I am going to make a point about content management and better websites, but bear with me.
The web can be a really annoying place. But I found this tweet from Alain de Botton particularly ill-conceived:
A chief effect of the internet is to boost the already unhelpfully strong sense that the answers are ‘out there’ rather than within.
Why did it annoy me so much?
Firstly, because it confuses the medium with the content. There are lots of answers “out there” and not just on the internet. Does a TCP / IP protocol make ideas less robust than if they appear on a printed page? It’s a completely ridiculous notion. It’s one that those of us who work with the web still need to counter in many organisations where people still see the web as a frivolous fad; a notion that runs absolutely contrary to some of the web’s most successful sites, particularly those providing health information.
Secondly, because there’s a hypocrisy in attempting to broadcast aphorisms over the very medium that you’re criticising. This made me wonder if the tweet was a joke, or some kind of ironic experiment to see if people would retweet something non-sensical. And over a hundred did. Were they doing it in jest too?
Thirdly, because de Botton writes and sells books about philosophy and now he seems to be telling us that other people (like him) don’t have the answer, and that we should focus on introspection. This is probably a reference to the Socratic principle “know thyself” but this shouldn’t be at the expense of trying to discover objective truths. You can know yourself but be ignorant about the world around you: Socrates’ pupil, Plato, was a key figure in European philosophy but still defended slavery.
So what does this mean for content management?
There are many objective truths and certainties, but there are many more that are still to be proven. Establishing those truths is a competitive business. Scientists, explorers, researchers, all compete to establish a truth in a particular domain.
Similarly, your organisation holds truths that are more or less well articulated: terms of business, HR policy, progress reports, invoices.
Getting to these truths is a fundmental issue for content management. As users, we know that your website, or intranet, or digital asset management system should hold the piece of information that will answer my question. If we can’t find the right information, we’ll just invent it. But deep down, we know it’s there somewhere.
So problem 1 is: how do we make sure that our audiences can find the right information? Through better classification, more effective tools and encouraging people to tell their peers that this content is the right content.
Problem 2 is: how do I make sure that people get the right message from the information when they find it? By providing clear content that is constructed in a way that is appropriate to your audience: well written, well-produced, accessible.
The truth should be in your systems. If it isn’t, your audience will go somewhere else, “out there”, to find it.