Making Sense of the New (New) Content Landscape: Erin Kissane Confab 2011

Publishing is in weird, weird times. Things are moving quickly. It’s a cliche, but it’s true. To wit:

  • Ten years ago, less than 50% of adults were online. Only 5% had broadband. There were no social networks. Now, 61% of adults are on social networks; 40% used their social networks yesterday; 14% have a blog.
  • Mobile vs. desktop: Morgan Stanley predicted that in 2014, mobile use will eclipse desktop use.
  • Google in February, 2011: Google said that mobile device sales will surpass desktop sales in 2013.
  • Google in March, 2011: Mobile sales surpassed desktop in Q4 2010—Google was two years off!
  • Analysts predicted the iPad would sell three million units—they sold 15 million. iPad2 sold one million units on the first weekend.

Everybody needs a blog

Social media: Google won’t pay attention if you don’t have fresh content all the time. The web is dead, haven’t you heard? The CEO of Forrester Research says that the web is dead and that the dominant mode of the internet is applications: they’ll save us all!

Across platforms, 26% of applications are downloaded exactly once; 75% of apps don’t make it into regular use. Apps aren’t living up to the hype.

The iPad was supposed to save journalism. People in old media had been hoping for a savior. They had hoped that the iPad would be magic, that it would allow them to keep the print design ideal, and the old business model.

Wired’s application outsold their print edition when the app went live. When the next issue came out, 70% of those who bought the first edition on iPad did not buy the next edition. Selling 10,000 copies is not the savior of the web.

This is not our problem

We in this industry hear this all the time: “we need a blog, a Facebook page, a tablet strategy, a Twitter account.” These are reactive and fragmented positions—this is not a good thing.

When it’s tactical only, it’s chaos. Bad delivery choices kills great content. If your content is locked up in an app, they may never open it again.

We must ask ourselves this question: where does our data live and why?

On the open web vs. native apps, is the web in fact dead? What about the cloud? Third party APIs?

What should we let people do with content that balances user and business needs? We need a decision making framework.

Wooden scaffolding was used to construct a cathedral in St. Petersburg. Scaffolding can be torn apart and reused for the next project.

When I thought about how to come up with a framework, I thought of web standards. Recall the browser wars. You had to have a separate version of your site for each browser. Content was mixed in with the code on eight sites, and you had to make changes on each one. Browser forking: the bad old days.

A new framework

Consider Wired for iPad. One of the criticisms may be that it’s pretty but it’s dead. You can’t do much with it. You can’t share things in many ways. It’s text set on images, put behind glass.

Erin used to be excited to get Wired magazine. She could share it by tearing out the article and mailing it to someone. There’s also Wired for the web, which makes good use of the open web, sharing, copying, pasting, and sending by email. But, when you go back to the iPad version, there are few options.

When I think of life as options, I think of the game of Go which is an ancient Chinese strategy game. In Go, you try to surround your opponent’s stones. As soon as something is cut off in Go, it is isolated. The term is that they’re dead. The strategy is to maximize your options along the way.

Christopher Alexander, a mathematician turned architect, wrote A Pattern Language. In it, he talked about how we can isolate design patterns in the physical world that are alive. A pattern that has more life is one that makes people more alive, patterns that make people less alive, less human, are dead.

What are the physical places that are especially lively? Powell’s books in Portland is one example. There’s light coming in, new and used books are shelved side-by-side, there’s a huge selection and knowledgeable staff. It smells like coffee. It’s a big tourist destination—locals call it the Temple of Books. One of the great things about Powell’s is that they accept books for sale. When you go to Barnes and Noble, or a place that segregates new and old books, it feels weird. There are so many ways to interact in Powell’s. The Portland Go Club meets at Powell’s.

Central Park in New York is another physical space that’s alive. People come to enjoy the well designed natural areas, there’s things for kids to do, there’s boating. It’s a vibrant place. What place feels like this online? Wikipedia for one. It’s an extraordinary thing. People from all over the world are creating a resource for one another.

Also, Twitter is an example, in a different way. Twitter was her water cooler, it made her feel connected in a less ambient, less artificial way, with my colleagues. Now it’s for catching up with friends in Europe and China. We gave it hashtags to make it more alive.

Qualities of liveliness


Wikipedia, Twitter, are accessible to different people and different devices—you can even text to Twitter from a dumb phone.


Something is shareable when it’s shareable in human ways, such as to share on Twitter or on Facebook, print it out, send it by email.



It seems like a tiny thing, but we see few things on the web that aren’t selectable. If you can select text you can take it out of your original context and do things with it.

Self aware

This is when content knows its meaning and can communicate it to other machines.


Content that is wherever you are.

William Gibson said the street finds its own uses for things. You gotta let the thing out on the street and let people find their uses for it.

This is a long list, a set of qualities rather than principles.

Three principles as a proposal:


This is the world’s first earthquake proof building. It’s the Tomb of Cyrus the Great. There is base isolation. The base is created, made smooth and brought back. The next level is not tied or mortared to the base. When the earth moves, the base moves, but the next level does not. Things all around it have been destroyed by earthquakes. We need to find ways to earthquake-proof your content. Readability and Instapaper are examples. Readability is a premium service that distributes dollars as a patronage system.


Your must be open to enmeshment. The open world is enmeshed. Consider rocks in water, moss on rocks, etc. Twitter is integrated into our lives, it’s in our pocket, on the desktop, and Twitter is a success. Imagine it for the iPhone only. We wouldn’t even recognize it. It would be the opposite of enmeshed, it would be isolated.

Kindle is experiencing incremental connectedness. Amazon has been making it more enmeshed. It’s available on the iPhone, Android phones, on the iPad, the desktop. It’s not stuck to the device. Kindle is now searchable. This is great for research! You can annotate, you can highlight, they’re working on ways to share annotations and highlights, they’re opening it up—making the good things about it better. You can lend some books. They’re letting you check them out in the public library via the Kindle and your library card. Kids with families, students can all access books in this way. All this is progress toward something much more open, whole, earthquake-proof, not isolated, not trapped in other people’s business systems.

Resolves conflicting forces

Window seats. Christopher Alexander calls window places a lively place. It lets light in, it’s a place to sit. The window as a hole in the wall is the other pattern. As mammals, we move toward the light, we need to sit down. The window seat resolves those forces. With the other pattern, you have to drag the chair over to the window. It’s not the same.

Netflix. There were conflicting forces: users want a huge selection of videos, no late fees, and they also want everything right now. At first, Netflix did all but the last one. Video stores are closing. People don’t want to plan to watch a romantic comedy next Tuesday at 7:00 p.m. Netflix Instant gives access to all this stuff in high res, when you want it.

iTunes. You could spend $20 on a CD or use Napster and steal the music. iTunes strong-armed the studios to move closer to halfway. There was DRM (Digital Rights Managed) music first. But we wanted music now. Like the Kindle, Apple has moved iTunes to an enmeshed situation. DRM is gone. Itunes showed you can resolve these conflicting forces.

Consider the Times Of London and the New York Times. There is a conflict in that the user wants news, wherever they want it. The Times needs money to pay journalists and keep the lights on. The Times of London puts everything behind a wall, all behind a subscription. Google can’t find it, people can’t find it. The New York Times is trying to resolve these forces: not with a paywall gulag, but more like a paywall velvet rope. People will pay, but the New York Times’ subscription model is not an ideal situation. They’re trying to find a way of resolving forces, and it’s so much better than the Times of London where they have everything and you have nothing.

Whole. Enmeshed. Resolving Forces. If we attend only to new technologies, we’re not going to be able to keep up. We need our own plan, our own way of making decisions that accommodates new devices / mechanisms. It must preserve the life of our content and enhance the lives of our human users.

J.R.R. Tolkien, in addition to being an author, was a linguist, professor, and scholar. He once gave a lecture on Beowulf. At the time, Beowulf was not an important classic of literature. It was a considered weird, a patchwork. Tolkien made a defense of Beowulf, in it he told a story of a man who purchased land. On the land, the man found a ruin. He took stones from the building and made a tower. Later, when the future generation found this tower, people came and said the tower was a mishmash, it had no use. They wanted to get rid of it, they wanted to raze it to dig for coal. What Tolkien said, is what the people didn’t realize, is that from the top of the tower, the old man could see out to the sea. Returning to the idea of the Cathedral in St. Petersburg, which was made with reusable, wooden scaffolding, if you walk to the top of the tower, you can see the sea.

6 thoughts on “Making Sense of the New (New) Content Landscape: Erin Kissane Confab 2011

  1. A really great read Krista.

    I’m facilitating a Web Standards meetup tonight and this should provide a nice side topic once the official talks have been completed.

    You’ve hit the nail on the head when it comes to content, regardless of the media it is delivered…..

  2. Thanks for this post Krista! Fantastic. Makes me really “get” the importance of moveability of content. I cannot get to Confab but love hearing about all the great presentations, this being one.

    I appreciate you posting this!

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