Context First, Revisited

This post, by Brian O’Leary, originally appeared on the Magellan Media Consulting Partners site on 2/21/11.

(This post provides the content for a presentation I recently gave as part of O’Reilly Media’s “Tools of Change in Publishing” conference.  It builds on a talk I initially gave last October at the Internet Archive’s “Books in Browsers” conference.  A screencast that includes the presentation visuals has been posted on Vimeo.  It runs about 23 minutes).

For the last couple of years I’ve been writing about a set of publishing topics – piracy, disruptive innovation, print on demand, workflow and content strategy, among others – that I started to think were connected by a common theme.

I first called that theme “a unified field theory of publishing”, more than a mouthful, but I think “context first” is a better and more helpful description.  In that spirit, my talk today addresses the damage done by what I call the “container model of publishing”.

My idea in a nutshell is this: book, magazine and newspaper publishing is unduly governed by the physical containers we have used for centuries to transmit information.  Those containers define content in two dimensions, necessarily ignoring that which cannot or does not fit.

Worse, the process of filling the container strips out context – the critical admixture of tagged content, research, footnoted links, sources, audio and video background, even good old title-level metadata – that is a luxury in the physical world, but a critical asset in digital ones.  In our evolving, networked world – the world of “books in browsers” – we are no longer selling content, or at least not content alone.  We compete on context.

I propose today that the current workflow hierarchy – container first, limiting content and context – is already outdated.  To compete digitally, we must start with context and preserve its connection to content.

We need to think about containers as an option, not the starting point.  Further, we must start to open up access, making it possible for readers to discover and consume our content within and across digital realms.

Without a shift in mindset, we are vulnerable to a range of current and future disruptive entrants.  Containers limit how we think about our audiences.  In stripping context, they also limit how audiences find our content.

Here, scale is not our friend.  It may well be the enemy.  As Clay Christensen first outlined in 1997, disruptive technologies don’t look or feel like what we typically value.  Often enough, they are cheaper, simpler, smaller and more convenient than their traditional analogues.

Read the rest of the post on the Magellan Media Consulting Partners site.