posted 5 Jun 2008 in Volume 11 Issue 9
Ode to the death of Wordís paperclip
Thanks to Facebook, Myspace, blogs and wikis, the creation and posting of a formal document seems to be out of fashion.
By Lynda Rathbone
Come on, admit it. ?The Simpsonsí has to be one of the best shows on TV, ever. Not only does it capture an audience ranging from the ages of seven to 70, it also manages to pack each episode full of home truths, timeless storylines and cultural references specific to the year in which it is created. Not an easy job.
Iíd never given it this much thought until recently, when I was watching an older episode that I had seen previously but not for some time. The basic storyline featured Bart letting his dog, Santaís Little Helper, become a police dog and join the
Missing his dog, Bart decides to get a new pet Ė a snake Ė and, as expected, things go awry. At one point, the snake is looking for food and sees the family computer. As the snake is trying to swallow the computer, mouse first, an animated paperclip comes on the monitor and a message flashes on the screen that says, ?I see you are trying to eat me. How can I help?í
Whatever happened to that paperclip? Now donít get me wrong, I hated it. And it made absolutely no difference that I could customise my ?helper iconí to a cat or anything else that bounced around and tried to interpret my actions, so it could generally mess up what little formatting I did manage to do myself. No, I am definitely not trying to write a letter.
While the Microsoft paperclip will forever go down in history as a mid-to-late 90s attempt at making Word more usable, I have to wonder why itís gone? Word hasnít really gone through any significant changes in the subsequent releases of Office and itís still as useful/frustrating (depending what end of the user spectrum you are) as itís ever been.
Is it because the general computer user population has just gotten used to the idiosyncrasies and now accepts the Word user interface ?as isí? Or could it be that the user experience on the web now has changed the way we think about writing/authoring and creating documents in the first place? Dare we credit the whole Web 2.0 thing with changing the way we publish content in the first place?
Ten years ago uploading an entire document for download on a website was commonplace. We were just happy to be able to give others access to that information and users were happy to access these files in this way, no matter how slow or frustrating that experience was.
We learned how to save our files as PDFs and uploaded document after document. Now, fast-forward to blogs, wikis, Facebook and Myspace. Suddenly the creation of a formal document and the posting of that document online as web content is out of fashion. Sure, there will always be the need to offer up information in its Ďformalí, complete document state on websites, but I think by and large, a content revolution is taking place and we better sit up and take notice.
Think about your companyís network drives. If your organisation is like most, these drives are a maze of folders and documents that have grown organically over time and require the user to e-mail the path to the relevant documents to others who need to access them. Anyone who has tried doing a keyword search across these drives can attest to the fact that the results are about as useful as a chocolate teapot.
Why? People are lazy. All those Word, Powerpoint and Excel documents are supposed to contain valuable information and knowledge for others in the organisation but not if they are saved as some combination of the userís name, date and/or acronym. But is this the real issue?
Have we become too accustomed to consuming and publishing our content in bite-sized chunks Ė real-time? And even if we were able to locate these documents, would they really be useful?
Dare I ask, does Microsoft know something we donít? They have clearly made a decision to ditch the paperclip and instead put all their efforts into a web-based publishing environment, which is focused more around social networking and collaboration that emphasises the contribution and the context around that contribution over the simple Ďfilingí or archiving of documents created by individual authors.
Now donít get me wrong, this nirvana is a way off; Microsoft and Facebook are in bed together, and Iím definitely not a fan of Bill Gatesí view of the world, but it does make me stop and think about what the death of the paperclip really means.
For now, Iíll remain cautiously optimistic that the way we think about creating content and sharing knowledge actually takes into consideration those for which that content and knowledge is intended, albeit more as an output of the way it was created and less as the initial intent. Because, after all, while weíre all about sharing in todayís online day and age, we are still likely to be a bit lazy.
As always, I welcome any comments or feedback at Lynda@foursquaremedia.net (especially if you work for Microsoft and can let me know what really happened to that paperclip).