Thu, 04/15/2021 – 09:56
What is the body field
Web editors and content authors who have been around over the last decade of digital media are intimately familiar with the body field. Many popular content management systems (looking at you, Drupal and WordPress) feature a standard “post” or “content” type — like page, article, or blog post — right out of the box. These content types often have a couple of fields to fill out before you can publish your post, things like title, tags, friendly URL / slug, and of course body.
The body field, traditionally, is where all your content goes. In the early days of blogging and web publishing that was likely to be all or mostly text, but with time came images, videos, and eventually an array of other multimedia elements. And the body field adapted. Tokens became standard for plenty of web editors — cryptic chunks of text like [[nid:376 align:right]] that would be auto-magically replaced with other elements once you click Publish. WYSIWYG editors (What You See Is What You Get) started shipping with Insert image and Insert video buttons, and began including a variety of tools for encapsulating, aligning, and positioning lengths of text or various media elements. And while these accommodations started to connect content creators with the boundless possibilities of multimedia authoring, they were (and are) clumsy and unpredictable.
Structured content: Reduce, reuse, recycle
One major problem with all of these innovations is that once you click Publish, all that complex content still ends up in the body field — that is, saved into your database as one giant clump of complicated text, tokens, style codes, etc. If you’d like to publish another page with a similar look & feel, get ready to re-inject all of your tokens or go through the same WYSIWYG click-a-thon to reestablish your styles and layout. Thinking of producing a list of all the images used in your posts? Good luck! With all content mushed together into a single field, your site doesn’t “know” the difference between a paragraph of text, an image, or a video.
A structured approach to content organizes each individual element — a pane of text, an image, slideshow, video, or a “donate now” banner — as its own self-contained entity which, ideally, could then be placed within flexibly configured regions on a page. Creating other, similar pages then becomes as simple as swapping out individual elements or shifting them around between regions of a page. And libraries of reusable content elements become the norm — so that you’re now picking your images, videos, donate banners and more from lists of existing content or existing content styles, instead of trying to hunt down how you did something similar the last time.
Structuring your content into individual, reusable elements drives a lot of collateral benefits:
- Ease of content creation. Authoring with a consistent set of components lets you focus more on content, hierarchy, and intent — instead of trying to remember how you got a video in there at all the last time.
- Styling and restyling. Using discrete elements of content means that your HTML markup and CSS remains consistent across all of your various pages. When the time comes to update the look & feel of your website, changes made on one article page will “just work” on the rest of your articles and all of their elements.
- Content migration. The day might arrive when you consider migrating your content to a newer platform or different software. Structured content makes that a snap: Each image, video, slideshow, or paragraph of text gets individually ported to its new home on the new platform. On the contrary, migrating a mess of markup, tokens, and style codes stored in a single body field means writing complex, custom code to recognize those items and deal with them appropriately — not a simple task.
- Syndication. Want to feature your content in a collection via RSS or deploy it to an app with XML? With structured content apps and other websites can consume just the elements they want of your content (maybe the first paragraph, a title, an image, or a link) then display those elements appropriately according to their own styles — rather than just grabbing a few hundred lines of a single, messy body field and making do.
- Libraries, lists, and cross-promotion. Want to see all the slideshows that appear in articles with a specific tag? Maybe a list of pull-quotes from your most recent blog posts? Structured content creates a world of opportunity around libraries, lists and cross-promotions.
Structuring content facilitates reuse, and it positions your content to go on living in a variety of platforms or a variety of presentations — long after you first click the Publish button.
The two faces of web content
Structuring content is an essential part of beautiful, intuitive digital authoring, but it’s only one side of the coin. The other side is putting an end to the two faces of your web content. Excepting some of the advances of modern WYSIWYG editors, web content has always had two very different faces: View and Edit.
The way content is edited and the way it’s presented are often strikingly different. Especially if you’re still holding on to “one giant body field” innovations like custom tokens, BBCode, Markdown, or short codes, it can take a handful of Preview to Edit to Preview roundtrips to get your content exactly how you want it. Even if you’ve made the move to structured content, a majority of web-based editors are marked by a dramatic difference between the “back end” and the “front end” — just one more digital convention getting between inspired authors and publishing beautiful content easily.
The king is dead, long live the king
The body field is dead. It’s taken center stage in publishing digital content for long enough. Plenty of web products (Medium and Notion, to name a couple) have driven nails in that coffin for publishers creating content on those specific platforms. But what about content creators and web editors working within their organizations’ websites, in custom web applications where content authoring is just one of several important features? What about you, and your organization’s website? What’s next for your web application?
For Drupal websites, we think Layout Paragraphs is what’s next. It was first released to the Drupal community nearly a year ago, and has been the beneficiary of ambitious development ever since.
The Layout Paragraphs module makes it dead simple for authors to create robust, multimedia content from a library of available components. It offers intuitive drag-and-drop controls for managing content flow and layout, and with appropriate styling can bring the two faces of web content — View and Edit — closer than ever before. We built Layout Paragraphs to embrace the future of multimedia content authoring and to solve the problems we watch clients work through every day.
You can watch a short, two-minute demo of Layout Paragraphs here, or follow the instructions in that post to see it in action for yourself.
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