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Mar 11, 2005: PeterMe on Content Genres

I'm not sure which librarians Peter Merholz managed to piss off--especially as I'm a librarian who Peter pisses off regularly--but I certainly enjoyed his IA Summit presentation on content genres (2.9Mb PDF). Peter pointed out the power of common genres (e.g., press releases, recipes) as useful design elements that come with precise user expectations. These expectations can be leveraged in the design process; for example, specific genres suggest certain types of contextual navigation. It's useful stuff that fits in well with my thinking on content models, which I guess I'd better write up soon.

I left Peter's presentation with two thoughts:

  1. Linking content genres sequentially: In certain situations, it could be highly beneficial to link content genres sequentially. These situations might involve workflows that are both task-rich and genre-rich. Paying one's taxes might be an example--perhaps tax forms constitute some of the most hated content genres--or preparing a meal (shopping lists, product ingredients, recipes) is another. Both would lend themselves to clear and useful sequential contextual linking.
  2. Creating new content genres: Most (if not all) document types that would qualify as genres come to us from the print world. As the digital age marches on and print subsides, the value of these genres may decay. How do we create useful new genres that exist in purely digital contexts? If it's possible, it would be powerful. The answer might lie in determining if there are content genres out there that live solely in digital format, and learning how they got established so firmly. These digital genres may have emerged organically, but perhaps they can be domesticated or we can steal their DNA and churn out new ones. Can anyone think of a content genre that was born digitally?

As far as angering people, maybe the rub is that this particular concept may be tacit knowledge. Once it's expressed, it's easy to say "oh yeah, it's obvious, I've always known that". In fact, this is true of 90% of information architecture, but that doesn't diminish how valuable it is to come up with the language to describe a concept, and the courage and wherewithal to convert a tacit concept to a public meme. Thanks to Peter, now more people can actually discuss and, better, act on an idea that was buried in our minds. And the rest of us can wish we'd done it first...

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Comment: Lyle Kantrovich (Mar 11, 2005)

Lou,

One genre that quickly comes to mind is as being "born digitally" is the "playlist" - a list of music (or video) files that a user wants to play or group for playing.

Comment: Lou (Mar 11, 2005)

Thanks Lyle; but is it something that's generally visually recognizable? I can sort of visualize what my iTunes playlist would look like, but if you greeked it up, I might not.

Comment: Joshua Porter (Mar 11, 2005)

My first reaction was to say that XHTML 1.0 Strict was a content genre existing in a purely digital context. Generally, though, it is too generic to be useful in the way that you and Peter are suggesting.

Or is it? After all, it does have a "socially recognized communicative purpose and common aspect of form". In fact, it even has it's own document type. (with it's very own DTD)

However, now I wonder what the difference is between a content genre and a document type. Is a content genre defined by usage? Expecations? Peter seems to be suggesting usage...how do document types differ, then? Could a document type be simply an encoding of a content genre?

Comment: Simon Forrest (Mar 11, 2005)

The first thing that springs to mind for a digitally-originated content genre is a list of search results. Although there are alternative presentations of search results (like there are alternative presentations of any content genre that fall outside the typical expectation), I'd guess that pretty much all web users would visualise the same basic outline for search results - and would recognise a list of search results even if the text was greeked out: a list of linked page titles, a brief summary underneath, maybe with keywords highlighted, and a URL below that. Different search engines vary the basic pattern slightly but for most people that would define a content genre that was immediately visually recognisable.

You could say that a list of search results was perhaps derived from the design of a print bibliography or list of references, but I think it's sufficiently distinct to tell them apart at a quick glance. And, of course, they're functionally different - the way I read and interact with a bibliography is not the same as the way I approach a list of search results (although an online bibliography may blur that distinction).

I've just looked at Peter's presentation and note that he has a few pages of search results, so I assume he also identified search results as a genre.

Comment: Lou (Mar 11, 2005)

Simon (and Peter): this is a great example!

Comment: Walter Underwood (Mar 11, 2005)

e-mail replies with parts of the original included. Some e-mail user agents actually recognize and highlight the different layers of responded-to text, so that would indicate fairly predictable structure.

You should be able to find these in any activity which is regulated by law. The reporting requirements make documents evolve into common forms. Materials Safety Data Sheets, for example.

Comment: Lou (Mar 11, 2005)

Thanks Walter; another great example right under our noses.

So what is it about email and search results that enabled them to become content genres? And whatever it was, can it be consciously replicated with new genres?

Comment: Josh Leslie (Mar 13, 2005)

USENET groups/newsgroups would be another example. However, the problem with that is that while they would be evident (even with text greeked out) to most experienced/seasoned Internet users, it's a digitally-confined content genre that wouldn't likely be evident to someone's grandmother, who just started using the Internet (or the majority of novice Internet users).

To add to Walter's excellent point about legal reporting requirements propelling documents into common/standardized forms and/or formats, I would say that on top of content genres that can be generally recognized by anyone, there are likely many others to be found within any specific profession (but that would only be recognized by practitioners of that profession -- contextual content genres).

As language specialization pretty much goes hand-in-hand with the development of a profession (and arguably over the lifespan of a business, or organization as well), so too does the formation of documents to address common tasks. Then you have generic document genres like purchase orders, invoices, etc. Faxes might be another.

I guess what gets fuzzy for me, is whether there is a difference between content genre, and document genre -- or are they synonymous, for all intents and purposes?

Comment: Josh Leslie (Mar 13, 2005)

Actually, just in thinking about the question you asked:

"So what is it about email and search results that enabled them to become content genres? And whatever it was, can it be consciously replicated with new genres?"

I think that you almost answer your own question. What enabled them to become content genres, is the fact that they are tied to new 'types' of tasks or activities that the advent of the Internet allowed people to do or take part in. I'd argue that if you cite any activity that is unique and confined to the Internet or digital medium, you will find yourself a content genre. Blogging (the 'weblog'), is another great example (although again, more experienced Internet users would likely pick up on it and less experienced users likely wouldn't).

As for whether it can be consciously replicated with new genres, my response would be: enable a new 'type' of activity on the Internet (that catches on like wild fire), and you will generate a new type of content genre. The 'wiki' could be another example, although not as strong of one due to it not being as widely used/implemented as the weblog. One might even make the case that a contact form on a website is a 'content genre' or at the very least, a 'document genre'.

So I guess that if you were mindful when working on a project that would bring about a new type of activity, you could perhaps consciously influence it to some degree. However, to a large extent I think it is tied up in the development of the corresponding technologies and software. With a fax, for example, the variants are going to be limited to whatever variants are offered by the software most people are using to do their fax cover in -- MS Word in the majority of cases, nowadays.

Likewise, MovableType, WordPress and others shape the face of what comes to be identified as a 'blog' and what doesn't; they don't entirely determine it, but they certainly play a big part in the final 'content genre' that settles in a person's psyche. That's just my opinion, of course.

Comment: Piet (Mar 14, 2005)

Joshua: You asked what is dividing content genre from document type. I think content genres are doc types in the context of human perception. The machine (OS, browser, etc.) needs the doc type to open a document with a adequate executable or to load the adequate DTD etc. Content genres can help humans to associate a model or pattern of content chunks with something already learned.

Comment: Josh Leslie (Mar 14, 2005)

"I think content genres are doc types in the context of human perception."

Very good point, Piet. Never thought about it that way, but you might be onto something! I will think it over a bit. Thanks for your feedback!

Comment: Piet (Mar 14, 2005)

Josh: Although my post wasn´t a direct reply to your comment, it makes sense in the context of your comment too ;) Joshua talked about "document types" some comments above.

All these two word terms: content genre, content object, information object, document type, information model, etc. For the first word the main candidates seem to be document, content and information. For the second word candidates are type, shape, object, model, genre. Possible total of 15 terms. Apparently there is work to be done. Before it gets too crowded, i think we need a IA of IA.

Comment: Josh Leslie (Mar 14, 2005)

Piet: My mistake! It had been a day since I read Joshua's comment -- although I thought you might have possibly been replying to him, and thought it odd that you'd call me Joshua. ;) It did reply to both questions at once, though (or at least gave a possible reply to mine, as well).

I fully agree about needing an IA of IA; or at least deciding on some common/standardized terminology, rather than everyone calling the same 'things' something different. Or perhaps a folksonomy of IA =)

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