Are You Publishing or Gardening?

From the time Sumerians first scratched pictographs into clay tablets, we’ve created content by making our thoughts physical, be it on stone, sheepskin or paper. That’s around 5000 years of sealing our ideas in atoms, which are pretty resistant to change. No surprise that so many people still think that way about their sites after only 15 years of web history.

Books Are Beautiful, But…

Although I’m more often than not online, I still have a few meters of books, full of stories I love. There’s no replacement for a beautifully printed object you can hold in your hands, or the feeling of a story unfolding through the turning of pages. No matter how much I love books as objects, I pick up a book, read it, put it back down, and unless it was extraordinary, I don’t remember it after a month. Making a book is the work of one person over months or years, and when it’s done, that’s it. You can correct and change by publishing a second edition, but does that change the first edition? In other words, a book is the exact opposite of the web. I know, this ain’t rocket science. Stick with me.

A web site is not a book–it’s not finished and perfect once it’s online. Most of us working online every day know this. Some web colleagues–or maybe just their clients–don’t seem to have made this leap quite yet though. There are still plenty of books in the web. They’re beautiful, funny and entertaining, but after I’ve spent a few minutes looking at them, they’re back on the bottomless shelf, and the chances of me thinking about them again in two days (web time’s faster y’know) are close to zero. (aside:thankfully for my colleagues earning their daily bread with sites like these–if not their clients–it’s also close to impossible to actually measure their success in anything concrete like sales or even ROI).

If you’re working on a site so that you can put it online and forget about it until the next relaunch, you’re publishing. You’re making a book in bits instead of atoms. And if you ask me (I know, you didn’t) that’s not what the web’s there for.

The Web is a Garden

Truly good sites–sites that are in any way relevant to the world of the web–are gardens. They grow, in many cases faster and wilder than anyone can hope to follow. So what can you do to help your site along? Duh. Stop “publishing” and become a gardener, of course.

What does being a gardner mean? First of all, before you start with your new relaunch project, as client, agency, designer or developer, trash your publishing attitude. This means your site will never be “finished”. And yes, this is a good thing for everyone involved. Launching a site is only sketching out your garden and planting seeds. If that’s all you’re prepared to do, you’re planting fail and your garden’s already dead. If, however, you’re planning on tending what you’ve planted, the fun’s just begun.

To start with, build your site from the outset to be searchable, linkable and shareable. The less your site is like a book–the more open, distributable, changeable and participatory it is–the more sun and water your garden’s going to get.

Next, make sure your site encourages discussion. Give your audience tools to talk about you, your content and your products, and to talk with you. And although it may seem counter-intuitive to you, strangely enough the more the discussion takes place elsewhere the more you’ll benefit. And it’s about the discussion, which means you’ll have to talk back to them, and expend energy tracking and participating in the discussion, wherever it occurs. You’re hosting a garden party, and your guests will wander. Deal.

If you’ve planted and tended your garden successfully, the next and most harrowing step lies before you. Give up as much control as you can, without letting your fan-hoarde destroy your beautiful garden. If you’ve managed to get your web audience interested in you, you now, in a sense, belong to them. They live in your garden, and you can’t evict them without losing quite a few brownie points. Instead, pay attention to them, what they want, and how the use your site. Plant what they need, and trim it all so they continue to enjoy it.

Gods & Peasants

Publishing as we know it started with monks copying manuscripts of the Lord’s Word for the few who could afford a copy. Therefore, forgive me the religious metaphors, won’t you?

If you’re still “publishing”, you’re a god, handing The Word down to the peasants. Unfortunately for the publishing gods, there are more and more gods online producing their own content and participating in discussions, and fewer and fewer peasants passively accepting what the publishing gods are feeding them. That is (slightly over-dramatised) the power of the web. Some of the old gods are trying to protect themselves from the new behind ever thicker walls, but the web’s true gods are those with the wildest, fastest growing gardens, which are completely open to the public. The walls of the publishing gods are ensuring their own irrelevance. Once these walls crumble, the publishing gods will look over the rubble and no longer recognise the landscape revealed, and the new gods, the “edglings“, will not recognise them either. On which side of the walls are you standing?

Are you a publisher or gardener?

This expands a small part of my talk from the next08.

Ironic note: to get this online I clicked the “Publish” button in WordPress.