All Play and No Workflow Makes Internet Something Something

via @bldgblog, this post on organizing the Internet Reader workflow.

It's an anecdotal account of a designer reviewing how he saves links to read later. Complete with white board wire frame.

You probably do something similar, and so do I, and maybe it is less complicated or more complicated. And we'd probably all love to write a blog post detailing exactly how. Because this is the internet, and we like to share.

And there are a shitload of links.

But here's what I thought of, while I found myself trying to visualize the map he was describing. I thought of, "what the fuck, why am I reading this?"

Here's something I didn't read. It's an article on Time Magazine's website about how there are things out there that figure out what we want. Like Pandora and Facebook. It's funny that there's an article in what used to be my link into American content when I was seven years-old, telling me my content is now being provided by products I've been using for five years.

But not that funny. Because there is a lot of content out there, and this is a SERIOUS PROBLEM.

I don't know how I can play with this duality in this essay in a funny way, so instead of dancing around it, I'll just say it. Yeah, the shit we read on the Internet isn't really world-crucial. But then again, it is. Amid the laughing cats there is the only forum for oil spill news and revolutions and campaigns, and, to use a term from the time of Time Magazine, civics. It's the internet, of course!

So the best guide towards managing this content is a designer's whiteboard and a chorus of sites and services ending in .us and .ly, or a five year-old five years-late Time Magazine?

I work in an industry that is very similar to the Internet. It's called "printing". Printing is a lot of things, but for the purposes of this blog post it is a completely custom manufacturing system. This means, if there is a mistake in manufacturing, you can't have the customer go to the Apple Store and get a completely identical item, because there isn't one. It means you can't go back and fix spelling errors in the content after it is produced. If you fuck up, you are making the whole job again.

This is similar to the Internet not just because most of what the print industry actually prints advertising, but because there is not one Internet experience that is the same. Everyone uses it differently and has a different product. Different content.

You can't run a successful print manufacturing system without a workflow. There are just too many places for mistakes. Between designer, salesperson, estimator, prepress, press, and bindery, there are about five place each for things to get fucked up. Any fuck up costs money, any fuck up past estimator ends up costing material resources. They call it spoilage. Stuff that gets recycled because it's no good to anyone.

So it strikes me as I'm reading this first link, how is there not a workflow for the Internet? It's like we kept a print shop open with nobody working there, and when the customer shows up we show 'em in and say, "help yourself". Try not to get your legs stuck in the rollers.

Of course, there isn't what OSHA likes to call "stored kinetic energy" on the Internet, and the only resource we have to lose is time.

But still, there is no unified approach to Internet content management. No workflow. Just a browser, and a bunch of .us.ly's. The fact that a browser can combine an address bar, a search portal, bookmarks, and maybe even RSS all in one program actually puts it in the front running for workflow.

One of the great parts of the Internet distributed OS-experience is that you can customize. Plug-ins, extensions, javascript. But you have to find these, or hear someone else talk about them, or start picking a bunch of social media chicklets at random, using your email address like a coin in a slot machine. Every workflow ought to have flexibility built in, but still, there is no place to even start.

It's been the prevailing logic that the content provider is responsible for this. There is an awful lot of talk on the Internet about "curation". Like, each website is a museum. How many museums do you go to a year? Every time you need to check a fact, do you run on down to the Smithsonian? Museums are nice experiences, but they are not resources for most people. Some websites do a pretty good job, with a sturdy comment system, and maybe even a little community going on, that leads people to stop into their site directly, to see the dinosaur bones, and the woolly mammoth, and the real Apollo space capsule. I'm thinking of Slashdot, or maybe BoingBoing. But these are still magazines, publishing about things that are going on elsewhere. If the Internet is really supposed to tell us what is going on around the world, and help us connect with other people, it's some sort of crazy open air market, where people are getting pickpocketed, lost amid the meat harvested from unrecognizable creatures, and a sweaty westerner is buying a strange little puzzle box at the cafe in the corner, where it seems they sell a lot of those little puzzle boxes to westerners. Maybe this is the flavela chic stuff that guy is always talking about. What guy? I don't know, something I heard behind a stack of shipping crates.

I'm working on a redesign of my website(s) right now, because on the output end, your system and workflow does affect your content. Without the right tools, it's hard to make anything. But I still don't know what to do about absorbing the content, and helping my content be absorbed by others. I tweet links, comment on blogs, share-and-share-alike, but often it feels like I'm a guy waving a sign at an intersection, or sending ten thousand pieces of junk mail. I wouldn't rather send my stuff off to an editor, and wait six months for them to tell me they lost it (for fuck's sake, thank goodness internet self-publishing is actually rewarding compared to something!) but it seems like there is a hole here, for something not yet invented. I can actually almost taste it. Tastes like a community as easily browseable as Facebook, that incorporates any login, with public, semi-private, and private feeds, with synchable bookmarks, and read-and-comment-republish RSS/Twitter compiling... Hell, if I had any programming chops, I'd build it myself.

Until somebody builds it, I guess it's just "what's your pleasure, sir?"


Julius Beezer said...


I've been playing with all this web 2.0 stuff for just over a year now, having done it all solo in the late 90s using html and then zope.

I think my answer to your 'plaint is to say "don't worry, on the internet, everything is done by someone else".

You are not alone in your desires.

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