Content doesn’t exist

October 25, 2008

I like what Mark’s saying.

  1. A lot of people do not understand folders…at least, not the same way most of us do. Even if they do, they may not be fluent enough with the folder structure to particularly want to dig around looking for things.
  2. A fix that’s not at the level will be confusing…at least, in some situations

Its great to see people getting hungry to hack on the main shell. Here’s some thoughts…

Content doesn’t exist. 

  • Q: Dude, what are you up to? A: Editing content, brah. 
  • Q: Fuck we got back late last night, you go straight to bed? A: No, I had to download a bunch of content before my flight.

Content is a bullshit word that means: “I admit there’s stuff that’s more important than my program and should be the focus, but I haven’t thought about it much“. Interesting note: outside the application programming world, content is also a bullshit word. E.g. in sales content means “that important stuff we’ll insert here or write later to make people agree with us“. E.g. in web development, content means “that important stuff I’m going to try and create a framework/layout/appearance/whatever for without having to specify“. Content is from the language of weasel-ese.

But I’m too hard on the word, there’s really nothing wrong with it, and I appreciate the implicit recognition contained in the word about what’s really important to users. This is a long-winded way of stressing (and I can see there’s lots of this going on already)….


And because the way we talk about things influences how other people think about them….


I suspect an abstraction/metaphor for dealing with content will only go half-way, because the rest of the distance is gotten by specifics, some of which are do-able without AI, and some of which are not.

An image is a very different beast from a song. A photo I took myself is a very different beast from a logo I downloaded from A photo I just took is a very different beast from a photo I took 4 years ago. When I’m emailing my grandmother, a photo I took this morning of her eating cheesey poofs is a slightly different beast from the 400 photos I just copied from my camera.

Its simply not possible (and hence, not a good idea to even try) to do the ultimate interface…. “give me that thing I want right now”. I’m not a big fan of automatically populating lists according to some fancy algorithm that doesn’t really know enough to get things right, and hence results in unpredictable results. That just gives me more things to skim through before I have to fall back on manual categorization.

Even relatively simple algorithms like “most frequently used” (e.g. in the Windows XP start menu) can be, at times, annoying. Its all about balance, balance, balance, and good taste.

I’d suggest making a long list of magic that you’d like to see in an interface. Some of it you can do, and some of it you can’t, but its cheap to dream bigger, and you’re more likely both to notice where abstractions (of any sort) will be limited and specific if…then statements are in order, and to improve the relevance of your abstractions. The point is not to support everything on the list, even if it were technically possible, there’s no good UI for most of these without un-doable-AI. The point is… feed your super-smart pattern matching brain with specifics so it comes up with GOOD generalizations.

  • If I just edited a photo in gimp, I’d like it to be really easy to attach (woah! idea, what if the file dialogue had a “stuff that’s currently open in another program” section with little thumbnails??? maybe it’d make for great workflows… you’d open a document (see my hands are dirty too! document is no better than content) once, and then it’d be stinking easy to get at in other programs… see, typing out these lists is already giving me ideas)
  • If I’m an active google doc user, I’d like to have google docs easily available in OO, maybe even interspersed in my open file list. Maybe it’d be cool if all my OO documents available in gdocs too, dunno.
  • If I just uploaded a bunch of photos from my camera, I’d like them to be really easy to get at when I use gimp
  • I want to be able to read any web pages I browsed in the past week offline, which is sort of a BS generalisation, but in particular I want to be able to read any stuff pertaining to API references, so when I’m programming in the park I can still get at all the great tutorials I read earlier
  • I want new music I add to my computer to immediately show up in my music player, maybe the same way itunes deals with a CD…. maybe I don’t want it added to the library, but I want a “New Music” section or something that I can click “Import” and “shwooosh” its copied to my library.
  • …and on and on….
Beware the emotional thrill of pretty screenshots
Things feel different when you use them. Its easy to go “oh, that looks good, I feel happy”, but you can end up in a world of thumbnails everywhere you don’t need, fancy graphics, and not as much usefullness.
Beware getting too attached to something before you see if it looks pretty in screenshots
Its gotta be doable in a 2D UI, and its gotta look good.
Oh well, my sauce is getting weak toward the end here. Tootles.

7 Responses to “Content doesn’t exist”

  1. Stoffe Says:

    A lot of these things seems very doable with good, instant meta-data (Tracker) and some good view into that data (recently saved, open in other app).

    The offline browsing also interests me. Something like a “offline bookmark” perhaps, in Firefox, where you click a symbol just like the star, but then it also silently makes a “save page” in some special place that’s not volatile like the cache but can be used instead of the live content in times of no internet. The thing that this does not solve is, say API docs, or other largish sites where you may want to have it all. Then again, such sites often have a downloadable version, one way or the other.

  2. Øyvind Kolås Says:

    My day-dreaming is currently interrupted but will be resurrected, it can be found at it’s mostly a playground where I experiment with interface that I think I’d want to use.

    Within stuff I’ve been trying to break down the barriers between traditional silo-like application stores known as applications, if you want to get rid of content I think getting rid of applications is just as important to make a quantum leap forward.

    Its not a complete system but it is bootstrapped to the level that I find it useful. It’s a sandbox where tags get confused with folders, sets, playlists and slideshow collections and tomboy like wiki note titles. At the moment a bit dormant, but it is an experiment that will be resurrected.

  3. Rob Taylor Says:

    Dude, It’s good to have you back, we’ve missed you.

  4. Aaron Strontsman Says:

    @Stoffe: Something like this?

  5. David Says:

    Øyvind: amen. It’s about time the concept of the application were deprecated. The late Jef Raskin already showed us how to do that in The Humane Interface. Mozilla Labs’ Ubiquity finally starts to do just that. I think it’s about time people discussed these ideas in the context of GNOME.

  6. Wow seth came out of hiding, and spread secret sauce all over us.

    Maybe he disagreed with my recent post? who can tell, seth is an enigma wrapped in a mystery…

  7. This has been the truest thing I’ve seen written on the subject thus far. It’s sad but part of the problem are a majority of people thinking that anything can be solved with a database and a script. So instead of organizing their content or using Object frameworks for Content (you know, objects with attributes) and getting the language correct. The first jump to action is to comment on what it looks like and then the second skip is to build it to that look. This, instead of organizing and agreeing on getting the terms correct for what CONTENT is. Then subsequently exposing it so that an interface can be built around it.

    Content just isn’t a web page. It’s just not a list of data. This was a great read. I’m giving a talk specifically on this for World Plone Day..

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