David A. Windham thumbnail

Non-Linear Publishing

Linear thinking and publishing seems to not only persist, but have a strangle hold in the information age. The timeline of information is dominated by the most recent and not necessarily the most pertinent information. I believe that we tend to think linearly as well. It’s amazing to me to think that while humans had invented fantastical answers to our before and after life, but until the discovery that the world was not flat, just assumed you fall off at the edges. While I love to wax philosophical on how we think, for the sake of conciseness, I’ll just focus on how we publish and consume information online.

Our mailbox, the analog one out at the end of the driveway, started filling up with the awkward family photo Christmas cards over the last week and I figured I’d do my part to reconnect with some family and friends on Facebook. In doing so and trying to be clever, I just thought that I would go in and ‘like’ one thing from each of my ‘friends’ over the last year. Since I hadn’t been following along, I felt like maybe I missed some things like when people die, kids are born, people marry, change jobs, move, and whatnot. I noticed several things while digging back in peoples’ timelines. Firstly, it seems that the average user is publishing a ton of posts. On some peoples’ pages, I couldn’t even hardly scroll back two months prior because of the amount of postings, so I have no idea what might have happened with them in the first ten months of the year. It’s meaningless to me to know that you might have posted about a highway closing sometime in the past. My point is that the meaningful information is buried amongst a pile of random repostings of animals and humans doing silly things. While I certainly respect the ever important funny clip as the backbone of the internet, I would have loved to been able to see just the important stuff and in this vein, it makes Facebook pretty useless.

The idea for the critique of linear publishing first occurred to me a couple years ago while I was working in a local school district as a data manager. In an effort to ‘modernize’ and bring the school into the digital age, the district hired a ‘technology’ liaison who proceeded to emphasize the importance of communicating online. The first workshops given district wide instructed teachers and administrators to join Twitter and learn to use it. I proceeded to build a Twitter bot to follow all of the in district employee accounts and archive their tweets. Having been on Twitter since its early days as a platform, I watched as the ‘non digital natives’ flocked to the medium to try it out. What really stuck out over the next year of them doing this was that information was being traded so rapidly in a format that was extremely difficult to follow. The liaison proceeded to give instructional tips over twitter at a rate of ten to twenty a day and the Tweet counts racked up so rapidly that my bot begin archiving thousands a week. I kept thinking to myself, why don’t they just publish one website that organizes all of this information in a manner that’s easy to digest. It would be so much easier on teachers and students to learn than trying to follow along through thousands of tweets a week. The district technology liaison did keep a blogspot account where in one year, there was exactly one post about how to use Twitter. I was appalled and thinking this is not how to use online communications and hoping they would eventually teach those non-digital natives to use other online mediums that aren’t so linear.

News publishing has been traditionally timeline based, but they are quietly starting to branch out from linear publishing with topical micro sites on relevant subjects. I don’t read the news, but I do keep a collection of curated syndication sources that I check every so often to keep informed and level up water cooler conversations. I worked as a developer for a newspaper publisher in the mid 2000’s right before the internet started taking them out. This was just prior to the flock to social media online. We had meetings about how to engage these folks, we added widgets to share, we built social media profiles for each property and built in user profiles, but for the most part traffic wained as folks began depending on their peers for news information. New publishing has changed dramatically in the last ten years due to financial constraints on publishers from the internet. The primary sources of revenue have been taken away. Classifieds, car dealers, and real estate all use other online platforms as primary marketing tools. The publishers, like about every other business now all have social media liaisons on staff. The verbosity of this type of shameless self promotion on social media is what initially led me to abandon it. But perhaps I’ve failed to consider that, not unlike news publishing, it’s most profitable to keep those audiences engaged now and tomorrow. What gain is it for Facebook advertisers if I only log in a couple times a year? And while I know that publishers have made a push to do so, I think it might be a great financial asset for them to republish archived materials that were not as influenced by the current real time news cycle.

Having access to a tremendous amount of information has given rise to the idea of information architecture. The notion that this information needs to be organized in a meaningful way is important and it’s no different than the way I wrote this essay, which is composed of an opening statement, four supporting paragraphs, and a conclusion. Self publishing platforms have, by necessity, added the ability to architect the flow of information. The pinned post, block, filter, group, tag, and archive features of these platforms are tools to help us organize the information in an effort to make it more meaningful. Even this personal website has fallen privy to linear organization because of the way it’s designed. When I started it in 2004, I just published whatever I was thinking about or had discovered. With the rise of social media platforms, I just started posting random videos and images without any contextual information whatsoever. Eventually, after the thrill of online publishing diminished, I just let it go dormant in the ever increasing flood of others publishing information online. In an effort to revive the site, I’ve put more emphasis on pages in a basic site structure and less on the linear postings I’ve made over the years. I think that eventually we’ll all realize the importance of this type of information architecture and forgo some of the current linear approaches to publishing.

There have been some platform changes in recent years to try and adjust away from the linear publishing. The Medium platform by Twitter is a well thought out response to Twitter’s linear approach. Many non-linear publishing platforms still contain relevant timeline based information. For example, lets say one of our current presidential candidates gets caught up in a email scandal, the Wikipedia page is updated in near real time with the recent information. So what I’d like to see is information online organized in a more meaningful way with less emphasis on timeline based models. My effort to do so involves only publishing a limited amount of information, following the idiom that ‘Less is more’ in the digital age, that is concise, original, and contextually relevant. The wasteland of online publishing is just a reflection on the ease at which it has become for anyone to publish and republish anything. In the same way that I’m conscious of what sort of my environmental impact, I’d also like to reduce my digital footprint in such a way that I only contribute to a more organized and meaningful web. It kinda feels like the same campaign against spam emails and I hope we can architect ourselves away from the ‘more now, schedule tomorrow’ style of publishing online.

Update: 1/4/2016 – I read this article over the holiday which echoed my sentiments pretty accurately.
Derakhshan, Hossein (Dec 29, 2015). “Iran’s blogfather: Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are killing the web”. The Guardian.