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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.

A Web Designed for Readers: Mandy Brown Confab 2011

Here are my notes from Mandy Brown’s Confab 2011 talk, A Web Designed for Readers.

You can find Mandy at:

A Book Apart (Editor)
A List Apart (Contributing Editor)
Typekit (Community and Support Manager)
A Working Library (Great writing)

Mandy asks, how can we craft a better, sustainable reading model for the web?

Aby Warbug was a German scholar, from a wealthy banking family. He was expected to take over the family business, but he was more interested in literature and in reading books. To be able to spend his lifetime doing what he loved, he convinced his younger brother Max to take over the family business, on the condition that Max bought Aby as many books as Aby wished.

As part of taxonomy, today, we use the Dewey Decimal System to organize books in libraries. Warburg’s library was circular. He used a thematic aproach to organizing his library, which he changed and evolved over time. He even became frustrated with shelving. He wanted to have a visual system, and created a Mnemosynea way to post images on large black clothes.

This is a great metaphor for reading on the web, the cross-functional, contextual way we read on the web. You’re collecting this great big, source of personal references and texts in messy, interesting ways.

Mnemosyne was the goddess of memory–Warburg was constrained by the technology of his time. We’re not constrained—that’s what the web does best, connecting things and ideas.

There are ways we can make reading on the web better.

Content on the web is dispersed. Consider the newspaper, for example. Content is changing. It used to be delivered to your door. You’d get one, maybe two newspapers. Nobody gets 15 papers delivered to their door, it’s too impractical. The web makes the news better. You can read as many newspapers as you want and you can get perspectives on things from all over the world, including Twitter. Eye-wintess accounts on Twitter are now part of the news.

Good content is dispersed, liberated, sustainable, and generative.


The web depends on content being shareable.

A single piece of content with no way in or out is in a silo. The anchor element is our connection to the world. A proliferation of links is what makes reading on the web so powerful.


In print content is stuck, other than photocopying a page and mailing it, you can’t do anything with it. On the web, you can transform the content, you can save it to your desktop, post it to Twitter, port it to Instapaper, etc.


Reader attention is renewable, but it is also finite. When you talk about sustainability on the web, you must talk about money.


Subscriptions are steadily declining. The Economist is an exception, the Wall Street Journal is an exception. But, they violate the shareability principle. They’re not connected—hyperlinks break when a pay wall is in place. The New York Times is trying to make content connectable and shareable, but there are problems. Is their model sustainable?


Classified advertising is nearly non-existent. Craigslist has taken over. The personals have even migrated to places like They’re not coming back. stooped so low as to have a takeover ad that became the entire site. Bad idea!

Readers are good at focusing on content that they want, and skippping over ads. Mandy says she doesn’t think this kind of adverting has a future. Advertising is a disease—the logical conclustion is the million dollar homepage—all ads, no content.

Advertising that disrespects readers is not sustainable.

There are examples of advertising that have been done well, that offer value to readers. Ads that respect the readers’ experience include The Deck. The Deck does two things well: the ads are relevant, they only feature products that readers care about; they’re unobtrusive, one ad per page, there’s no competition with other ads. They’re discreet, they actually add value. It’s a polite approach to advertising. Fusion ads must be attractive to be included as part of the network. The ads are invitation only—as in “this is a product we love and want you to know about it.” They’re great for the advertiser because they come with editorial content.


A List Apart magazine earns money from The Deck. ALA started as a listserv. There is a whole generation of designers and developers who learned how to do their work by reading A List Apart. A Book Apart and An Event Apart (the book imprint and the conference event) are able to be successful, because of the audience that reads ALA. And, ALA is free.

Company blogs

On the Typekit blog, they cover the technical aspects of working with type. They bring in contributing writers. It is the single best conversion souce for Typekit over any other source of traffic.

Patronage models

How we can directly pay for content?

How people pay for things on the web has changed over the years.

Shawn Blanc did a membership drive, asking for $3 a month to help support his wish to be a full time writer. Not a pay wall, more like a PBS membership drive. If you don’t pay, you still get content. However, there are members-only perks, such as the daily podcast, where he shares what he’s reading, what he’s thinking about, what’s getting his attention. There’s no real reason for Mandy to want to pay for this, but she enjoys getting access to his life as a writer. This reminded her about a Roger Ebert post—where he wrote about when he learned he could no longer eat solid food. He craved food at first, but realized it wasn’t the food he missed, it was the company, he missed the conversations that happen during meals; the community. It’s a connection that’s powerful

We’re at dinner right now–Roger Ebert


Frank Chimero’s book, called The Shape of Design, started off hoping to raise $27,000. It raised $112,159. Very successful funding, similar to Shawn Blanc’s membership plan, you get added content from the creator as a person who contributes. Frank creates trailers that show parts of the book that he’s working on.

Robin Sloan:

Flow is the feed. It’s the posts and the tweets. It’s the stream of daily and sub-daily updates that remind people that you exist. (Divergent)

Stock is the durable stuff. It’s the content you produce that’s as interesting in two months (or two years) as it is today. It’s what people discover via search. It’s what spreads slowly but surely, building fans over time. (Convergent)

These models are small, personal, and focused on the community. You feel like you’re part of something great.

It’s kind of like a farmers’ market approach as opposed to the national chain. It’s more expensive, less conveneient, but SO much more meaningful.

But can it scale? NO.

We need to find ways to support content so that we can help small, independent content providers have sustainable business models.

Cameron Koczon on liberated content:

  1. Distillation First, the content is stripped down to its raw essence. That essence could be an article, a tweet, a recipe, even a full webpage. What matters is that you end up with all wheat and no chaff. Distilled content is not, however, without attribution. The content never forgets where it is from and neither do you.
  2. Association After distillation, the raw content is free-floating and in need of a new home. This is done by tying that content to a user. The typical approach is to have a user account or a desktop folder where the content can reside.

Pinboard is a service for storing content for later, for cultivating links. It’s a bookmarking service for people with more bookmarks than friends. It’s powerful, minimal, and secure. Pinboard is not free. There’s a startup fee, that you can put toward an annual subscriber fee.

Yahoo slide was leaked about sunsetting Delicious. Whatever sunsetting was, it didn’t sound good! Pinboard got some crazy traffic. They went from 100 signups to 2500 signups per day, which is very challenging to deal with. Pinboard had to turn off a bunch of features to manage the growth. If PB wasn’t a paid sevice, the day that the sunset was leaked (December 16) would have taken them down. They’re sustainable.

Readability is a customized reading experience that shares revenue with content providers.

Recipe tools. I want someone to digitize my recipes, cross-pollinate them with fresh produce information and have an app that spits out what I should make today, based on what I can get fresh in New York.

Maps What if we could map content to a particular geography? What if we could stand on a streetcorner to see what people were writing about ten years ago during a historic moment?

Recommenations engines, human curators, text playlists, annotations: I’d like to see a way to gather things like the five things about wikileaks that you must read and why.

What happens to your bookmarks when you die? We’re going to need digital executors, so that your digital writings, your collections remain intact after your death.

Are we still READING?

Jakob Neilsen wrote that people don’t read. They skim. Only 16% of people read word by word, reading on the web is not about reading every single word. Skimming is the act of reading something quickly or superficially.

Book reference: How to Talk About Books you Haven’t Read by Pierre Bayard.

If you’re spending a lot of time reading, you’re writing—you’re compelled to respond.

My most treasured books are the ones I couldn’t help writing in.

—Michael Lopp

One more pricniple: Generative: the ability to create content as well as consume it. This is the way in which reading becomes more than reading.

One final thought:

If you want a revolution, rhetoric is good, but running into the streets with torches is more effective.

—Rich Ziade

Readability may not work, but we can explore why.

There’s the concept of “rough consensus and running code” that creates change. It’s more than a simple majority, on the concept and running code. As content creators, we need to think about content and how others will perceive it, what will they do with it.

Get rough consensus and get running code: go make something!

Kristina Halvorson’s Keynote: Confab 2011

Here are my notes from Kristina Halvorson’s keynote speech from Confab, 2011:

  • The Unified Theory of Content Development for the Web by Mark McCormick was written in 1998!
  • Content drives form, not the other way around.
  • We’re at a critical point because everything is a mess, also because there is the mobile user, tablets, wifi etc., Users now want information when they want it (on mobile, etc.) We’re screwed! Our content is not ready for that. We have got to get our act together—planning for multi-channel, on-brand, user centered content.
  • You need to create some kind of internal infrastructure for planning, development, and governance within your organization.
  • This conference is about the people who work with content, the changes that have to happen in our organizations. It’s about preparing the content and caring for it, as a business asset.

“Why Confab” (Kristina’s call to action)

  • Articulate—what do you think content strategy is—how will it be meaningful to you and your organizations.
  • Investigate—pick at least one session you have absolutely no interest in, whatsoever—you’ll benefit.
  • Integrate—content strategy requires us to figure out what is going on within other silos in your organization.
  • Appreciate—different perspectives, different disciplines—that’s what being a consultant is about—it’s about listening.
  • Ideate


There’s a land grab going on around the definition of Content Strategy. What does Content Strategy mean? Everybody has their own ideas. Kristina doesn’t care! Content Strategy is big, complicated, and we’re still figuring out how it can influence us and our organizations. Talk to each other about the definition of Content Strategy—blog about it, tweet about it. Keep the conversation going.

Kristina sees this statement often on the web, and disagrees:

Stop talking about it, Start doing it

Kristina says we can’t stop talking about Content Strategy. We need to learn about new ways to frame the problems. She says we must reframe the challenges in different ways, depending on what we do, how we’re measured. Don’t stop stalking about Content Strategy! Continue the conversation among yourselves. Keep talking, even if people aren’t listening.


Ecosystems: when one element shifts, another element shifts. Things influence one another and this is the world in which our content lives. Our content is out there, many factors influence it. Investigate different parts of you ecosystem. Without understanding everything that influences your content you can’t move forward. Open up your mind and listen to other points of view. You can disagree and debate, but don’t tell people they can’t or shouldn’t be talking about Content Strategy. Instead of jumping to conclusions or solutions ask, “tell me more about that.”


Frame: definition: form or to make as by fitting and uniting parts together, conceive or imagine, as in an idea, formulate or give expression to, to shape or adapt to a particular purpose.

* Several models shared: key concept: be open to others’ ideas.

Sage words from Erin Kissane on the conversation and the need to be curious:

Anyone who thinks “editorial content strategy” is not a real-world problem is insufficiently versed. Ditto “data CS” and “marketing CS.” (Source)

By all means, let us differentiate ourselves. But we don’t need to pretend the specialties of others are irrelevant. (Source)

Doing so makes us seem small, insecure, and incurious. And beloved, we cannot afford to be incurious. (Source)

Five critical roles: Creator, Advancer, Flexer, Refiner, Executor. We gravitate toward a certain style as a strength, but embody elements of all.


  • generates concepts and ideas
  • reframes the problem
  • recognizes alternatives
  • peceives the bigger picture
  • is not constrained by fear of failyre of existing rules


  • recongizes new ideas ain there early stages…


  • mentors and guides team contbutions
  • can play 3-4 roles at any given time…


  • challenges the concepts
  • analyzes detects possible flaws, identifies potential problems
  • revews plans modifies as needed


  • implements ideas and solutions
  • is focused on successful outcomes
  • pays attention to detail
  • prefers to let others take the lead
  • enjoys having resp for final results

Thinks about these roles–where are your strengths. I don’t work with people to build where they are particularly challenged. I want people to build strengths, and explore them. Think about where your natural strengths are.


I had a vision: when I went online in May, 2008, I searched for Content Strategy, and found 13 mentions. I had a vision that everyone would be talking about Content Strategy. Content is the soul of our converations. We needed a lot of people to make that happen.

From Matt Grocki
I’ve been managing and creating content since 1996, and I’ve never faced a greater sesnse of urgency and purpose in my career #contentstrategy @mgrocki (Source)

This isn’t new stuff, but where we are is brand new. If ever there was a time to step up and own your content, now is the time.

I had a vision, what’s yours?

Freedom to see

Working from home gives me great flexibility. This freedom allows me to run in the park, or like today, bike through the park on my lunch break. At the old job, I would have missed this fleeting moment; spring flowers so beautiful and fragile, not yet swallowed by the Assiniboine River which continues to overflow its banks:

Customers: teachers in disguise

Loved this post from 37Signals’ blog: On the front lines in the trenches.

To understand how to make your site the best it can be, you have to listen to your customers. Everyone needs to do customer support. It’s the only way to understand what your customers want, what frustrates them about your service or your website, and what delights them. Customers are teachers in disguise. You have something to learn from each one. You just have to be open to listening to what they have to say.

Everyone who joins Automattic spends their first three weeks on the job with our Happiness Team responding to customer support requests. The Happiness Team is an amazing group of people–gifted at teaching others and at doing reconnaissance to help users solve their problems.

Part of my role at Polldaddy is doing customer support. Everyone at Polldaddy does customer support. We wouldn’t have it any other way.

Managing the Apollo program: the Thursday Update Notebook

Another compelling anecdote from James R. Chiles’ Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology, this time about how Joe Shea, NASA’s Apollo program manager, managed his program. By 1964, NASA and its contractors had 300,000 people working on the project:

Shea’s main management tool wasn’t that complicated, either, just a looseleaf notebook that his staff filled each Thursday with progress reports, crisis bulletins, and cost figures sent in from every branch of the Apollo program. Shea marked up the pages working through the weekends, then releasing his incisive comments on the following Monday to be answered in time for the next notebook.