I started writing about publishing containers in 2009. I found “container” to be a useful metaphor when talking about workflow and digital representations of existing works. Then (as now) it helped separate the content from the way it was depicted or consumed.
Over the next year, those ideas evolved into “Context first”, a presentation I first gave at the 2010 debut of Books in Browsers. By then, my thinking about containers had evolved to capture what they prevented us from doing:
"I propose today that the current workflow hierarchy – container first, limiting content and context – is already outdated. To compete digitally, we must start with context and preserve its connection to content.
"We need to think about containers as an option, not the starting point. Further, we must start to open up access, making it possible for readers to discover and consume our content within and across digital realms.
"Without a shift in mindset, we are vulnerable to a range of current and future disruptive entrants. Containers limit how we think about our audiences. In stripping context, they also limit how audiences find our content."
Much as I like "containers" as a concept, the analogy has its limits. I think Nicholas Carr and Clay Shirky, who got into an extended, public debate about the wisdom of preserving containers, may have found those limits.
I respect both Carr and Shirky. Their debate about the book or magazine or newspaper as object isn’t really new. But it is unnecessarily distracting.
Without trying too hard to carry coals to Newcastle, I’ll make two simple points. To Nicholas Carr: no one is trying to take your container away. If you want to write to fit a format, be my guest. It’s your right and privilege.
And to Clay Shirky: I know you don’t want to be restricted, but don’t argue so much about the death of objects. As you’ve pointed out, it’s increasingly straightforward to derive a printed work from a digital reservoir of content.
The container analogy works because it forces us to think more broadly about who we serve and how we meet their needs. Answering these questions underpins Craig Mod’s “pre/post artifact” arguments, seminal work that first appeared on his blog and was later included in Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto.
We should be happy that we don’t have to write a book to sell an idea. We should also be happy that any idea can become a book. Physical objects are part of the answer, even if they are no longer the right place to start.