Last In, First Out

There are many problems with the state of todays blogs. One is structural. The design of a blog is that of a “last in, first out” (LIFO) stack, meaning that the very latest post published on the blog goes at the top of the home page, with older content being arranged by date in descending order underneath, and even older content hidden away in the archives. The LIFO stack was implemented in the early years of the Web as a solution to highlighting new content, which would otherwise be indistinguishable from the old.

This way of organizing content puts a heavy emphasis on the now and takes away the focus from older posts. But while this works for newspapers that cover daily events, it doesn’t make sense for blogs if the content posted there is not tied to a particular date. By arranging the posts in a certain order, the LIFO stack ends up also ranking the posts in perceived importance, and shifts the focus on the present.

This ranking of posts in perceived importance is also strengthened by the endless nature of the blog. Unlike a book, a blog has no page count and no end. You can read a blog, but you’ll never finish reading one. There’s never really a final goal that the blog can fulfill and call the job done, the writers just keep going until the site dies. This doesn’t mean that there’s no point to blogs. The goals are just more open and continue from day to day, which could be anything from entertaining people, informing them or simply generating a conversation. This by itself is not necessarily good or bad, but it naturally plays together with the LIFO stack to shift focus on the present, to focus on the now – or perhaps the other way around, with the stack itself influencing the writing by taking away the need and desire for definite goals.

The problem is that many blogs aren’t about the now, and nor do they need to be. While it may be of use to know when a piece was written, the date should not dominate its value. Some of the best and most important books today have been written thousands of years ago. But old posts in a blog get stuffed at the very end of the archives page where nobody else will ever go to find them. The LIFO stack, while a good solution to showing content on the front page, moulds the blog in its own image and ends up devaluing and hiding content merely because of the date of its publication.

I think it’s a real problem, not just for other blogs but for mine as well. Since the best content is not necessarily the latest, it doesn’t help to keep moving it down the list as we publish more and more material. The best work needs to be highlighted and promoted, not pushed to the bottom. Additionally, the higher emphasis on the present imposes a level of aimlessness on the stuff you write. The writing ends up only satisfying a daily desire for talk and entertainment, not any higher goal, which is left to the domain of the book.

When I started this essay a day for thirty days project, I didn’t have the day counter in the title of each post. Didn’t think I needed it. I added it later as a way to show the progress I’ve made so far. You could look at the archives and see exactly how far you’ve made it, and how long you’ve got left to go. It created a sense of progress. But it also created something else. It created a sense of a beginning and end. By defining the posts as being all part of a particular project, they were placed in a virtual container, just like the cover binds the contents of a physical book.

I think one answer to the LIFO stack problem is to group posts together, much in the same way that this daily post project is doing, with the difference being to focus on a specific topic rather than just a posting schedule. Write posts that cover different angles of the same theme, and put them together into a single collection dealing with that theme. I’m not talking about tags that organize posts within very wide categories, I’m talking about something much smaller and more specific. Not only will you be able to then promote a group of posts at once, those posts will all have a defined objective, a question they aim to resolve. There will be a point to each one, and you could actually finish reading them.

This is the strategy that productivity experts recommend for organizing your daily tasks. Instead of having an endless bucket of to-dos, you create a set of projects, and sub-projects, which act as focused buckets for your task list. The difference this makes is that an endless list of to-dos doesn’t have a clear end in sight, so people end up doing busy work instead of real work. Projects and sub-projects on the other hand define clear goals, and so every to-do item has to move you towards the goal in some way, or else it doesn’t belong to the list. The clarity of the project goals in turn dictates the effectiveness of the tasks. You can only know if you’re moving forward if you know where you want to be and can measure the distance you still have left to go.

Many non-fiction books are essentially collections of essays on the same topic, each self contained and focused enough to be read individually, but all of them working together to form a larger whole. I can imagine this translated to a blog with each essay being posted individually as a separate post. The problem of course that the reader should not read the posts in isolation, they have to read much of the work as a whole. They have to be surrounded with the group of ideas in question. The reader may read the words, but they won’t understand the message unless they have enough of the pre-requisite knowledge to see it. This is why it would be important to organize such posts as a collection, as a group of essays meant to be read together, not simply a stream of posts organized by date.

The book collects the work into a coherent whole, binds a multitude of posts into a single entity. We can do the same thing with the blog. Write collections of posts on a single topic. Have a clear purpose, a question you’re trying to resolve, a beginning and an end. Instead of the archives page that simply shows a list of posts ordered by date, have a list of collections. These don’t have to be ranked by date, they can be ranked by the preference of the author. They can even be published separately as books should the content warrant it, because essentially that’s what the collection of posts will become. The old list need not go away, but it should not be the only way to organize and browse the content.

The LIFO stack isn’t just a way we organize content, it also influences how and what we write. I think we can do better. I’m going to implement this idea when I get to the end of these thirty days, so we’ll see soon enough how well it works.

August 2012