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Managing Flow

I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about content creation on the web lately. Like more than usual. Which is funny, because It’s also a time in which I’ve created less content than any other in the past six years on the web.

One of the big things I’ve been thinking about is the role of the CMS. With Six Apart (Movable Type & Typepad’s parent company) and Video Egg merging to make Say Media, Gawker ditching “blog format” (aka reverse chronological) and Tumblr growing like … something that grows really fast, it seems that blogging, as we knew it in the last decade at least, is at a bit of a crossroads.

The most obvious reason for this is the focus on the short-form stuff. Earlier this year Robin at Snarkmarket talked about stock and flow, which nicely frames the two modes of content creation that are competing for our time:

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.

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.

Blogger, WordPress and Movable Type were the tools we used to create stock. But where are the tools on the flow side? Tumblr feels like an interesting middle ground, a brilliant platform that’s not quite stock or flow. Twitter and Facebook are less tools for creating and consuming content as they are extensions of ourselves (in the McLuhan sense). If blog platforms were basically just simplified CMSes then where is our FMS (flow management system)?

In a very interesting piece, Danah Boyd helps contextualize the question:

We need technological innovations. For example, we need tools that allow people to more easily contextualize relevant content regardless of where they are and what they are doing, and we need tools that allow people to slice and dice content so as to not reach information overload. This is not simply about aggregating or curating content to create personalized destination sites. Frankly, I don’t think this will work. Instead, the tools that consumers need are those that allow them to get in flow, that allow them to live inside information structures wherever they are and whatever they’re doing. They need tools that allow them to easily grab what they want and to stay peripherally aware without feeling overwhelmed.

In a comment on that quote (on Tumblr no less), Ted Rheingold wrapped up the central need: “I’ve been trying hard to imagine how a blended push/pull of content will work.” Google tried this a little with Google Reader and shared items/notes, but RSS was never going to win as a consumer format without a better subscription mechanism, which was graciously provided by Twitter and Tumblr.

Anyway, the basic question is what it would look like if you started to build a CMS from the ground up for the flow side of the web. A CMS is traditionally about creating content, and that would be part of it, but, as Danah Boyd said, it needs to get people in the flow. This is not really a problem we’ve ever had to design for, outside maybe finance or producing live television (as two examples off the top of my head). In fact thinking of flow creators as brokers is probably a better metaphor anyhow, since so much of producing is about consuming and creating in equal parts: Redirecting the action to the appropriate places.

Which I guess leads to an obvious question which I’m not going to dig in on right this minute (because I’ve already reached my paragraph quota): What does a tool built for content brokers look like? Not quite sure yet, but I know it would look a lot different than the last generation systems (including blogging), which were built out of the needs of media companies to manage large bodies of their own content and include the regular roles of editor and writer. Lots more to think about.

November 7, 2010

Comments

  • Andy Weissman says:

    In answering this question (what it would look like if you started to build a CMS from the ground up for the flow side of the web) I always come back to two earlier models for ideas: link exchange, and web rings.

  • Perry Hewitt says:

    Great post – I don’t know what the tools will be for content brokers, but I know they are not the current CMS platforms. Current options are stock-heavy and flow-light, and the workflow is built like a fortress around the stock.

    There’s a huge emphasis in our communications efforts @Harvard think about our ability to be conveners of ideas and curators of content. Today, it feels like we need to patch together the tools to make it work, while there’s a big opportunity to capture and aggregate the flow in a meaningful way for consumers.

  • Bud Caddell says:

    Great piece to think on.

    I think a Flow-MS would need not only retain information, but parse it, analyze it, and present it in aggregate and not solely in succession. Time is more relevant solely for context and not categorization.

    Flow also has environmental history. Tumblr involves re-posting, commenting, etc, and that exhaust of data picked up as content moves across social graphs is just as important as the piece of content itself (can you really separate the two?).

    Flow needs a rich memory and a type of recall that is aware of the content around it.

  • Noah Brier says:

    @Andy: I love the serendipity of those systems … It seems that simplicity makes it easier for serendipity to occur.

    @Perry: Totally agree (with all parts … opportunity and not knowing the answer quite yet)

    @Bud: I really like the idea of context exhaust flow, I’ve thought of it for people, but never for the content they produce. But it’s true, it has a life of its own as it gathers momentum, and reblogs, etc. and shifts into a different conversation.

  • Bud Caddell says:

    @Noah, Tumblr has been retooling their system so attribution AND that data exhaust persist – http://staff.tumblr.com/post/1059624418/content-attribution

  • Noah Brier says:

    Good one Bud.

    Also, just ran across Rockmelt, which in some ways seems to be an attempt at managing flow with a browser (isn’t that sort of what Flock did too?)

  • Greg Brown says:

    I think the next “Content Management System” will actually function more as a Connection Management System, and may even be built on top of existing systems. We’ve already seen the first inklings of this in applications like Flipboard, which aggregates content based on your friends. What may be next is something which aggregates friends based on content (using something like twitter’s t.co links to consistently figure out who else posted certain things).

    At the moment, notes on Tumblr are hugely useful for finding people with the same interests. But finding out the same genealogy of thought on Twitter can be rather difficult (beyond the original user).

    I just feel like – in the post-API world – we may have built the handful of simple systems we need to initially load our social information into. Everything else can be envisioned additively.

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