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Content and Containers

One of my favourite articles of 2004 was a transcript of a
speech by Tom Curley
, CEO of the Associated Press. In it he said that “…content will be more important than its container in this next phase [of the
Web]”. Why? Because “killer apps, such as search, RSS and video-capture software such as Tivo — to name just a few — have begun to unlock content from any vessel we try to put it in.” 

Curley’s speech was timely for me, because a couple of weeks earlier I’d
launched a series of posts on a theory I called Design
for Data
– which was inspired by a Jason
Kottke post
and before that a Tim
Berners-Lee article
. Another inspiration was Joshua
‘s article for Digital Web Magazine entitled How Content Aggregators Change Navigation and Control of Content.
All those things, plus my own ideas fermenting in my head! 🙂

I wrote about Tom Curley’s speech in a November 23 post on Read/Write Web entitled Branding
. I said then that “RSS flow is creating a need for the data itself to be ‘designed’, not into HTML containers but into chunks of branded microcontent that will probably be XML.” 

And that’s where I left the theory, until recently when Joshua Porter and I
began an email exchange to nut it out some more. At the same time I noticed, via
a PressThink post entitled Top Ten Ideas of ’04: “Content Will be More Important than its Container”,
that the journalist blog fraternity is still talking about Curley’s speech and
its implications. 

PressThink is an influential media blog by
NYU professor of Journalism, Jay Rosen. He summed up
Curley’s speech by saying that “we who make news content have to re-locate where we brand it, and think about adding our voice at every step.” 

Rosen and a number of other media bloggers are looking at Curley’s
speech from the point of view of news organizations – traditional Content
Producers (in 20th century speak). Although I should note that Rosen and others also promote the overlap between news producer and consumer in the 21st century. I’m probably taking a more broader view –
where a Content Producer is any person who publishes content on
the Web (e.g. bloggers, corporate website publishers). I’m also applying Curley’s insights to the Web 2.0
world of web services such as Flickr and Amazon.
However despite our different
points of view, we’re all converging on the same thing – I believe.

Firstly, I liked this observation from Rosen:

“With RSS, readers get my post, the headline, the subhead– but not the blog environment of PressThink. Therefore the content has to be good enough on its own, without the house. It has to “say” PressThink: no logo, as it were.”

I find the “house”/place metaphor to be a fascinating one on the
Web. I explored it (in a different context to this) in my Digital Web Magazine
article The Evolution of Corporate Web Sites
from April 2004. Corporate websites in the 90’s were usually designed as
‘places’, but nowadays they’re more likely to be a group of services. For a
media website, this may mean for example a news subscription service where the news travels
out to users – rather than users traveling to the website ‘container’ to view

Another media person to articulate this well was Tim
, in a recent Morph

“…the future of news media is the content, whether it be strong, in-depth journalism, witless pap or cogent analysis and conversation. The container, the vehicle that moves that content from producer to consumer (and remember, that distinction now is more and more a semantic one), is completely fungible.”

The next piece of insight from Rosen’s PressThink was this:

“Publishers and media owners hate spending money on people because deep down they don’t believe their business runs on people. (They’re wrong, by the way.) They believe they own the news franchise, and the franchise–or brand–is what’s valuable.”

I think he’s making a few points here and one of them is that the value in
content is increasingly the personality of the writer – the voice. So the
voice becomes the design/brand. Of course
that’s what blogs are good at – and what traditional corporate websites are not
so good at (think of all that horrid corporate-speak and bland design from as
recent as a few years ago). At a deeper level, Rosen is saying that content is a
truer representation of people – and their influence on business – than the
franchise ‘containers’.

Lastly, the following quote from Rosen is a nice way to tie-in with the
techie crowd (which I belong to):

“‘Content will be more important than its container’ is thus a disruptive idea in journalism. In a way it is similar to that cross-platform battle-cry in the software biz: write once, run anywhere. (Originated by Sun Microsystems as a slogan for Java.)”

‘Write once, run anywhere’ is nowadays a basic underlying principle of Web 2.0
(i.e. the Web as Platform). Given that the Internet is the driver of most (if
not all) of Tom Curley’s insights in his November ’04 speech, it’s fitting that
news media organizations are adopting the same philosophy as Web designers and

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