Screens, Research and Hypertext

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Content as Documents

Admit it—you're still using Word docs to get approval for tweets.

Most organizations think “content” means “document.”

You present ideas as text supplemented by a bit of multimedia content—this image with that paragraph, that table to break out the numbers in this other section. You build paths for readers to follow, and you construct those paths inside different products. Traditionally those included a report, an executive summary, a fact sheet, and a press release—probably in PDF. Your documents are linear and discrete: Each is meant to be read from front-to-back, and each is written is such a way as to completely stand on its own.

The Internet came along and created dozens of new content platforms: blogs, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram, Snapchat, Medium … the list just keeps growing.

Most of you use documents to create all that new content, too.

You write out a whole bunch of tweets and Facebook posts and run them through an approval process.

Half a dozen people weigh in on which chart should accompany the post and how many footnotes said chart needs to include.

You write video scripts and run them through yet another approval process.

You write blog posts … and get them approved … then task someone with cutting-and-pasting from Word to your internal blog, then repeating the process for Medium.

And we’ve not even gotten to the next generation of products—silent movies that take advantage of Facebook’s decision to autoplay video with the sound turned off; Snapchat stories made from annotated photos and short video clips; and chat bots for messaging apps and voice-based assistants like WhatsApp, Slack, or Alexa.

It's the paratext model of research communications, and if we keep trying it, we're going to work ourselves into the ground.

If we keep treating every piece of content as a document, we’ll all drown.

Platforms breed faster than budgets. Eventually you’ll be forced to choose between ignoring most platforms to focus on a few or phoning it in on a bunch of things.

Alternately, we could abandon the document model.

For more context

Writing in documents primes us to make all the wrong decisions about online content.

What to read next

If we're not writing in documents, would should we be doing?

Other items of interest

HTML isn't (merely) about formatting online content.

Literary theory, comic books and think tanks—together at last!

What's wrong with PDFs?

Referenced in

On the Virtues of Hypertext

In short, we still write linear nonfiction. Each article or post or Vine or Snapchat story is (mostly) a self-contained argument. We use the hyperlink to create connections between these self-contained pieces.

Back to WonkComms and Superheroes

Our tools aren’t really up to standards—though some are getting closer. Our processes are still mostly geared toward print. And our organizational cultures are still (mostly) primed to privilege the big report. Changing that requires a Hulk-sized lift.

Documents Are the Wrong Metaphor

Unfortunately, when it comes to online content, we’ve picked the wrong metaphor. We typically think about our text content in terms of documents. We start each one in Word, run each through an editing process, then task someone with getting the final approved content out of Word and onto the appropriate platform.

Modular Content

A CMS built around content-as-documents faces the same problems as content in literal documents—you need human intervention and a lot of cutting-and-pasting to reuse anything.