Why I Identify as a Content Management Professional

By Deane Barker on August 29, 2013

Here’s a core question: what is content?

Yeah, I went there.

Seriously, what is content? This thing we manage and that has strategy and that we migrate and that we edit…what is it?

How is it different than…information? Or…data? Why is managing it any different than managing those other things? To what extent is content its own…thing?

This blog post is not a definitive answer. This is a proposal – an offering, if you will. It’s not possible to come up with a single definition that will encompass every eventuality, but for the last few years, I’ve been tossing this one around in my head:

Content is information created for human consumption which is subject to editorial processes.

The key there is “editorial processes.” These are the human activities that define the content lifecycle — things like organization, creation, editing, permissions, workflow, archival, and personalization. If we accept the definition of the word “edit” to mean “alter” or “improve,” then these are the processes that alter information in some way with the intention of improving its effectiveness for a human consumer.

I’m hesitant to test this definition against examples, because we could get lost in the gaps forever, but here are a few —

  • A comment on your blog is content. It was created by a human for other humans, and while you may never edit it, you might approve it, apply permissions to it, archive it, etc. (Incidentally, I get annoyed when a CMS has a separate architecture for comments. Why are these not treated as content?)
  • The number “9” might be content. It might represent the current iteration of a loop, in which case it’s just data, but it also might represent the number of WordPress projects your company has completed as displayed on the portfolio page of your website. In that context, it’s clearly content — it’s meant for human consumption, and will be subject to editorial process over time.
  • A log file is clearly not content. It’s intended for human consumption, certainly, but it’s not subject to any editorial process. (Indeed, once created, a log file should not be edited, or it becomes worthless as a historical record of an event.)
  • An invoice isn’t content. Like a log file, it’s not created for human consumption, as much as it’s primarily created as the artifact of another event (a billing process, for instance). It’s the transactional record of that event, and would never be edited (though the underlying event might, which would affect the artifact).

Why should we even care about this? How is this not pointless navel-gazing?

Because there’s a fine, subtle line between content and information, and that line deeply influences and divides the practitioner community. The content management community is so diverse that it’s hard to draw some common thread out of it, and it consequently scatters.  In general, the content management community does not identify as a group, which is sad.

I’m also a developer, a DBA, a front-end designer…so, why am I so hung up on the “content” part of my job? How am I any different that a corporate developer writing middleware for some insurance company estimation engine? What unites us as an industry? What common thread can we use to form a collective industrial identity?

I use my professional skills primarily to manage human-centric information and the editorial processes around it. All of my skills are ultimately used for the advancement of this goal.

For this reason, I identify as a content management professional and practitioner, above all other categories and overlaps.

I hope some of you share this identity with me.



  1. Deane,

    I couldn’t agree more. We are advocating that if content is being “consumed”, there is a different way to approach the management of your content to improve overall consumption. We have spent a lot of time trying to define content but have fallen into some of the same traps that you have outlined. Instead we have focused on the types of activities that exist to make that content consumption an improved activity. This might be improved content creation, leveraging a CMS, or improving the user experience. Good post.

  2. Very nice post.

    The challenge here, I think, is the difference between a discipline and a profession. The discipline of content management — as you describe it above — can encapsulate multiple different professions: Editor, IA, Designer, DBA, Producer, and so on…

    Each is a tribe with their own events, knowledge feeds, and career tracks. This thing called “content management” brings them (us!) together for some very specific purposes. And some people (you, me!) have made a living helping that process. If you are going to be successful at that, then it helps to be a polymath like you, but not everyone is or should be. I’m grateful for the JS/CSS gurus (a.k.a. UX Engineers) I know…

  3. By that definition, all design counts as “content” because there is some sort of human editorial process that goes into it; that process is just not managed by the system at hand. It could be email and photoshop files, but it’s still an editorial review process.

    The problem is that definition is so broad that “everything is content”, which means the word is useless. A word that becomes synonymous with the universal set is not useful for definition purposes. :-)

  4. Interesting article, but I’d like to suggest that the path from data to information to content lies more in the viewers perception rather than the editors abilities.

    Specifically, we apply a structure on data to organize it, or merely to store it. So perhaps DATA + SYNTAX = INFORMATION.

    Now information is really nice but we still need to understand it, so we place it where it makes a relevant statement or provides an inportant point. Again, I suggest that INFORMATION + SEMANTICS = Content.

    Yes – obviously its simplistic but so far I have not had any issues using this mental model for understanding how people use D, E or C.

    BTW: just to twist your head on this. One mans Content is another mans data is another mans information.

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