Data’s from Mars; Content’s from Venus
Facts are simple and facts are straight
Facts are lazy and facts are late
Facts all come with points of view
Facts don’t do what I want them to
- Cross-eyed and Painless, The Talking Heads
What’s the difference between data and content?
If content, in the digital age, includes all the text and associated assets plus metadata, does that mean that all content is also data?
Is all data also content, or are there forms of structured data that we would not include in a content strategy?
I can think of a few distinctions people traditionally have made between content and data:
- Content is for humans to consume (across devices); Data is for machines to consume
- Content is loosely structured and creative; Data is very tightly structured and modeled
- Content belongs to the CMO; Data belongs to the CIO
Applications have highly structured data systems – specified down to the field level with high degrees of precision. (Such data is often exchanged or exchangeable via APIs or structured feeds of XML/JSON/etc. – it has to be readable by machines not humans).
Content, on the other hand, needs to resonate with end users. Content resists structure. Like people, it’s highly variable and resists being forced into templates. (Note how easy it is to personify / anthropomorphize content, which you can’t easily do with data).
Arguably, content management systems are essentially interfaces wrapped around databases, to make it easier for humans to manage data.
Does this ultimately mean that data is from Mars and content is from Venus?
I want to tread carefully here. I was a graduate student in literary theory in the 90s as John Gray’s work was becoming popular. I found it horribly essentializing - glossing over the complex social construction of gender with simple platitudes and metaphors.
But there is a real historical gendered context here – data has been the realm of IT, content has been the realm of marketing. It should not be surprising then that we see way more women as visible leaders of the content strategy community – and that the developer community behind CMS’s has been more broadly male. (Of course there are great exceptions in both cases).
What difference does it make?
Perhaps the most important challenge in 2013 is the goal of structured content, future-friendly content, adaptive content, and content everywhere.
Does this mean ultimately learning to treat content more like data?
In Karen McGrane‘s keynote at Drupalcon, she argued that our job is to create new tools and interfaces that reflect new mental models. We need to make CMS platforms that create a different tradeoff. Rather than providing perceived short-term ease-of-use via things like WYSIWYG editors and editing-in-place, which reinforce the assumptions of content creators carried over from earlier platforms, we need to create interfaces which highlight the structured, data-like nature of content.
The web is not print; digital creates the possibility of content separate from its manifestation in a specific format. Content can finally become data in the fullest sense.
The real challenge, I believe, is how do we avoid losing what made it content in the first place – the human, narrative, contextualized, lumpy, unstructured part of what makes content not data.
Or is the very existence of something about content that isn’t data itself a residual, essentialist concept we need to abandon?