The Short Shelf Life of Information (and the Long Life of Memes)

US Energy Map
A great example of how to use a graphic to convey a ton of information. It shows all the sources and uses of energy consumed by the US, and how much of it is lost, in a single picture. It’s from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and it’s slide 31 of 50 in this PowerPoint deck by Marty Sereno of UCSD on Peak Oil.Here are six important discoveries I’ve made as a result of fifteen years’ work in so-called ‘Knowledge Management’:

  • Almost none of the ‘just-in-case’ archived content of most corporations gets used at all, and the older it gets the less likely it is to be used
  • Most public Internet sites are used mainly by job-seekers and by students for homework, not by customers or even the general public
  • What is valued is know-who (not know-what) ñ connection not collection
  • What is valued is just-in-time knowledge acquired through context-rich interaction (i.e. conversation)
  • But even most conversations are only valued by their participants, and only until a few days after the conversation has passed (by which time it has either been internalized or forgotten)
  • What is valued is information to which value (meaning, suggested action) has been added through visualization, synthesis and analysis

I don’t think any of these discoveries should come as a surprise to anyone, yet we blithely continue to behave, in most organizations, as if they were not so. The cost and energy that goes into acquiring ‘raw’ information, organizing, presenting at and attending conferences, and populating and maintaining Intranets, public Internet sites, document repositories, groupware etc. is staggering, even though most of this work has little or no value.

What does have value, but only for awhile, are these five types of content:

  1. Conversational content — face-to-face, Open Space, phone, Skype, desktop videoconferencing, IM, blogs, podcasts — mostly of value to the participants in the conversation (who have the necessary context to understand it), and only until they have internalized it (shelf life: maybe a week)
  2. Visualized and otherwise synthesized, filtered and analyzed content — the work of information professionals that (like the example visualization above) tells readers/listeners succinctly either what something means, or what should they do about it (shelf life: maybe a year before it’s obsolete)
  3. Project content — the organized collection of stuff relating to an active project, in wikis, file folders or other places accessible to the full project team (shelf life: the duration of the high-activity stage of the project)
  4. Know-who directories — the (rare) up-to-date lists of who knows what (not to be confused with internal phone directories or organization charts, which are generally valueless unless you are studying how management wishes things worked) (shelf life: as long as they’re relatively complete and current)
  5. Stories — context-rich anecdotes about things that have actually happened, from which we can learn, and which can provoke good ideas to respond to (not to try to change) those realities (this includes cultural anthropology stories — direct observations of and conversations with customers ‘in their native habitat’) (shelf life: as long as the culture that gave rise to the story remains unchanged — usually a long time)

I have excluded technical/learning content from this list because it is so subject-specific; many of us, especially those in entry-level jobs, need technical manuals and regulatory reference materials until we reach the level at which we basically know these cold or depend on subordinates to know them. Procedure and policy manuals, despite the energy that goes into them, are generally ignored or worked around by those who are supposed to use them (usually for good reasons) so I would not include them in the above list. ‘Best practices’, as I and many others have explained elsewhere, are rarely worth the paper they’re written on.

How much of the work of information professionals and ‘knowledge managers’ is actually focused on these five types of information? In my experience, much less than half. And much of that work is spent maintaining these collections way past their shelf life, to the point that they’re no longer valuable, and start to add to the clutter that makes it harder to find the good stuff, and may actually be so obsolete that they’re dangerous.

Most bloggers (and those in other media like radio, TV and print) have figured this out. It’s not just that we have short attention spans that causes us to forget what was printed or broadcast last week — we lose the context, so if it’s important, we need to be re-briefed anew anyway.

This has been a hard lesson for me. I keep a table of contents of my past blog posts by subject (though I confess I’m slow to update it). That’s because I naively think people (beyond just students working on assignments) will actually be inclined to go back and re-read what I wrote a month or a year ago about a subject. For the same reason, I hotlink back to earlier articles, in the hope that this is a ‘shorthand’ way of providing readers with context when I write about a relatively complex subject. Even though when I read others’ blogs I almost never click back or read their tables of contents.

Silly me. My review of the hits on my pages suggests that 95% of the page-reads on my blog are articles less than a week old, and that almost no one clicks the links to my older posts (except the aforementioned students working on assignments). Readers are telling me: Don’t ask me to re-read an old article, tell me, here and now, the gist of that earlier article and why it’s important, and then get on with the new stuff.

So why do I still maintain the table of contents and continue to link back to earlier articles? Because it helps me to organize my own thoughts. This blog is an extension of my personal memory. It’s where I think out loud about what’s important to me. Even my Signature Essays list is a note-to-myself of my best writing, to use when thinking about future writing.

So I get it, dear readers: If my blog blew up tomorrow and the archives were gone, all you care is whether I have my own back-up copy for my own use, so that I can keep writing tomorrow. If you’re a blogger and you think your archives are valuable to anyone but yourself, if you think anyone, even your most faithful reader, cares about what you wrote more than a week ago, think again. Your archives are for your use, not theirs.

In a way this is a relief. It means I need not feel guilty about my table of contents being nine months out of date, except for the fact it is hard for me to research what I may have written on a subject more than a week and less than nine months ago. It means I need not agonize about migrating my blog from the obsolete Radio Userland platform to something newer — I need only migrate my most recent one or two posts on each of the subjects on my table of contents, plus perhaps my Signature Essays, to the new blog platform, and no one will care about the lost threads to the rest (though it might be worth paying to keep the old posts on Radio Userland just to preserve my Google Rank). All the rest of my writings and their table of contents could be kept on a flash drive for my personal reference only.

Do any other bloggers find this discovery — that no one cares what you wrote last week — as sobering as I do? When you click on a Google link and find yourself on on ‘old’ 2005 or 2003 blog post, do you read it or do you automatically back-arrow to find something more current?

This is important, because the same thing applies to 95-99% of what organizations are trying to keep in their content repositories, internal and external websites — what they hopefully call ‘organizational memory’ — no one values it and no one cares.

The consolation in all this resonates with my most important learning from 35 years in business:

The value you bring to an organization is not what you do, what processes and infrastructure and other ‘organizational changes’ you implement, or even what decisions you make. Those things are all transient; they are gone before you know it. The only sustainable value you bring to an organization is what you show and teach and inspire in other people you work with. Because those things are infectious, so that even when you’ve gone, even when the people you knew there have gone, that learning and that important information and those mind-changing ideas that you precipitated will go on and on, passed virally from one person to another. Those viruses are what makes the organizational culture what it is. That is no small thing.

That’s why the so-called ‘leaders’ are no more valuable in any organization than anyone else. We each have the same number of hours to infect others with our knowledge, our passion, our ideas and inspirations. Viruses only spread one-to-one. You can’t do this ‘top-down’. Nothing of value can be ‘cascaded downwards’, no matter what they might tell you in MBA school.

It’s also why businesses established by owner-managers, once the owner-manager leaves, are only worth something if they have been non-hierarchical — if the owner-manager has generously and continuously shared ideas, information and authority to the point the employees left behind have co-created and internalized the culture.

That doesn’t just apply to business. The only sustainable value you bring to any social group of which you are a member is what you show and teach and inspire in others in that group. That’s the value you bring when you write your heart out on your blog. That’s the value you bring when you raise your children, when you spend time in the communities that matter to you, when you stay up all night talking with someone about the things you both care about.

You may never be credited as the originator of a virus. It is enough to know that it lives, on and on, in the minds and hearts and beliefs and actions of thousands or millions of people who have passed it on, mutating and evolving, until it does produce a collective change. It is the only way real change occurs. That is what culture is, and why it is so hard to change it. We all change it, in ways we can only imagine. Your idea could be the flap of the butterfly’s wing that causes a social tsunami on the other side of the world.

That should be enough. Enough to keep you working, blogging, creating, thinking, sharing, conversing, doing what you can to make the world abetter place.

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13 Responses to The Short Shelf Life of Information (and the Long Life of Memes)

  1. melisa Christensen says:

    I read a ton of your old posts when I was first introduced to your blog. Also, sometimes I will type in a search word and read articles with a topic that I am thinking about. I think your archives are useful/awesome. I think you could clean up your friends links though, it’s too many…

  2. katuah says:

    I’ve read your older posts (from before I started reading daily), and I do often go back and read them again, especially if you reference them in a more recent post. I do the same for other blogs, especially if the writers are the sort to link back and/or write more in-depth articles. Admittedly, though, short posts don’t lure me backward. But give me a solid, essay-style blog entry, and it can hold its value long after the inspirational moment. 37 days is a good example of this sort of blog. I think of the older entries as a sort of “orientation session” for a blog. They set the ground for the later entries, for those who are newcomers. However, I might tend to agree in re: moving old entries to a new system – why bother? Leave the old ones in place so you can hotlink, but otherwise its a waste of energy. (Pun intended against your graphic:-> )

  3. Jordan Mechano says:

    Hm. I actually really love that you keep archives. I don’t like the regular Blogger type sites that keep everything by date, because if I fail to favourite a great article, it’s basically lost a few months down the road. Time permitting, I’d love for you to get up to date on your archives, because it keeps me up to date on what’s important. You see, from what I’ve learned from reading this site for 2 years or so, is that you get more cogent after time. So it’s nice to have each subject organized, to see the progession of thoughts, and to be able to access them quickly.

  4. joan says:

    i’m not a big archives reader after the initial few weeks when i discover a blog. so, yes, i do read into the archives of a blog at first but after about two or three weeks of this, i tend to just switch to the daily posts only. and i agree that longer posts hold my interest more when i am reading the archives. now that i’m a regular reader, the archives don’t hold much value for me. but they do serve an important orienting function. perhaps just keeping your “best of” articles would suffice for orienting?also, your contacts list is out of control!

  5. Mike says:

    What you’re describing fairly accurately, Dave, is the challenge every publisher needs to confront: effectively utilizing old content. On my site, I index my archives all different ways in an effort to make it easier for people, mainly kids doing homework, to find what they’re looking for. But I also like to breathe life into old posts every couple of years, polishing and republishing them. So rather than blogging in a straight line, we should be looping back, crossing and recrossing old paths en route to new ones.

  6. Ladie Mae says:

    similar to the others who have commented, I like reading your past entries, so please.. I hope you don’t bother yourself anymore with deleting or transferring them to another platform. what matters more to me is content. If it’s worth reading, I don’t care that much whether it was written in 2001 or very recently.

  7. ellen says:

    I downloaded the powerpoint you referenced and took a look at it. From your intro I think you intended to reference slide #46, not #31.If I understand the slide it’s saying (among other things) that 26 percent of the energy produced by the US electric power sector is wasted before it is distributed. And that 56% of all US energy produced is wasted? Wow! That’s sobering. How is waste defined?I’m new to your blog, but really like what I’ve read so far. I intend to take a look into your archives, so please don’t trash them.

  8. Theresa says:

    You remark:”So why do I still maintain the table of contents and continue to link back to earlier articles? Because it helps me to organize my own thoughts.”But this also clearly indicates you’re super smart when it comes to “marketing yourself.” Your content builds and reinforces your position within the blog-sphere and out in the wider world of search engines. A site must grow to position well, and whether you love it or hate it, your PR rank ain’t bad :)Great blog, smart man! I enjoyed myself (and I’ll be back to read your archives, I love digging in and pulling old stuff to the surface again!). Thanks!

  9. steve black says:

    You nailed it again. Thanks. It is inspirational.

  10. Marc Tirel says:

    Thanks so much for this great post and all the others ! I fully agree with your “consolidation” from 35 years in business. Your definition of the value you bring to an organization is so true !! thanks for wrinting it the way you did.

  11. I’ve read almost all your archives throughout the last year, but after awhile, I just keep looking for your next post. I believe that once we get a feel for your attitude and writing style, we know your persona and we can apply it to your future posts. For first-time or new readers, it would definitely be beneficial for you to keep the archives, but for long-time readers who have read most of your material, you could scrap it. I do read your posts from 2003. And they’re mostly still pertinent today. Mostly.

  12. Theresa says:

    I also look in your archives sometimes. I’m not too big on following blogs on a daily basis anymore, just come around once a week or once a month and look for something interesting. The subscriptions in my rss reader could be considered an historical archive of what I wanted to read but didn’t get around to it. What you say about passing information as a virus is quite true. This is why if I have an idea I’d rather throw it out to the comments of some blog or forum than to have a blog of my own. If the idea has any merit someone will catch it and pass it on. If it doesn’t have any merit than I haven’t wasted anyone’s time with a long blog post. I think if people are going to recognize that information travels better this way then they are going to have to think next about the accuracy of that information. Rumors and myths are viruses that are easy to start, not so easy to stop once they have taken hold.

  13. Hi, Dave.I liked this post and linked to it from my blog at,Stan

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