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Reestablishing the value of content

Ubiquity, Volume 2002 Issue May, May 1- May 31, 2002 | BY Gerry McGovern 


Full citation in the ACM Digital Library

Everything has a cost, even so-called "free" content.

The irony of the current information economy is that much content has lost its value. The Web was ushered in waving the banner, "Information wants to be free." For the Web, and the information economy in general, to advance and mature, we need to reestablish the value of content.

Technology has become the Trojan Horse of information overload. Promising us information at our fingertips, it has flooded us with information up to our eyeballs. Initially, we were spoilt for choice. Quickly, we became sickened by it. Some 20,000 search results is no fun, and nobody goes beyond the second page of search results anyway.

Oil is the most important resource of the industrial economy. When oil was cheap in the early seventies, Americans drove cars the size of houses. Pollution and waste were rife. When the price went up, people began to think and economize.

Content is a key resource of the information economy. Yet people don't want to pay for content on the Web because they've got it for free so far. Free content is a bad habit we need to break, because what has no value is not valued. And in any case, nothing is free. Everything has a cost, one way or another. From the free content perspective, the key cost is our time. We pay with our time by having to deal with badly organized, badly written content.

I live in Ireland. Recently, an environmental tax on "free" plastic bags was introduced. Every bag at the supermarket now costs you 15 cents. The day before the tax was introduced, countless bags were being handed out, and discarded without a thought. The day after, people brought their own bags.

Nobody in Ireland wants to pay for a plastic bag that they used to get for free. People struggle out of shops, their arms full of groceries that have cost them many euros. But they won't buy a bag.

Survey after survey indicates that people don't want to pay for content on the Web. They'll buy a print newspaper or magazine, but they refuse to pay for the exact same content if it's on the Web. It's an emotional response. People got into a bad habit and now it's hard to break.

A not dissimilar problem exists within the organization. We can value and cost a desk or a chair, but we can't value and cost that report that sits on the desk. Think about the last report you wrote. Cost it. How much of your time did it take? How much of other peoples' time did it take? I think if you added up all those hours and put a cost on them, you might be very surprised at the end figure.

I'm amazed at how we treat content as some commodity and not the precious resource that it is -- or can be. We have accepted a technological view of content, when content is the most human -- and least automatable -- of activities. Technology promised us dynamic content; as if content was water that when you added lemon, you got lemonade.

Technology offered us automatic classification of content; as if content came in neat little blocks that a robot arm could place into neat little piles. Technology made us all publishers; as if publishing was a bulldozer that shoveled dirt from one hole to another.

Right now, technology is offering us XML, and -- hey presto -- with the purchase of another expensive license, all our content problems are solved. Excuse me for a moment, just when did XML become a technology? Extensible Markup Language (XML) is a major step on from Hypertext Markup Language (HTML). The last I understood, neither of these were technologies. Rather, they were -- are -- publishing markup languages.

HTML is about how we present content on a page. XML is about how we describe that content. It takes editors to describe that content, not programmers. One of the key jobs of editors over the years has been to figure out how a document should be structured. XML is a tool for editors. It is they who need to figure how to "tag" the document; the programmer can then create the code for these tags.

Above all, XML is supposed to achieve a standard by which content is described. The very power of HTML is that the millions of people have adhered to its standards. Right now, XML is a battlefield of competing standards. Without common agreement, its very potential will be negated.

And where is the discussion of content in the whole XML debate? Content doesn't matter because content is free, and we're all publishers, and there's no problem that can't be solved with a bit of smart coding.

Technology is wonderful -- no argument there. However, again and again, technologists vastly overestimate the core abilities of their technologies. Organizations are willing buyers of supposedly cheap, supposedly automated solutions to nasty problems (like customer relationship management). It ends up that the technology invariably overreaches and productivity suffers.

What's it all about? They say it's all about putting knowledge to work. Well, knowledge is what we know, and information is the communication of knowledge. Content is how we formally communicate knowledge. So, in this whole knowledge thing, content is important. It needs to be priced. It needs to be valued.

IT stands for information technology, but for years it has been a very small "I" and a very big "T". Think of it this way: We're in the "communication of knowledge technology" business. Technology has failed unless it facilitates the communication of knowledge. Knowledge is rarely about volume, and is always about quality.

Quality content can make a real difference to a business. Quality content can drive productivity and profits. Quality content feeds the knowledge economy. So, if that be the case, we need to radically overhaul the way we think about content.

We need to see content -- not as some basic commodity shoveled around for free -- but as a most precious resource that has a real cost and a real value. Because it has. Because in a business world that runs on information, content is critical.

Based in Dublin, Ireland, Gerry McGovern has spoken, written and consulted extensively on Web content management issues over the last eight years.


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