Content fragmentation with special guest Larry Swanson (podcast)
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In episode 137 of The Content Strategy Experts Podcast, Sarah O’Keefe and guest Larry Swanson talk about the fragmentation of content over the past 30 years, from the delivery of books to UX writing.
“What are the changes that this fragmentation has introduced from a business or an economic point of view? One is the notion that we’re all publishers now. This is where the whole field of content marketing comes from — this notion that it’s a better way to promote yourself if you demonstrate expertise around what you’re doing.”
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Sarah O’Keefe: Welcome to the Content Strategy Experts podcast, brought to you by Scriptorium. Since 1997, Scriptorium has helped companies manage, structure, organize, and distribute content in an efficient way.
In this episode, we talk about the fragmentation of content over the past 30 years, from delivery of books to UX writing, where you publish content inside software. Our guest today is Larry Swanson, an independent content designer and content architect who also has his own podcast called Content Strategy Insights. Hi, everyone. I’m Sarah O’Keefe, and, Larry, hello!
Larry Swanson: It’s great to be here, Sarah. I love your podcast and I’m delighted to finally be on it.
SK: Well, likewise. So we’re going to have, I think, dueling podcasts and it’ll be fun. Tell us a little bit about what you do. Tell us a little bit about who you are and where you’re coming from and what your life looks like in business.
LS: Yeah, it’s inevitable that I ended up where I am. I’m a word nerd from birth. My mom was an editor. I’m also… My dad was an engineer, so I’ve had this weird combination of technical and grammatical stuff throughout my life. And yeah, so I went to journalism school, which seemed like a good idea at the time. I immediately abandoned journalism for book publishing when I got out of college. I went to a course called the Radcliffe Publishing Procedures Course. Because of that, I think just that journey, the way I got into journalism school was interesting, the fact that I went right into book publishing out of there. I’ve always been more interested in the process of how this happens than about the writing itself. I’ve done some writing and can communicate well, but I’ve never been a writer. I’ve always been the publisher, the editor, the marketing guy, the meta-practitioner.
SK: Yeah, which is interesting because I think that that’s quite similar to how we describe ourselves here, that if you’re looking for domain knowledge, that’s something that you should have inside the organization. We’re the people that come in from the outside looking at your publishing systems and what that looks like.
So you and I were talking a couple of weeks ago, which is actually where this podcast topic came from, because we were looking at this question or this idea that many of us actually came from traditional book publishing, and now we’re doing things like publishing software strings inside software, doing UX writing or UX design, but we came from this traditional book world. And that got us started on the concept of fragmentation and what that means and what the implications are. I wanted to start with content challenges. What kinds of content challenges do you see in this long term, I guess, but 30 years is really the blink of an eye, but in this transition from a book-based publishing world to UX design, UX writing content embedded in software?
LS: Yeah. Well, it’s funny. The first thing I reflected on when we talked about this is what’s the same. And I’m surrounded by awesome word nerds and good collaborators, so that’s been the same throughout. But it manifests entirely differently now. Whereas we used to have these long, convoluted, literally years-long processes to develop a manuscript, put it into that sausage factory of everything from developmental editing to the composition, and then all the distribution and the physical manufacturing of the books and all that, a quick turnaround would be nine months. Sometimes if you got a really hot topic, you could turn it around that quickly. Now we’re dealing in milliseconds for some of this stuff. I think of that Oreo commercial during the Super Bowl. Remember when the lights went out? And they created a whole advertising campaign in 10 minutes about “you can dunk in the dark.”
So we’ve kind of gone from years to seconds and the whole cycle. Around the time, the start of this transformation, for me, a guy named Nader Darehshori. He was at the time the CEO of the publisher Houghton Mifflin. He said that publishing is just the business of the discovery, development, and dissemination of ideas. There’s a lot going on in there, and it used to take a long time for it to happen, but that ad that Oreos did during the Super Bowl, that whole thing happened in literally 10 minutes or something like that. So that compression of time has led to, I think, the need to be super hyper-attentive to the procedures, how you do stuff, and the stuff you have in place to facilitate that sharing of ideas more quickly.
I think one of the very first books we read is, when I went to a publishing course right after college and read this book called One Book/Five Ways, where they took the same manuscript and gave it to five different university presses and got five different treatments of that. So I’ve always been really conscious of… and there were sort of best practices exemplified in that, but everybody did it their own way, and that’s another thing that’s only magnified. There used to be something much more like best practices. Now it’s like everything is bespoke. And yet, you have to have a way to do it so that you can be bespoke. And that’s where we’ve gone from these long tunnels of production and distribution stuff to these more fragmented, increasingly decoupled modular architectures that permit taking content, mostly words in text form, but also recordings of various kinds and even 3D stuff in the metaverse, and being able to do stuff with them more quickly.
That’s been the biggest change, is it’s still people sharing ideas with other people in a media format. I think a person from Mars who could magically look in at us and just look at… They would think, oh, it’s just the same thing. And it’s like, yeah, it kind of is, but there’s a lot more going on now to make it all happen.
SK: So I understand the concept that a lot of the increase in velocity is that we got rid of physical distribution. We don’t have this process of printing books and binding books and shipping them to bookstores, which does take a significant amount of time. But backing up from there, you mentioned developmental editing, and where are the developmental editors in our fragmented content chain? Is that concept just gone?
LS: No, I think it’s still here, but it manifests differently. I think think that happens in the craft. Content strategy is a discipline. You might call it fragmenting, but I call it… I think I’d equally call it specializing. I’m still a generalist and I’m kind of weird that way, but for the most part, the content practitioners now, they’re either a content creator or a strategist or a designer or an engineer or a content operations person, people managing it, and there’s many other specializations that are happening. I think that’s part of how it’s happening, is that it’s the craft that permits the acceleration, that things are developed differently, and we’ve figured out… We are still figuring out, I should say, because the articulation of the field of content design is really only… I mean, people have been doing it a long time, but people have only been calling it that for 3, 4, 5 years, something like that. But look at how quickly it’s taken off. And Kristina Halvorson is shutting down Confab to focus on content design at Button.
So it’s a very fast-evolving thing, but it’s the collection of crafts that develop the ideas now rather than this kind of sausage factory, linear progression of things. Does that make sense?
SK: I think so. So looking at… You’ve mentioned the sausage factory a couple of times, which is, I think, an apt metaphor, unfortunately. What does this look like from a tech point of view? What are the changes in the processes, systems, and I guess especially software that we use to produce content?
LS: Yeah. I think what’s funny is what… I remember being exposed to SGML, the predecessor to HTML 30 years ago. I knew that there were ways that you could deal with words separately from their presentation. But I think that’s been the main thing, is the disarticulation of the content, the meaning, the words, the pictures, the images, all that stuff that make up the content, their disarticulation from the physical… We used to have these physical artifacts where we shared the information, and now it’s all digital. And within that sharing, the tech that makes it happen, it’s instrumental to the whole thing. Where it used to be tech was the facilitator that created the object, now the tech is the object. It’s like an interface at the end of a thing rather than a physical artifact.
And it’s more of a people challenge, I think. It’s not hard to get into all that technical stuff and figure out, oh, I can make these words appear here with this technology. Piece of cake. Getting people to abandon WYSIWYG mentalities around graphical user interfaces and author content in new ways for more abstracted out and then reassembled experiences, I think it’s… The technology has kind of made it, to my mind, a logical evolution, and it’s like, oh, cool, we can do all this. We can make our little Lego kits however we want and put them together however we want. But I think there’s still this legacy thinking that a lot of us have that I still struggle with every day of that linear process that creates physical artifacts that we still have.
People still talk about creating web pages. It’s like, really? Is that what you’re doing? I don’t think so. I mean, maybe it manifests as a page in that one moment, but the elements on that page are increasingly customized or maybe even personalized for a unique experience. They’re responsive to the device that they’re on and the screen resolution and the accessibility needs of the end user. There’s all these different things that go into that are technically easy enough to implement, but helping everybody along the way understand this different way of doing stuff. On my podcast, it almost always comes back to, you know, this is mostly about people, and I think the technology stuff, yeah, it’s mostly about people.
SK: Yeah. Well, and it’s interesting. I mean, as you’re talking about WYSIWYG and people acting as though WYSIWYG is their birthright, which has been around forever, it hasn’t. I mean, you don’t have to go very far back in book publishing to find that people would on a typewriter type a manuscript, which bore no actually resemblance to the final book. It was a typed manuscript with no formatting, I mean, paragraphs and maybe some chapter headings, but it had to be actually composed into a book, and woe be unto you if you had figures and tables. Those were nearly always included in an appendix at the end of your manuscript, right? Here’s Figure 1 inserted on typed page 75. So this concept of WYSIWYG and putting it all together and getting a visual preview for the author is relatively, I mean, relatively new. We’re talking about, what, 1987 or thereabouts.
LS: Yeah. When was it? PageMaker and then Quark, and I think that’s where that came from.
SK: PageMaker was… Yeah, roughly. I think the first time I saw it was about 1988, so somewhere in the ’80s. Yeah.
LS: Yeah, that’s right. You know, it’s funny the way you said that, like it’s our birthright to be able to see what we’re doing. It’s like, nah, it’s just a little blip in publishing history.
SK: Right, and, well, of course if we go far enough back, then we will discover that people used to actually compose their pages as they went, and they were totally WYSIWYG because…
LS: Right. No, and as we were talking about before we went on the air, like Gutenberg, the implications of that were more about replicability, and the scribes before him knew what they… You saw exactly what you were publishing.
SK: What you see is what you get.
SK: No podcast of ours is complete without a mention of Gutenberg, so we’ll check that one off the list.
So the tech, it swings back and forth, and sometimes you’re WYSIWYG and sometimes you’re a cog in the machine. And people seem to prefer largely not being a cog, right? They like to exert that at least perceived control over what they’re doing. So then turning our attention to the business of publishing and the business of content, what do you see there? I mean, what are the changes that this fragmentation has introduced from a business or an economic point of view?
LS: At least two big things. One is that notion that we’re all publishers now, that this is where the whole field of content marketing comes from, that this notion that it’s a better way to promote yourself if you demonstrate expertise around what you’re doing. We both do that with our podcasts. This is why people know we’re so awesome at our content practices. It’s because we have podcasts. And there’s a million other ways that you can do publishing-y kinds of things. But the business intent of those, rather than selling podcast episodes for money, we’re using it as marketing.
There’s that, that notion that everyone is now a publisher, but there’s also the notion that the business of publishing itself has changed. There’s both the fact that we’re all now publishers, just made that whole world a lot bigger, but there’s still publishing happening within there. You think about media like Netflix and the New York Times and game publishers, everything from consoles to the new 3D stuff. So publishing is still happening, but there are a lot of other business things that happen with the same technology, which I don’t think that was true. I mean, it was kind of true with old-style publishing. You would use the printing press to create an internal newsletter or something like that.
But it was not as ubiquitous as it is now, because everybody has access to this stuff. No matter what line of business you’re in, you’re using those technologies to do slightly different stuff, which I think is where the whole field… That’s one way to contextualize the rise of user experience design, because you’re serving like, okay, I just need to sell some stuff. I’m a merchant, and so I have this e-commerce world of stuff that I can do with these ostensibly publishing technologies, because they’re about just sharing information. But you’re sharing information in service to getting somebody to place an order. Or if you’re a marketer, you’re sharing information in service of getting a lead. Or if you’re a publisher, you’re sharing information to get paid for that thing you just published, whether it’s an advertisement or a subscription. And if you’re…
So that kind of publishers, merchants, marketers have always been, to my mind, the three main buckets in the business world of digital business. And their websites all kind of look similar now, but there’s different business prerogatives that underlie them that lead the whole… I’m working at a big travel company right now, and this business logic that underlies that whole thing, it just looks like any other website, just lists stuff about the travel products. That’s way different than a big affiliate site that was just selling links back to Expedia. A big travel company like Expedia is doing all that business stuff. The travel agents and airlines and hotel chains used to do it. So I think it’s broken down a lot of barriers that make new kinds of businesses possible.
So I think that’s the biggest level of it, and they’re all using the same technology. They all have to abide by those same practices around, if you want to be found, you better have a responsive website so you better abide by responsive web design principles and be using CDMs and all… whatever the latest technology thing is to improve the end… and it’s always about user experience. The reason that’s important is because users don’t have the patience to wait for a slow-loading webpage. I can’t articulate it as well as we hoped I might when we talked about this interview, but there’s something going on there where it’s much more about the end user and meeting their needs. So I think you can trace back almost all these developments to the need to improve that, the places that are doing it well, anyway, to help people find the right information at the right time.
Google does that pretty well, help people get the movie that they really want to chill to that night. Netflix does that really well. And it’s all about satisfying user needs. And that, to me, is this technology that we first saw as a way to accelerate and increase the velocity of publishing activities, it’s like, oh, I can sell stuff with that too. Oh, I can deliver media that’s customized to a person’s interest. Yeah, that would’ve been nice to have Blockbuster could have sent somebody to your house and interviewed you about what video you want to watch, but that’s not very scalable. So anyhow, so that notion that it is all technological that permits the scalability, that’s the foundation of most of these business models, is that ability to take a good practice and just, boom, do it for millions of people at once.
SK: Yeah, I think scalability is a really, really good point. And velocity, velocity of publishing is sort of related to that. They’re not exactly the same thing, but can you scale up and produce more and more and more content and can you do it fast or instantaneously by… because our old distribution, put it on a truck and send it to a bookstore, has been replaced by push this button.
LS: That’s right.
SK: And sometimes not even that.
LS: There’s something in there about… I think one of the other really important things that we just don’t think about consciously enough but we’re all doing all the time is automation, that we’re automating tasks that used to take… I think that’s really coming to the fore now with the generated AI stuff, ChatGPT and those kinds of things, that, like, oh, I don’t have to outline this. I’ll just have ChatGPT do this for me. That kind of task automation underlies a lot of this. I can’t articulate exactly how that’s going on, but I think that’s an important part of it as well.
SK: Well, and I guess with a call-out to AI is up next and we’re not really sure what that’s going to do for us, that seems like an excellent place to close this. So Larry, thank you so much for coming in and sharing your thoughts and giving people something to think about and be scared of.
LS: I hope I didn’t scare anyone. And thanks so much, Sarah. I really enjoyed the opportunity to chat with you, and I hope that rambling stuff made some sense.
SK: Well, I think so. We’ll see what our audience thinks. So thank you, Larry, and thanks to you for listening to the Content Strategy Experts podcast brought to you by Scriptorium. For more information, visit scriptorium.com or check the show notes for relevant links.