Butterfly your Content

If you've been following my posts during the last year, you're probably wondering if I spend my free time thinking up names and concepts for new companies. Just in the last five months, I've presented such names as "GoFly," and "Wot." Let me assure you that these different company names are not the only fruits of my labor.

The only thing that's important to me is that the concepts I present to my audience are practical, reliable, and easy to follow. As you can imagine, this is hard to manage when you're dealing with the Internet because things are always changing there. So, my search for answers has needed to be flexible, as I dealt with platforms that were always evolving.

So, what is a Life Stack? Picture, if you will, a room full of computer monitors. Each monitor displays information about me. My Twitter profile, my Facebook profile, my page on Flickr, and so on. You might begin to understand me better after you viewed each of my profiles, and perhaps dug deeper into my information.

Take that same idea, and translate it to piles--or stacks--of pages. In the professional world, this might be referred to as my portfolio. When we're hiring for a job, a portfolio might contain a resume, cover letter, and samples of work from previous jobs. Within the context of social media, if I handed you my "stack," it would most likely be a folder filled with print offs from the different social media services I'm signed up with. One major difference between the traditional portfolio and a "stack," is that in the case of the latter it would contain information about both my personal and professional lives.

See content for what it really is

Two things that I've been concerned with during the last few years is finding the means to publish information in a way which looks similar (or "good") across multiple formats, and determining the purpose of all of those social media tools which are out there.
My search took me in different directions (thus the company name changes) until I finally realized that both questions have the same question. Once you start to see your content on the web as just content, and stop thinking of the content as being a component of something else, it becomes easier to manage those little bits of information that so often end up on the Internet.

Publications as Container

Once upon a time, I worked for an ISP called HomeTown Online which also happened to be owned by a newspaper. One of our responsibilities as ISP employees was to convert and uploade the articles from HomeTown Newspapers' two newspapers, The Livingston County Press and The Brighton Argus, onto the web. This was a very tedious process involving stripping the text out of each weekly newspaper edition and pasting them into articles for publishing on the newspaper website, then manually building the index.
Even though this was happening in the 1990's, before the explosion of social media websites, I think that this process best illustrates the most common approach when focus is placed on the publication instead of the content. In our case, we approached the transfer of articles in the same way that the newspaper did: by weekly issue.

If you look at an average newspaper website these days, you would probably notice that you can no longer tell which actual printing of a newspaper an article appeared in. This is because on the web more emphasis has been put on delivering the content piece by piece, instead of producing the publication.
And, how we post content on the web becomes especially important when we start to group together related content and deliver it to readers or subscribers as packages. I have started to think of these publications as "containers" for different reasons.

There are plenty of instances when the content can not be separated from its container. A book, for example, is bounded so you can not easily redistribute the pages. Or, it would be very difficult if you tried to, say, share the first ten pages with your co-worker while you were still finishing the last twenty.
I think that the downfall of Internet publishing is that we haven't truly embraced the power of the tools that have been offered to us. We still think of the electronic counterparts of books and magazine as indivisible despite the fact that their contents can be separated or distributed.

Albums as a Container

There are lots of examples of containers in the world which are published or distributed for general consumption. My favorite is the music album. A music artist will typically perform twelve songs which are recorded and distributed as a part of an album. Their fans see the album, and buy it based on their familiarity of the songs, or perhaps there are one or two which are favorites. A year from then, a compilation album is published with the performer's most popular songs. Their songs might also appear on other compilations.

Within this model, the consumer treats the packaging for the music as merely a delivery system. They base their buying decision more on the contents of the CD than on the cover design. In the age of the MP3 player, the design of the album's case and the CD are even less important because songs can now be copied onto a computer or portable device and then played back.
Thanks to services like iTunes and Amazon, it is now possible to download specific songs. Back when I was starting to get interested in Barenaked Ladies, I downloaded my first two albums to find out more about their musical style, but later mixed and matched their remaining songs to avoid purchasing duplicates. I've also purchased several singles to round out my collection and form a playlist which I've enjoyed repeatedly.

The "Written Album"

What would books and magazines look like if they resembled the Album? It actually might look a lot like a magazine website, with the content available on a per-article basis. Most publication websites will also let you sort articles by topic, theme, tag, category, and/or author. Sounds pretty similar to the music album, only in this case its written, and its on the web.

So, you probably wondering what the big deal with containers and publications is if website are already allowing us to do what I'm saying that we should do. First of all, the idea of containers needs to expand backwards throughout the entire publishing process if we are going to really tap into the power of social media, and I haven't seen that being done. Second, we need to know what the beginning of the publication cycle looks like.

Caterpillar vs the Butterfly

We all know that a caterpillar can become a butterfly, right? But, how does it go from being one thing to another? If you answered "coccoon," you're right (extra points for not adding the word "duh" afterwards). You understand that there is no magic involved in the caterpillar's metamorphosis.

This new idea of containers and employing social media to distribute content requires the same kind of middle process that the caterpillar does. In other words, we can't just "get there over night." In our case, I like to think of the caterpillar as the raw content--such as an article or a chapter from a work-in-progress--and the butterfly as the finalized, print-ready collection. I'd like to show how I get from Point "A" to Point "Z" by walking you through the process I've developed.

From Caterpillar (article) to Butterfly (container)

This article started out as a caterpillar. Well, what I mean to say is that this was merely a single article when I composed it using Google Docs. After I was done, I saved the article, and then posted it into my blog with Posterous.

Posterous, as you may or may not know, allows bloggers to repost their blogs to other services such as Facebook or Twitter. You may have actually found this post through those other services. Well, I am certainly planning on taking advantage of Posterous' features and post this same article every place that I can, so that it is as visible as possible.

Now, the middle of my process depends on where I want all of my content to end up. Otherwise, distribution would be the end of my process, and this whole article would be a lot shorter. But, all of my talk wouldn't make sense.

My preference is for my posts to end up in some kind of collection which is both easy to read on the screen and ready to be printed and looked at on paper. Normally, the solution for this type of tall order might be to convert my content into a PDF and then distribute it. Bam--readable on the screen AND print ready. But, remember that Posterous is actually sending out copies of the same content to different services, like spokes on a wheel. If I sent out a print-ready version at this point it would be outdated as soon as my total audience began to respond to the other versions (perhaps via Facebook).

So, there needs to be an intermediary stage between Posterous and the printed page. The good news is that I've found a service called Protagonize which allows you to collect your content in a format which is both screen friendly AND ready to be printed. And, its all quite painless, too.

Name Your Butterfly

Now that our content has a starting point and a destination, it is nearly time to flesh out its course in between, but first I want to talk about picking a name for your butterfly. By "name," I really mean that you need to identify two critical parts of your publishing strategy: timetable and title.

Fill the Bucket

When you step away from the whole publishing process and start to look at content by itself, you start to see different truths about publishing. One of those truths that I've learned the hard way is that it isn't possible for a publication to be produced at the same pace as the Internet. This is like trying to put out a brush fire with a bucket that's half full. Well, for the most part it would be half as affective and you would need to work twice as hard to keep up with demand. In the long run, you can save yourself a lot of trouble by filling the bucket all of the way before taking it over to the fire.

Almost the same kinds of pressures are felt when we produce an electronic publication, but its important to resist the urge to race ahead and remember to just let your bucket fill up before flinging out its contents. This can be done easily by establishing a publication cycle. Publish every Tuesday, or maybe publish at the beginning of each month. It all depends on your capacity and the speed at which you can fill your content bucket.

At HomeTown Online, for example, we followed the same weekly cycle as the newspaper. We'd get the files on Tuesday, and then have the new articles up by the end of the same day. This was actually pretty good back then because it was organized and it was consistent.

As another example, I am planning on producing a final, collected edition of "Life Stack" at the beginning of each month, similar to a monthly magazine. This will give me time to share the articles with users before releasing them in their final version. If you wish, you can direct your content to multiple "butterflies" based on theme or preference. You can also republish your content in quarterly or yearly "best of" type editions of your publication.

A Title is as a Title Does

With all of the above to remember, it probably seems pretty simple to pick a title for your publication. And, it really is..you just want to be less like me and stick with the title you've chosen. Other than that, your title should help to set the tone and expectations for your publication. If you plan to treat it as a magazine, try to make it sound like a magazine by giving it a shorter title. If its a book, make it a longer title. Written works on Protagonize can be collaborative, so keep that in mind when you title your publication.

Harness the power of Social Media

Okay, so you post your text on Posterous and you start your written work on Protagonize. You're writing two or three posts per week, so you certainly will have a full bucket by the time the month comes to an end. What else do you need to do?
There are actually a lot of options. One thing that's come to mind is that the social networks offer a great opportunity to collaborate with others on your written work. Yes, this means putting it out there for input and questions, but it could also mean opening up your work to other authors. As this happens, you will start to see your content under a different light. You may even make changes to your post after readers offer their feedback and comments.

In the end, your article will not be the same once your audience on the Internet is done with it, and that's perfectly okay. This, in fact, is the point where your content has started to change into a butterfly.

But, don't bother making revisions to the multitude of copies out on the Internet. Instead, make changes to your initial post--on Posterous--and then to the content within Protagonize. You can explain elsewhere that you've made improvements, or save this announcement until around the time when you're ready to make your monthly release.

The goal for all of this is to make your publishing process as iterative as possible. Start with your initial post, evolve it over time with the help of your audience, and then make a final release in a more permanent format.

Additional Benefits

There are a lot of benefits beside the ease and effectiveness with which this method allows you to publish your information or ideas. For example, when operate on the "content level," it will be easier to prepare your materials for all of the different forms of aggregation that are out there. If you plan things well, your post will look the same on Facebook as it does on Google Reader, the Kindle, or on a smartphone.

A Quick Summary

Okay, so when we treat publications as containers, and content as content, our publishing strategy becomes iterative and more flexible. This new publication process could be referred to as a metamorphosis between the digital and printed formats. We are also able to collaborate with our readers through Social Media.

Butterfly Yourself

Remember when I described the scenario with the room full of monitors and the stack of paper, both containing information describing who I am? The Butterfly/Caterpillar approach to content management helps me, as an individual, manage my life on the web. The caterpillar becomes especially important on the personal level, because as an individual I want a way of storing all of my content in once place, or perhaps one place offline.

How does my content go from my keyboard, across the Social Media sphere, and then come back to me in a format that is easy to store and/or print off? Well, by organizing it in the same way that an internet publisher might if they were following the steps that I laid out above.

Collaboration made Easier

The "Butterfly technique" becomes even better when you collaborate with other people. Ask each individual to start their own blog on Posterous, and then instruct them to change their configuration so that their posts will auto-post to to specific social media sites or accounts. The configuration would include a blog for your publication.

Let's say that I am on your staff of writer for "Zeta Daily." Your instructions to me would be to start a blog on Posterous. I can call it anything because I am writing as an individual. I call it "Jon's World." I change the configuration so that my posts are automatically re-posted to the publication's blog at zetadaily.wordpress.com.
As an editor, you only care about the material that's posted on Zeta Daily. Let's say that I am a poor speller..you ask me to fix my spelling errors either on Posterous (if the changes carry over) or directly on the Zeta Daily blog. But, in the meantime, my narrow audience has also been responding to my article and suggest changes or ask questions.

The article on Zeta Daily could continue to evolve to include quotes from readers, additions, or corrections other than spelling errors. By the time the month rolls around, the article on Zeta Daily would be much more than the blog post it started out as within my personal blog.

This iterative process is really the editorial process with a social media twist. Instead of editing behind closed doors, you are letting your audience in during the early part of the process so that the article can be improved sooner.

Why?

So, where am I going with all of this and why did I tell you? First of all, I had a lot of ideas that I wanted to get down on paper so that I could share it and get feedback from lots of different people. I've most likely done that if you're reading this.
I am hoping that you will write back with questions and feedback about this article. What did you like? What parts didn't make sense? How could I have been more clear? Did I sound completely nuts?

Second, I've already started to develop this kind of publishing system and need your help. My caterpillar is the articles and stories that I will be writing to fill my proverbial bucket. The butterfly will be a collection of written works hosted through Protagonize.com.

Third of all, if you are like me and have been interested in being an online publisher, I hope that you will reflect on my concepts and give it a try for yourself. Maybe with more minds working it out, it will become better and I will benefit from your successes just as you will have benefitted from mine.
If you have any questions or comments about what I've written please contact me at 32bpwr3@gmail.com.

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