A trade journal of a still-emerging field, written by Adam Tinworth.

Posts tagged content atomisation


Has our lust for innovation made us move on from ideas too quickly? I’ve been mulling that over for most of the day, since I read Charlie Wurzel’s long piece on Gabe Rivera and Techmeme. Unless you’re a blogger of a certain vintage, you’re probably thinking “who?” right now. And that’s fine – he runs a niche site, but a hugely influential niche site:

Mark Zuckerberg and Sundar Pichai are both confessed readers, as are LinkedIn’s Jeff Weiner, former PayPal exec and current Facebook Messenger head David Marcus, former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, and Microsoft’s Satya Nadella. Hunter Walk, a former product manager at YouTube turned seed-stage venture capitalist, told me he checks the site three to five times daily. “It’s one of my first morning sites,” he told me over email. “My perception is that lots of us [in Silicon Valley] use it.”

Techmeme is that most-old fashioned of digital things, an aggregator. It makes editorial decisions with algorithmic support over what the most important stories of the day are – and then links to all the discussion around that core story. That combination – of ranking and connection – is utterly compelling and all too little replicated anywhere else.

There are many people trying to find ways of surfacing the “best” or “most important” stories of the day – usually through algorithms, although I still favour the human-curated element through either newsletters or (whisper it) blogs. In many ways, it’s the second element of Techmeme – that’s so interesting – connecting together the conversations.

Conversational connectivity

Techmeme at work

In digital content circle, we talk a lot about “content atomisation”, the idea that the publishing packages of the past have been atomised into individual articles found via search or social. In a sense, what Techmeme does is reconnect those atoms into molecules of news, allowing you to track not just the most popular articles, but to explore the interconnections between them and other articles, which respond to them or follow them up. Thos connections both inform the ratings, but also guide to the reader into the broader context of the story.

It’s such a compelling idea that I’m surprised that nobody is really working on it in any other way. A decade back, the blog platform makers were really interested in connecting up conversations online. That led to the advent of standards like Trackback and Pingback, both of which got steadily buried under ever-increasing volumes of spam. And, to add to the woes, much of the discussion around any single article is now buried away in private spaces like Facebook.

But still, it seems a strange gap in the technology of the web that it’s surprisingly hard for the casual reader to easily find responses and follow-ups to something they’ve read.

And, it seems to me, that such a system might be a very handy tool in the war on intentionally misleading news.

Once upon a time...Blogs are narratives. Or, at least, the good ones are. Some are unconciously so, the result of one person naturally expressing the narrative of the ideas they’re exploring in their own lives. Some are very, very conciously so, with a skilled blogger exploring an idea, or set of ideas, over time, creating a compelling serialised invesitgation of a concept. John Gruber of über-Apple blog Daring Fireball explored this idea a while back in a podcast with Merlin Mann

This arises naturally as a function of the reverse chronological format that is still pretty much a defining feature of what a blog is, and how it seperates itself from other publishing formats. If you don’t have this underlying narrative, what you have is a bunch of individual content publishing in one place. You’ve just provided atomised content. If you can unify those atoms with a theme, you provide something which is greater than the sum of its parts. 

(A few thoughts inspired by some work I’m knee-deep in for those lovely people at Brilliant Noise.)


I found an interesting piece on content strategy via Stowe Boyd this morning. Cheryl Lowry goes into some detail about the rise of the content strategist as a job title:

Type “Content Strategist” into a job search engine and you’ll see plenty of results. Reflecting that trend, my own title was recently changed from Editor to Strategist. Five years ago, Content Strategists were rarer than unicorns. I’d know- I’ve been in content since 1997 and only recently started seeing the title come up. What’s happened in the content industry that’s driving this change?

This is, fundamentally a response to the early and rather flawed attempts many companies made to publishing into this new medium:

Many companies employed (and still employ) a strategy that web usability expert Gerry McGovern refers to as “launch and leave:” produce a ton of content, and then leave it sitting there unmeasured and unmaintained. Clay Shirky calls this abundance a result of post-Gutenberg economics, in which “the cost of producing [content] has fallen through the floor… .and so [now] there’s no economic logic that says you have to filter for quality before you publish.”

Of course, Clay Shirky was talking about the world in general there. If I have a random thought I want to share with the world in a blog post, a video, status update or whatever, the question is now “why not?” rather than “why?”. If I care about it, the only equation in my mind is “do I care enough to create and publish”. If the answer’s “yes”, there’s essentially no economic implication for me.

That equation is more complex in business. An employee’s time in the majority of businesses must lead to some form of business return, be it direct or indirect. So, while the cost of publication is trivial, the cost of effort expended in creation is non-trivial. The death of the newspaper or magazine “package” has lead some publishing business to start trying to understand how different piece of content actually serve your business interests online. I was involved in a big piece of work around that issue at RBI before my departure last year. There sorts of exercises are what Cheryl is talking about here:

Organizations are now realizing that content ought to earn its keep — it should drive conversion (sales, donations), or reduce call drivers (solve frequent and actual problems customers have). If it doesn’t, it’s just polluting the relevance and searchability of content that does. Clay Shirky defines the problem of information abundance as one of “filter failure.”

Enter the Content Strategist — your organization’s filter for quality.

People’s work time is, by definition, valuable. It’s paid for. So, companies are right to expect some form of return on that payment, and that means understanding the value of the content created and its relationship to how the company makes money. Hence, content strategy. What you’re actually filtering is the attention and output of content creators, not content itself. That’s an important distinction.

Here’s what’s caught my eye today:

I think, perhaps, that much of this sense of entitlement is rooted in
the fact that magazine or newspaper packages conceal the popularity of
each item within – people have to buy the whole package, and it’s hard
to determine what they read and what they don’t. (Market research is
great for telling you what people think they should like, not what they
actually do…)

And so we merrily assume, on a subconscious level at least, that our
audience is actually a big chunk of the thousands of readers who pick
up our titles. (Although some, as Angus pointed out,
might assume that people are reading everybody else’s stuff. And as a journalist who has occasionally lacked self-confidence, I can identify with that.) This assumption is challenged by the web, which is one reason some
journalists get very, very twitchy indeed when you start talking about
page impressions – a point Peter Houston made in this morning’s discussion.

This, though, is an inevitable consequence of the atomisation of
content that the web brings. We might still be building websites, but
people interact with those sites one page at a time. That’s the nature
of the web – any page can link to any page, and people’s reliance on
search for navigation means that the home pages we build and the
navigation structures we try to impose on our sites are, to say the
least, optional.

Each piece of content on the web lives on its own, freed from the
constraints of the “package”. And that can be frightening and
liberating. And we need to figure out ways of building audiences one page at a time.

(This has turned into quite a long post, given that had “didn’t have much to add”, hasn’t it?)