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January 17, 2012

Tempus fugit

I’ve been thinking about how time affects communication. We have constant deadlines, some of which are easier to meet than others. But there are other ways in which time affects content strategy.

Language usage evolves

Today, I can write:

Like the Euro, this [anything] is in deep crisis.

I am confident that my readers will understand the analogy. But ten years from now, the Euro may be back on track (or gone). A reader in 2022 must then recognize that this sentence was written in 2012 to put it in the proper context. It’s likely (unfortunately) that the Euro events will be remembered in 10 years, but what about something like this from Twitter:

@lizzwinstead I would like to see the answer translated into the Kardashian unit of time measurement.

— Melissa (@jamrockstar) January 9, 2012

We use pop culture references because they are entertaining, but they are also obstacles to content longevity.

Language evolves

Language changes over time, and our word choice, even without obvious pop culture references, ties our text to a temporal frame of reference. Take, for example, the word “provisioning.” (Yes, it’s a horrible word. Sorry.)

My most recent encounter with “provisioning” was in the context of digital magazine publishing. My mental model is now that provisioning refers to the process of supplying a user with magazine content based on her subscription status and/or one-off purchases. However, I had trouble finding examples of this definition. For example, Wordnik’s examples for provisioning are mostly in telecommunications and finance:

“It is hard to envisage duct access providing both Carphone and Sky with even half of their long-term provisioning requirements.”
Latest financial, market & economic news and analysis |


“BBVA said it had to set aside an extra € 198 million as a result of the change in provisioning rules.”
The Wall Street Journal: Financial Briefing Book: Oct. 28

But scroll down the page to the Twitter examples, and you see something different:

das iOS Provisioning Portal darf ruhig mal von einem apple usibility team unter die lupe genommen werden.”

“Guh, somehow Xcode nuked all my provisioning profiles.”

“Блин, в iTunes Connect черт ногу сломит – уже минут 40 пытаюсь вспомнить где находится управление provisioning профилями. Безрезультатно.”

Here, the usage for “provisioning” is all about telecommunications and a little bit of iOS.

From there, I backtracked to Wikipedia:

In telecommunicationprovisioning is the process of preparing and equipping a network to allow it to provide (new) services to its users. In NS/EP telecommunications services,“provisioning” equates to “initiation” and includes altering the state of an existing priority service or capability.[1]

There is also a reference to mobile content provisioning later in the article, but this turns out to be quite a different definition from what I expected:

This refers to delivering mobile content, such as mobile internet to a mobile phone, agnostic of the features of said device.

Finally, I consulted the Oxford English Dictionary:

The supplying, stocking up, or making of provisions; the action of provision v.
1787    A. Hawkins tr. V. Mignot Hist. Turkish Empire I. 306   His opposition in the council to the provisioning of Rhodes [Fr. le conseil à ce que Rhodes fût approvisionnée] when war was not yet declared‥had raised suspicions.
None of the OED examples are related to technology; instead, they reflect the military usage where this word originated.
I conclude that “provisioning” for digital content is a new usage of the term, which means that I probably need to explain it in any content that I’m creating. And that brings me to a third issue.

The reader evolves

In the early days of graphical user interfaces, it was quite common to include basic information about mouse operation in technical documentation manuals. When was the last time you saw something like this in technical content?

The baseline assumptions we make about audience knowledge have changed. Knowledge that starts out as highly specialized (like my unorthodox definition of “provisioning”) may, over time, become general knowledge. Consider the evolution from “smartphone application” to “mobile application” to “mobile app” to just “app.”

This implies that we can, over time, remove information from our content. Phone companies do not explain the concept of an area code. Actually, it’s worse than that. AT&T’s instructions do provide a link in case you don’t know what an area code is:

Let’s assume you need further explanation of “the area code” above. This is what you get:

Uh, thanks? I don’t think this is going to help someone who doesn’t know what an area code is. So, I did what we all do and tried a Google search for “what is an area code?” and got this at position #3, from WiseGeek:

An area code is a section of a telephone number which denotes the broad area that the phone receiving the call is based in. The area code is the section just before the local number, and just after both the access and country codes. An area code usually doesn’t need to be dialed if the number being called is in the same area as the number making the call, unlike the local number, which must always be dialed in its entirety.

In the United States, an area code is a three digit number that comes before the seven digits that make up the local number, three for the prefix and four for the suffix. While the prefix of the local number gives an idea of the more specific area, such as town or neighborhood, the areacode denotes the larger region, either a whole segment of a city, or even an entire county of part of a state.

Once again, unofficial third-party content wins. But I digress. The point, as always, is that you need to know your audience. The category of “people who don’t know what an area code is” do not need a technical discussion of the finer points of area codes. They need a clear explanation of (what we consider) basic phone number concepts.

What information is in our content today that will be irrelevant in a few years because it will have become general knowledge? Can we identify that information ahead of time? How do we plan for information decay?