Notables and quirky distinctions02 Nov 2006
“The four stripes down the left-hand side of each page of this site provide ambient temporal context to the item currently displayedâ€”as does the brightness of the background color and overall contrast of the page you are viewing.”
The visual representations are useful. One will discover chronology very rapidly, or perhaps simply understand with greater precision, the temporal nature of content featured. It feels on first glance wanky as the way that the word “symposium” is bandied around in academic-parlance when speaking of what normal people would term a conference, but it’s really not.
I think there’s something about geek culture that lets us be a little eclectic. A little ironic (socialist imagery for self gain?). There’s a difference, of course, between straight “geek culture” and IT culture — IT culture is people stuck in a cubicle writing code. Geek culture, as I define it (because I identify with it), is more about ridiculous manifestos and speculation about the next wave and pursuing possibly-never-eventuating ideas. Like Parakey, for example, which scares me (would scare me) if it ever got anywhere.
Yes, even the young and hip in our midst are afraid of change. Not that that would be me. I’ll take my free designer’s drinks where I can but at the end of the day (that is, in about an hour’s time) I’m still an ill-defined generalist. Which is a self-effacing way of saying strategist/integrator. Which is a pretentious way of saying broad knowledge of dubious depth.
Labels aside, it’s interesting to observe one thing that demarcates (in the view of a character I met today known as RLS) content management systems from blog platforms. I was stunned to hear a fairly serious web developer (even if we disagree on MVC and behaviour/content/presentation concepts) dismiss content management systems as “the worst thing that ever happened to the web”. A few horror stories about migration later (and a few “Josh, you really haven’t been around long enough to know” looks, no doubt) and it all started to make sense. The problem wasn’t migration or data (yes, even data) or closed/open source or any of the usual complaints, but users. And the flexibility that users demand and that content management systems have never willingly provided.
This is the second paragraph of the second big idea of this blog post: I have no way to distinguish and define this paragraph as belonging to the second big idea. I would love to be able to have been able to put the opening two words of the last paragraph (“Labels side”) in small capitals to demonstrate the start of a new section. I can’t. My software doesn’t let me do that — or, if it does, it does so in a way that isn’t scalable and semantically sound. Or, if it does let me do so in a way that is scalable and semantically virtuous (both in an internal data structure (relational DBs and so forth) and semantic markup (HTML, XML, XHTML) context) then it’s nigh on impossible to use and makes so much work it’s infinitely faster for me to write a Dreamweaver template, lock it, and create new pages manually based around this. Case in point, ezpublish. Full points for extensibility and flexibility, abstracted data structures, etcetera, but a big fat fail for making this practically useful. Having to reload the webpage or change views in order to put a photo into a document is not acceptable — media library is great, but not if it takes me away from my content for a moment.
The point is, tools get in the way often in ways completely foreign to hack-it-and-manage-it-yourself Frontpage-esque ways of thinking. According to RLS, this is particularly offensive in light of its similarities to bad management practice.
You don’t stand over your employees wielding a club in order to make them do things your way. You provide them with facilities to let them get the job done as best they can, and tools to enable them to innovate and improve your business processes, rather than playing the autocrat and creating automatons who don’t innovate and don’t think, either. As we can all imagine, non-thinking users are quite dangerous if you’ve got a hole anywhere for them to fall in to. (Unless you’re working in school IT, in which case thinking users are the infinitely greater risk!)
Therefore, content management systems are constrictive and evil. I went from a position of wanting to exclaim “what are you on, that’s completely insane, step away from that database!” to being convinced when he told me we were thinking along the same lines. So what’s my song that sounds so similar?
In a few points, something like this:
- Structured data is good.
- Interoperability is essential and good.
- Users are dumb.
- Users are smart enough to want good tools they can use, even if they don’t always have the language to describe what they want.
- Good tools let you structure data without thinking about it.
- Good tools take advantage of structuring data as a part of users existing workflow and business processes, and don’t increase administrative burdens.
- Good tools let you manipulate data and recycle it and re-envisage it in powerful, clear, and exciting contexts.
One of these things is not like the other one…
But most of it is. RLS emphasised the importance of flexibility. I do that, too. Only my flexibility is based around bending (or better, designing) the tool to make it accommodate user requirements properly, rather than dismissing the tool and returning to abstract semantics and poorly defined data structures (i.e. none except by HTML markup). Of course, I’m biased, and am possibly misrepresenting his thought.
In fact, there were several important qualifications to what he had said. This theory applies only to large bodies of text (in this case, recordings of semi-legal proceedings), not to other content types. For example, CRM tools are acceptable. Photo management, presumably, would also be acceptable. That all makes sense. Most curious was the idea that blogging utilities were acceptable, whilst content management systems were not.
The theory is simple enough: blogs are something you give users and say “here, have this, work with it and manipulate it as you will”, whilst content management systems are something foisted upon users by middle-upper-management. Unfortunately, to me, this seems more like what I imagine an anti-uni-IT-service campaign run by Socialist Alliance would sound like. That is, not an objection to the tools themselves, but merely the bureaucracy behind these.
It’s not quite that simple, though.
Blog users do have a reputation for taking things in unusual directions. Think about categories. We kicked off with those and then grew out of them. So all of a sudden we had tags, instead. Then tag clouds. Then folksonomies. Sure, some of these things are gimmicks that are going to die off, but the point is there’s scope for innovation that traditional content management systems wouldn’t necessarily take kindly to. (Good ones would, but that’s besides the point, because I have a sneaking suspicion RLS hasn’t encountered any well-written, extensible, content management system). So blogs are quite different in that regard, and very much descriptivist with their content — that is, they take it and let it grow as it will, somewhat organically, and generally kick back and let users take their course. No prescriptivism here.
So there we go. Josh rolls elitist design/usability concepts, geek culture, labels, intergenerational conflict, a discussion of content management versus blogs, and linguistics all into one blog post. Now what category do I stick this in?