The Website of Theseus

I did a talk in February called What Even Is a Website? The gist: in most organizations, everyone thinks about what their website is in a different way — making collaboration very difficult.

An answer I couldn’t fit into the talk is this: a website is like The Ship of Theseus.

The Ship of Theseus is a philosophy problem about a fictional ship (ship as in boat, not Mulder/Scully). It asks: if you replace every part of a ship one-by-one with a new, more-or-less identical part, is it still the same ship? Or is it a new ship? Or is it the old ship at one point and a new ship at another? (Khan Academy has a great explainer on this.) I’m of the opinion that it’s the same ship all the way through. The answer is right there in the name: the Ship of Theseus. Theseus owns the ship. It was his ship at the beginning, and it’s his ship at the end. Same boat, new parts.

A ship is more than the wood it’s made of, and a website is more than its code, content, and design. It’s ownership, policies, history, even the culture of the organization that publishes it. Few teams ever really launch a new website. It may have been rebuilt, re-concieved, redesigned, re-platformed. But it was AwesomeCo’s website yesterday, and it’s AwesomeCo’s website today.

Website projects that don’t take this into account tend to fail. The organization swaps out a bunch of parts (like the CMS or the navigation) and think that this “new” website will solve all of their problems. But it doesn’t, because they had too limited a view of what the website really is.

We tend to talk about websites as objects, or perhaps places, but I think organisms are a better metaphor. As a human, you started out real small, then get bigger and grew and changed, cut your hair and pierced your ears and replaced a whole lot of cells and so on. But you’ve also always been you. The changes, however dramatic, never made you not you.

Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished. The person you are right now is as transient, as fleeting and as temporary as all the people you’ve ever been. The one constant in our lives is change. – Dan Gilbert

Change is a constant for websites, too. Even if you don’t touch a line of code or publish a single new article, you are changing (you being the person/organization that publishes the site). In Stumbling on Happiness, the book the above quote is from, the author tells us that people end up unhappy because they’re following goals that were set for who they were, not who they are. This describes just about every content strategy project I’ve everworked on. It’s why assessing current state and establishing new goals is often the first step. By doing that first, the organization frequently learns that they don’t actually need a new ship — just a new perspective.

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