our bones, we’d be a gross, lumpy blob. It’s the same for content. Meaningful structure and metadata enable us to break up content (the bones metaphor has ended, thankfully) into discrete pieces, ready to move into new contexts, new channels and new containers.
Much of what we know about structured content comes from the field of technical communication, which has long been creating and storing content modules built for reuse. While they have much to teach us, I’d rather draw a parallel to another field altogether: jazz. Stick with me.
Running the Changes
Jazz is an improvisational art grounded in the structures of melody, harmony and rhythm. Each of those pieces can be extracted, explored, broken apart and made into something new. Harmonic improvisation takes each chord change as it comes and creates a new melodic line from the notes within it. It’s called “running the changes,” and that’s partly how Charlie Parker turned “Cherokee” into “KoKo” and helped make bebop. To me, watching Wynton Marsalis construct a new piece from the chord progressions of a South African folk song is a little like magic.
These new creations aren’t just strokes of genius, though they are that too. They’re made possible by understanding the structure of the song and applying talent and imagination. It can be done by ear, but musical notation helps by turning sound into a visual medium, a common language for the consistent creation and sharing of the music. You might think of it as the metadata of a song, describing how it’s formed and how it’s meant to be played. By explaining the components, notation lets the player see and analyze the song, sparking ideas about how to build a new creation. In the same way, metadata for the content we intend to move to many locations signals how it should be recombined depending on its context.
This new era of adaptive content and distributed publishing will require new processes as well. Just as playing jazz requires a keen ear and generosity, content creators of all stripes must be intent listeners and flexible collaborators. As Melissa Rach puts it, when there’s this much content to be made this quickly, “it’s not practical to plan every piece of content in advance.” What’s needed, then, is some structure and a little improvisation.
Jon Cramer is a content strategist at gyro