Monday, May 14, 2012

Death of the Digital Document

Question: What does docx stand for?

Answer: I have no idea. I figure that “doc” is short for “document” and I can only assume that the “x” is for “extra”, as in “extra meaningless letters tacked on to my file name for no particular reason that a normal person would actually care about.”

Someday sooner than you think, people are going to laugh at the idea that we used to type strings of letters at the end of document names. I’m not sure why Windows even puts these things into the names of files, let alone allowing you to edit them by default when you’re changing a file name. By building this behavior in, it’s sending the message that “you probably want to change the file extension when you change the name”.  I don’t think I’ve done this more than a couple times in 12 years of professional work. Looking past the extensions, consider how we manage document names. We append endless methods for differentiation, including version numbers, dates, authors, or foolish notes like “latest” or “new” (only to then create a updated version). I’m confident this idea is going away very soon.

Digital documents like those described above are products of an old era. The analogy of individual paper documents filed in paper folders just isn’t necessary anymore. We spend endless hours composing messages and creating graphics that may never be seen or used again outside of their original document. In these documents, we often make points that others have already made and waste time building graphics when others have done it better. Most importantly, potentially meaningful ideas sit dormant, preventing us from making the critical connections that are essential for new idea development. So what’s the better model? Shared documents like Google Docs or Open Office? That’s a step in the right direction, but it’s still just an improved version of an old model.

When everything becomes interconnected, the concept of isolated documents fades away. What takes its place is something more dynamic and evolutionary. Hundreds of millions of us are constantly immersed in a paradigm where pages subscribe to other pages, where views are managed for others to see in real-time as they are updated. It’s an interconnected, user-customized experience and it makes sense. If it didn’t make sense, hundreds of millions of us wouldn’t rely on Facebook for managing our social interactions, look to Twitter for managing our news and happenings, and Pinterest wouldn’t be one of the hottest apps on the market.

This model of dynamic pages and subscriptions has emerged naturally in a human environment where people are free to take technology in any direction they choose. College students, mid-career engineers, and grandmothers all quickly grasp this same model. Sure, some people are more inclined to share personal information than others using the tools, but isn’t that just normal human nature to have varying levels of privacy concerns?

One benefit of this approach is value of controlling your own “broadcast” out to the world. Much has been said about the importance that people feel from sharing their thoughts (or party pictures) with the world. People act as mini-celebrities in a tiny world of followers, curating interesting quotes and movie clips for their adoring fans to enjoy. What is more egotistical than a constant live personal broadcast to the world?

Meanwhile, the consumer is equally enthralled. In today’s environment, where we’re completed flooded with a constant stream of information, nothing is better than a tailored news feed of relevant information. We rely on our friends to curate the world for us, assuming that our trust in them with translate into trust in their interests. It’s a mutually beneficial experience between producer and consumer, or curator and observer.

One reason this model has emerged is that it’s simple. People are selfish and lazy (no offense, people). It’s how we’ve survived. Look out for yourself, find the easiest way to do things, and you’ll sustain. Sure, the 220 people I follow on Twitter are going to miss some stuff that I might want to know about, but I’m willing to take that chance consider that seeking my own information from the raw, disorganized web would be a full-time job.

So this brings us to the office – isn’t it just a matter of time before this new model spills over into the working world? Why are we still creating and sharing isolated files? I’ve worked in a handful of companies over the past 12 years, and everyone of them rely on the constant building and sharing of digital documents (primarily Microsoft Office). Think of the amount of time spent searching for documents, getting lost in file structures, recreating PowerPoint slides, emailing documents, requesting others to email documents, managing file versions, and other “mechanical-digital” tasks.

Let’s shift to a better model. Let’s develop better means to communicate. Let’s stop wasting time on these redundant and time-consuming activities. Better yet, let’s stop recreating each other’s work and instead evolve from it. If I have a message to convey in a presentation slide, why can’t I search for that message and get results from other slides that have been shared by my co-workers, friends, or business leaders? A quick search on a “new slide” page could reveal the most popular, highest rated, or most relevant slides based not only on my search query but my role and context as well. After all, if others have communicated the message better than me, shouldn’t I save everyone’s time and frustration and just point to their slide and give them credit?

When it comes time for me to give my presentation, the referenced slide appears right in context, and full credit is given to the source. After all, if the CEO of my company or a designer at a local startup have made the point better than me, why should I put in more effort to deliver less to my audience? We can provide better solutions that lead to better results with less effort. This combination usually wins out, doesn’t it?

Consider if the “news feed” concept from Facebook or Twitter were introduced to your workplace. People could subscribe to each other, specific activities, or deliverables. Files aren’t being passed around, but information is instead organized by interconnected pages and dynamic clusters. Worried about version management? Simply roll back the timeline to access old work. Worried about overwhelming people with adding more streaming information? The feed would be completely customizable. This model could make the current email paradigm seem overly forceful and annoying. Think about it, which of these options sound more appealing to you?
  1.  I decide the types of things that I receive
  2. I would like others to decide for me

Of course, I realize the flaw in this model as you simply can’t choose to not receive assignment from your boss, but would people actually make this choice? Shouldn’t we be trusted to subscribe the right sources of information and also provide meaningful information to those subscribing to us?
Of course, this writing isn’t about bashing email. It’s about pushing our expectations forward. It’s about rethinking how we think about information and knowledge working. In an interconnected world where we all use a dynamic, subscription-based, user-defined model for sharing social information, isn’t it only a matter of time before do the same for our more serious pursuits? I do, and I think it will change sooner than expected.