Short-form content doesn’t need to be written as a chronological sequence of blog posts

For short-form web content where the publication date is not of primary importance, consider alternatives to the blog format.

The blog: ideal for journals, less ideal for knowledge

The invention of the blog (née weblog) came with a new standard way to broadcasting written information: clearly date-stamped posts, sorted in reverse chronological order.

Putting the date front-and-central on each blog post can be problematic, because it reduces the up-to-dateness of a post to a single attribute. For example, for a blog post from 2018, it’s easy to make a “old and probably obsolete” snap judgement.

The nature of blogs makes this date stamp important, however. The blog format is a write-once, update-never format (“Update-never”, with the exceptional small spelling or grammar revision, or the addition of a “this post is outdated” notice near the top. ). The content in a blog post is not intended to be revised. If the content does require revision, a common approach is to mark the blog post as outdated, and write a new blog post, with a newer date stamp. Most often, though, old blog posts simply are not updated (they’re not meant to be) and become stale. The date stamp is thus necessary to identify potentially outdated content.

For content where the date is predominant, a blog is a good fit. A weekly log or a personal journal would not be what it is without a dominant date.

For knowledge work, on the other, the blog format is not ideal. Knowledge is inherently timeless and thus does not fit well into a collection of neatly-dated blog posts. Moreover, knowledge accumulates over time, and it makes sense for written content to be continuously updated. This, however, creates friction with the write-once, update-never format of blog posts.

Sort by title, not by date

For short-form content where the publication date is not dominant, sort by alphabetically by title, rather than by publication date. This approach to presenting content conveys to the reader that it is intended to be updated over time.

If the amount of content is unwieldy for a single list, it can be worth grouping by topic first, then alphabetically by title. To do: This is potentially where hierarchies and tags come in.

Dates are relevant, but should not dominate

A date is important for readers to figure out whether content is up to date or not. For content that is intended to be kept up to date, prefer a last-revised date over a publication date. Update the last-revised date manually when significant revisions are made; don’t rely on automated ways, such as the filesystem mtime.

To elaborate: The presence of a date is not enough to determine whether or not some content is up to date or not. Consider a title that provides enough information (e.g. “how to upgrade to React 13” is very likely obsolete).

There is an additional, psychological benefit to not having clearly date-stamped blog posts. By having notes rather than blog posts, and thus no clear date stamps, I don’t feel as much pressure to keep my site up to date. I no longer feel apprehension about my site potentially appearing outdated, and potentially becoming irrelevant.

Comparing blog posts to books

Books don’t mention the date when they were written on their cover, nor on the back side, nor on the spine. The information about when a book was written is usually in small print on the edition notice (copyright page). This is true for fiction books (which might never lose relevance (A fiction book might go out of style, but it won’t become obsolete. )), but also for non-fiction books, even those about software engineering topics that run the risk of becoming woefully obsolete in the next handful of years.

Revising a book is time-consuming and expensive. Books are therefore inherently more write-only than online content. Open question: What does this mean? Do blog posts just date quicker? If so, why? Is it because blog posts are written with the intention of becoming obsolete anyway? Are we fetishizing freshness? Perhaps books don’t need their date stamp as clearly, because books are meant to be a long-lasting medium, and considerably more thought and research has gone into a book than in a blog post.

Thought: Do books live in an ecosystem where curation is much more of a big deal? Libraries can’s stock every book and librarians will make choices about what to hold or not hold.

References

Matuschak, Andy. n.d. “Knowledge Work Should Accrete.” Accessed March 9, 2021. https://notes.andymatuschak.org/Knowledge_work_should_accrete.

Ahrens, Sönke. 2017. How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking: For Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers.

“How the Blog Broke the Web - Stacking the Bricks.” n.d. Accessed March 20, 2021. https://stackingthebricks.com/how-blogs-broke-the-web/.