Last week, I was at a content management conference, where I heard two opposing views of content. One was a technology view, expressing a belief that with the right software, most content problems could be solved cheaply and efficiently. The second was a people view, expressing a belief that content was, at heart, about people writing, editing, and publishing, with technology playing very much a supporting role.
Technologists are true believers. They have this fervent faith in the power of software to transform. Their hardware tools are their sacred possessions. One presenter became really excited when he told us about this "neat" piece of software that could summarize documents. It was cheap, it was efficient, it was amazing. His eyes literally lit up, and a bounce came to his step as he waved his arms and enthused about its potential.
As he went on about this great new invention, I began to wonder what sort of summaries it wrote. Even for skilled writers, summaries are difficult. I simply can't imagine that a piece of software will go through a 30-page document and write a 100-word summary that properly describes that document.
However, the thing that really struck me about this presenter and some others was that they had no feel for content. Their whole world revolved around technology. It seemed that getting their content over a mobile phone was more important to them than the actual content they were getting.
The wrong people are in charge of too many content projects. Content is not a technology problem. Content is about people. And people who understand content are enthused by the content itself, not the technology that is used to deliver it.
When I heard a former editor get up and talk about an intranet content management project he was managing, it all became very clear to me. This person cared about the quality of the writing. Another presenter fretted about whether her summaries were too long, about whether more people would read them if they were shorter.
People who are professionals about content take great care to publish content of the highest possible quality. They may have spent weeks writing a 30-page report. Letting a piece of software write the summary is anathema to such professionals. The heading and summary are what draw the reader in. It's even more important online because search results will only present a heading and summary.
When I talked to the technologist about the importance of the heading and summary, he shrugged. He recognized the argument, but I could see that he had no intention of not using this autosummary software.
I would plead with all organizations running content-rich Web sites (and all quality Web sites should be rich in content) to have them managed by people who put the content first and the technology second. We all know what happens when the technologists (with a little help from marketers) think they understand content -- it's called WAP.
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