A List Apart

Menu
Issue № 399

Gardens, Not Graves

by Published in Content Strategy, Information Architecture, Interaction Design · 4 Comments

The stream—that great glut of ideas, opinions, updates, and ephemera that pours through us every day—is the dominant way we organize content. It makes sense; the stream’s popularity springs from the days of the early social web, when a huge number of users posted all types of content on unpredictable schedules. The simplest way to show updates to new readers focused on reverse chronology and small, discrete chunks, as sorting by newness called for content quick to both produce and digest. This approach saw wide adoption in blogs, social networks, notification systems, etc., and ever since we’ve flitted from one stream to another like sugar-starved hummingbirds.

Problem is, the stream’s emphasis on the new above all else imposes a short lifespan on content. Like papers piled on your desk, the stream makes it easy to find the last thing you’ve added, while anything older than a day effectively disappears. Solely relying on reverse-chronology turns our websites into graveyards, where things pile up atop each other until they fossilize. We need to start treating our websites as gardens, as places worthy of cultivation and renewal, where new things can bloom from the old.

The stream, in print

The stream’s focus on the now isn’t novel, anyway. Old-school modes of publishing like newspapers and magazines shared a similar disposability: periodic updates went out to subscribers and were then thrown away. No one was expected to hang onto them for long.

Over the centuries with print, however, we came up with a number of ways to preserve and showcase older material. Newspapers put out annual indexes cataloguing everything they print ordered by subject and frequency. Magazines get rebound into larger, more substantial anthologies. Publishers frequently reach into their back catalogue and reprint books with new forewords or even chapters. These acts serve two purposes: to maintain widespread and cheap access to material that has gone out of print, and to ensure that material is still relevant and useful today.

But we haven’t yet developed patterns for slowing down on the web. In some ways, access is simpler. As long as the servers stay up, content remains a link away from interested readers. But that same ease of access makes the problem of outdated or redundant content more pronounced. Someone looking at an old magazine article also holds the entire issue it was printed with. With an online article, someone can land directly on the piece with little indication of who it’s by, what it’s for, and whether it’s gone out of date. Providing sufficient context for content already out there is a vital factor to consider and design for.

You don’t need to be a writer to help fix this. Solutions can come from many fields, from targeted writing and design tweaks to more overarching changes in content strategy and information architecture.

Your own websites are good places to start. Here are some high-level guidelines, ordered by the amount of effort they’ll take. Your site will demand its own unique set of approaches, though, so recombine and reinvent as needed.

Reframe

Emma is a travel photographer. She keeps a blog, and many years ago she wrote a series about visiting Tibet. Back then, she was required to travel with a guided tour. That’s no longer the case, as visitors only need to obtain a permit.

The most straightforward thing to do is to look through past content and identify what’s outdated: pieces you’ve written, projects you worked on, things you like. The goal is triage: sorting things into what needs attention and what’s still fine.

Once you’ve done that, find a way to signal their outdated status. Perhaps you have a design template for “archived” content that has a different background color, more strongly emphasizes when it was written, or adds a sentence or two at the top of your content that explains why it’s outdated. If entire groups of content need mothballing, see whether it makes sense to pull them into separate areas. (Over time, you may have to overhaul the way your entire site is organized—a complicated task we’ll address below.)

Emma adds an <outdated> tag to her posts about her guided tour and configures the site’s template to show a small yellow notification at the top telling visitors that her information is from 2008 and may be irrelevant. She also adds a link on each post pointing to a site that explains the new visa process and ways to obtain Tibetan permits.

On the flip side, separate the pieces that you’re particularly proud of. Your “best-of” material is probably getting scattered by the reverse-chronology organization of your website, so list all of them in a prominent place for people visiting for the first time.

Recontextualize

I hope that was easy! The next step is to look for old content you feel differently about today.

When Emma first started traveling, she hated to fly. She hated waiting in line, hated sitting in cramped seats, and especially hated the food. There are many early blog posts venting about this.

Maybe what you wrote needs additional nuance or more details. Or maybe you’ve changed since then. Explain why—lead readers down the learning path you took. It’s a chance for you to reflect on the delta.

Now that she’s gotten more busy and has to frequently make back-to-back trips for clients, she finds that planes are the best time for her to edit photos from the last trip, catch up on email, and have some space for reflection. So she writes about how she fills up her flying time now, leaving more time when she’s at her destination to shoot and relax.

Or expand on earlier ideas. What started as a rambling post you began at midnight can turn into a series or an entire side project. Or, if something you wrote provokes a big response online, you could gather those links at the bottom of your piece. It’s a service to your new readers to collect connected pieces together, so that they don’t have to hunt around to find them all.

Revise and reorganize

Hopefully that takes care of most of your problematic content. But for content so dire you’re embarrassed to even look at it, much less having other people reading it, consider more extreme measures: the act of culling, revising, and rewriting.

Looking back: maybe you were completely wrong about something, and you would now argue the opposite. Rewrite it! Or you’re shocked to find code you wrote one rushed Friday afternoon—well, set aside some time to start from the ground up and do it right.

Emma started her website years ago as a typical reverse-chron blog, but has started to work on a redesign based around the concepts of LOCATIONS and TRIPS. Appearing as separate items in the navigation, they act as different ways for readers to approach and make sense of her work. The locations present an at-a-glance view of where she’s been and how well-traveled she is. The trips (labeled Antarctica: November 2012, Bangkok: Fall 2013, Ghana: early 2014, etc.) retain the advantages of reverse-chronology by giving people updates on what she’s done recently, but these names are more flexible and easier to explain than dates and timestamps on their own. Someone landing directly on a post from a trip two years ago can easily get to the other posts from that trip, but they would be lost if the entries were only timestamped.

If the original structure no longer matches the reality of what’s there, it’s also the best case for redesigning and reorganizing your website. Now is the time to consider your content as a whole. Think about how you’d explain your website to someone you’re having lunch with. Are you a writer, photographer, artist, musician, cook? What kind? What sorts of topics does your site talk about? What do you want people to see first? How do they go deeper on the things they find interesting? This gets rather existential, but it’s important to ask yourself.

Remove

If it’s really, truly foul, you can throw it out. (It’s okay. You officially have permission.) Not everything needs to live online forever, but throwing things out doesn’t have to be your first option when you get embarrassed by the past.

Deploying the internet equivalent of space lasers does, I must stress, come with some responsibility. Other sites can be affected by changes in your links:

  • If you’re consolidating or moving content, it’s important to set up redirects for affected URLs to the new pages.
  • If someone links to a tutorial you wrote, it may be better to archive it and link to more updated information, rather than outright deleting it.

Conclusion

Everything we’ve done so far applies to more than personal websites, of course. Where else?

Businesses have to maintain scores of announcements, documentation, and customer support. Much of it is subject to greatly change over time, and many need help looking at things from a user’s perspective. Content strategy has been leading the charge on this, from developing content models and relationships, to communicating with empathy in touchy situations, to working out content standards.

Newspapers and magazines relentlessly publish new pieces and sweep the old away from public view. Are there opportunities to highlight material from their archives? What about content that can always stay interesting? How can selections be best brought together to generate new connections and meaning?

Museums and libraries, as they step into their digital shoes, will have to think about building places online for histories and archives for the long term. Are there new roles and practices that bridge the old world with the networked, digital one? How do they preserve entirely new categories of things for the public?

No one has all the answers. But these are questions that come from leaving the stream and approaching content from the long view. These are problems that the shapers and caretakers of the web are uniquely positioned to think about and solve.

As a community, we take pride in being makers and craftsmen. But for years, we’ve neglected the disciplines of stewardship—the invisible and unglamorous work of collecting, restoring, safekeeping, and preservation. Maybe the answer isn’t to post more, to add more and more streams. Let’s return to our existing content and make it more durable and useful.

You don’t even have to pick up a shovel.

About the Author

4 Reader Comments

Load Comments