Are we stuck with the mental model of blog posts as pieces of content that are just published and then not touched again?
Or can we treat a blog post as a "work in progress" that will continue to evolve and expand over time?
I have been asking myself this question in relation to my quest to tear down some of my own barriers to doing more blogging. The model that we have had since the early days of blogging has been one more similar to traditional news media - you write an article, you publish it, you move on to your next article.
You "fire and forget."
Sure, you might go back and update the article if something was wrong or if later information changed the story a bit, but even in the latter case it is often more common to write a new story with the updated facts and then link to the new story from the old one.
But what if we just posted a blog post as a first draft knowing that it would change and evolve over time?
Almost something more like a wiki. ... perhaps a "blicki" :-)
Where you post knowing full well that you will be editing... and then you do so.
Interestingly, I have been seeing news sites doing this. In the rush to be the first one out with a story to get the tweets and retweets and links, they will publish a stub story with "more details to come" - and then they will in those details in the subsequent minutes and hours.
Can we do that as individual writers though? Can we give ourselves permission to post a partially done piece? And can we have the discipline to go back and update it?
An Implied Contract?
To expand on this a bit (and practice this kind of editing myself), I wonder:
Do we have an implied "contract" with our readers?
Do they expect that the content will not change from when they first read it? Or at least not change dramatically?
Many of us, myself included, seem to feel there is this implied contract and so when we do go back and update a post, we'll often put those updates at the top or bottom of the article with some kind of marker like "UPDATE:" to clearly show what was been updated. Or we will use
strikethrough to indicate that text is removed.
But what if we just wove all the updates in together to make a cohesive article?
Would readers find that troublesome?
What if the initial content is only a few paragraphs... and then over time it evolves into a lengthy document going on for several pages?
What about the "integrity" of a piece? If someone else quotes an article or references an article as containing a specific quote or bit of information... but then the article gets modified so that that quote or content is no longer there... what does that mean for the original reference?
For these reasons we tend to think of writing that gets posted online as "fixed"... but what if we move away from that and let posts evolve over time?
What About The Aggregators?
In the comments to this post, Michael Richardson asks "what will my aggregator think?" And indeed that is a good question. Many people read blog posts in aggregators / news readers / other clients that often pull copies of the articles down onto the local system for the user to read. However, once the article is retrieved, the aggregator may or may not go back and retrieve the article again. And so the user may be sitting there reading an article that is now outdated.
Even with my own aggregation site, danyork.me, where I aggregate pointers to all of my writing, I have it set to pull in the RSS feeds from all my sites and store the contents in that WordPress site. (The site is not indexed by search engines to avoid "duplicate content" issues.) Now, in the particular syndication plugin I use, I have set it to merge in and overwrite any changes that come in from the RSS feeds. So as I update this post, the changes should be reflected over on that site. But I don't believe that was the default setting. I think the default was to ignore any changes in the RSS feeds... so the aggregation site would be out-of-sync with the real content.
For all these reasons, it's not clear to me that we should move away from the way we work today. But could we?
I don't know... it's a shift in thinking.
What do you think?
P.S. You may also be interested in reading "Subcompact Publishing" by Craig Mod. It's a long piece that is exploring a different question, that of our mental model of a "magazine" online, but a similar kind of thought experiment...