By Felice Bochman, special to The Content Wrangler

“Humans are wired to put things in buckets.  We have an innate need to create categories and sort things into them.”—Richard Hamilton on content delivery, The Content Wrangler, September 2008

Many editors and other language-oriented professionals I know look for metaphors as a way of figuring things out.  We tend to see the world through a “this is like this” lens complemented by a “how does this fit into the big picture” manner of thinking. At its most elemental, this is simply a way of bucketing things. It’s a matter of perception not taken lightly—I hope.

imageWhat “things” do we humans bucket?  Anything, really, but for editors this usually applies to content of some kind. And, once we have content of some kind, it’s only a hop, skip, and a jump to content of a particular kind, as in content of one type or another. Alas, content doesn’t magically appear on web pages. We “webitors” must use a CMS to publish language to our websites.  In and of itself, the idea of a CMS is no big deal—one usually needs some kind of delivery system to display or publish language pretty much anywhere in any medium—unless mental telepathy is involved. But, it’s how the CMS is structured that is at issue.

In the content management system I currently use, I’ve noticed no less than nine metaphors, which are meant serve as organizing principles, but they don’t. Granted, the particular tool I use isn’t really meant for gobs and gobs of editorial work, but nonetheless its organization and structure were likely created by a developer within arm’s reach of a bottle of tequila.

Really.

Imagine the following. You’re brand new to the publishing tool you will use to do your work. You’re neither a stranger to web publishing, nor to any of several content tools you’ve used in the past. So, what’s so special about this one?  This one is Alfresco.  (Cue the choir.)

The name connotes the outdoors, picnicking, of a la piscine, of spring—not to mention something about renaissance painting (that would be a fresco but still, close enough). You get the idea—pastels, a breeze, distant laughter, potato chips—all swirling about erroneously in this identity crisis we call a publishing tool (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

Is it not true that when you encounter something brand new and unknown, the first thing that comes to mind is, “Do I know anything like this?” Or, based on what I do know or can relate to, “how should I get around this thing and make it work?” One faces the fear of the unknown by resorting to the familiar. It’s like driving in England—you know the deal—car, steering wheel, directional, seatbelt, traffic, horn, and round abouts, except that you’re on the wrong side of the street (and you could die instantly—unlike using Alfresco, though it feels like you want to). The reality is that there are complicated heuristics lurking behind our human ability to make the aforementioned leap of faith when faced with the unknown.  I mean, there’s no proof that using something familiar can help you decipher the unfamiliar.  Right?

Enter Alfresco. 

image See company home.  Oh, good!  Home.  I know that!  It’s a house, with a roof and rooms, and I live there with my family.  Good!  Let me get this content up on our site.  I suppose I need to find a “door” or perhaps a “hallway” or “room” which would signify the next logical step in my trek though this “home.” Perhaps I’ll find a “kitchen” where I will cook up content, or maybe an “attic” or a “basement” where I will store the stuff.

But no!  No. No. No.

I leave the “home” and go to a playground—something for children.  Well…it must be a playground as I’m supposed to find a “sandbox” there. Ok, fine—maybe it’s in the backyard of the home.  I’m sure that once I’m in this sandbox, I’ll see some other playground equipment that will help me get this content on the site. Or, I’ll see some other children and they will help me. 

Like a kid new to the neighborhood, I find my way to the fields I need—a mere eighteen clicks away (that’s not army chat for 1.6 miles in case you were wondering). This might be a slight exaggeration, but when you’re new to the ‘hood, your perception of distance may be skewed. I am armed with keywords and categories and conversion tools, which for some reason are tiny—even tinier than I am (just over five feet).

But again, no!

Quick, quick, close my eyes and click my heels together—there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home.  Crap.  I’m still in the root folder (potato, rutabaga, garden?).  Maybe I’m not wearing the right shoes.

The content seems to be in there somewhere, but there’s a sudden invasion—the military has arrived! I’m faced with a deployment.  My thoughts turn to troops, war rooms, strategy, weapons, and uniformed men flicking their laser pointers at topographic charts. It all seems very far away from home or even from the sandbox where I once was. It’s okay, though.  I’m smart and flexible and I can switch metaphors again.

I’m in the army now. 

What modified items have to do with the army (perhaps a SNAFU or something gone FUBAR), I really don’t know, but I’m willing to give the military metaphor a chance in hell.  I submit the chance in hell.  Excellent.  I’m ready for the next maneuver from my commanding officer, Colonel Alfresco. But, alas.  He is gone.  He went away and a photographer took his place.

What the . . . ?!

This photographer cannot possibly be a war correspondent with a camera.  No—he’s just taking a snapshot.  What happened to my war?  The troops?  The plan of attack?  The battle?  Gone, gone, gone.  Sudden peacetime is a little distressing because I don’t have a camera or film or even subject matter to photograph.  There are no lenses, f-stops, apertures, tripods, light meters or anything even remotely photographic other than the mysterious snapshots.

Home. Sandbox. Root. Deployment. Snapshot.

What do the above have in common?

Nothing.  Zero.  The null set.

And that wasn’t a trick question.

You could force a commonality by saying, “a sandbox might be in the backyard of one’s home,” as I mentioned earlier in this article. But that’s a stretch.  No.  Actually, it’s a Hail Mary—and that would mean we’re talking about football.

Does this seem kinda random to you?

I pause to check my location and am hoping for something like a GPS metaphor (a.k.a. a map).  Where the heck am I?  Oh, I see.  I’m in production.

For real?  I don’t know if I can squeeze in another metaphor without having to buy rush tickets, if you know what I mean.  You don’t?  That’s funny, I mean, you look so much like someone I know. Where is wardrobe when you need them?

Anyway…

I have apparently arrived on Broadway, during a deployment, with the snapshot I found in the sandbox in the backyard of my home. And the potato. The god of dynamic systems is laughing his ass off.  I am possibly in a novel by Kundera.

There is only one thing left to try.

Space travel.

You laugh, but it is indeed the truth.  I’ve fallen off so many metaphors that I’m sure at least one snapshot will need fixing. In order to do that, space travel is involved.  This is very lucky because I was just at Epcot Center where I rode this cool space ride.  I was the virtual navigator of my own ship (my frightened flight team with barf-bags in tow).  I see the navigator tool.  And good heavens when I click it there is a shelf (hey, that makes ten metaphors, no wait, eleven if you include the potato, and twelve with the theater fiasco). Does this mean there’s a bookcase or library on my spaceship? No, of course not.  That wouldn’t make any sense at all. Perhaps it’s a continental shelf, though I really hope it isn’t as I’d prefer not to introduce a geological or oceanographic metaphor to this affair (though I do like to swim in the ocean).

By some miracle of semiotics, I launch the content I came to publish.  I don’t know what else to call it.  I was on a spaceship (or perhaps it was a boat), so the least I can do is launch…something.  If the content is a rocket, then I have just launched it from a…sandbox?  Houston, we have a problem.

I’m fresh out of metaphors, save one.  Though there is no chocolate factory in sight, there is a Charlie and a Chuck (two genius tech dudes in my office who, lucky for me, are very kind and often bemused)—and they are worth their weight in golden tickets.  HEY YOU GUYS!!!

Are there Oompa-Loompas in here too?

I’m hopelessly, hopelessly literary, but that doesn’t make me a technophobe.  In fact, I crave meaning within systems, pathways to usage that make sense, and sense which is based on experience of the empirical kind.

Build a tool.  Pick a metaphor to represent the structure and functions—extend the metaphor as needed—but use only one.  Trust this editor—that metaphor will contain all the buckets you need.

As for the picnic—I said it before—there’s no place like home, in your backyard, in the sandbox, potato salad and all.