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November, 2010

Managing Flow

The role of content management systems in the evolving landscape of web content creation.

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
Noah Brier | Thanks for reading. | Don't fake the funk on a nasty dunk.