Don’t Worry (Too Much) About the Post Date

Carton of milk with an expiration date.

One odd thing I’ve discovered during the past few years is that much of the content that I consume could be considered “outdated.” I often discover excellent podcasts a year or two after the host stopped recording new episodes. While frantically searching for a technical solution across the World Wide Web, I consistently stumble across Stack Overflow and Reddit threads that have been gathering dust for five years (or longer).

I think that there’s an idea on the Internet that more recent posts and articles are somehow more authoritative or relevant than those published longer than five minutes ago. Every piece of content has a date stamp and sometimes even a time stamp that tells you exactly when a piece was published. Some sites swap “published date” for “last updated” to show you how recently that “Complete Guide to [insert random topic] got a facelift.

But really, great content doesn’t have a “best by” or “sell by” date like milk. It’s not going to curdle and go bad just because it sat for awhile.

When I was studying writing in college, I didn’t think too much about the publish date of the pieces that my professors used to teach key writing concepts. We read work from Annie Dillard and Joan Didion that was published decades before I could toddle around. Their work stands the test of time because everything about the content—from theme, to style, to mechanical execution—remains relevant today. I can’t imagine any of my favorite writers going back to update their classic pieces.

But today we live in a time of the ubiquitous update. My iPhone and iPad have informed me that there’s a new OS update. Every time I open Zoom to join a call, the app upgrades to the new version. Dozens upon dozens of apps on my devices continue to update in the background. Those updates come with the promise of additional features along with better reliability and security from bug fixes. In the world of software, it’s easy to assume that the newest update is the best.

I think that line of thought gets applied to content and then legitimized by SEO algorithms that are tuned to look for the newest and most relevant posts.

Suddenly I find myself subconsciously discounting posts that were published six months ago.

But really, great content doesn’t have a “best by” or “sell by” date like milk. It’s not going to curdle and go bad just because it sat for awhile.

This is a subtle form of what C.S. Lewis described as “chronological snobbery” which is “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate of our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that count discredited.”1Art Lindsley Ph.D. “KD-2003-Spring-C.S.-Lewis-on-Chronological-Snobbery-596.Pdf.” Knowing & Doing, Spring 2003. https://www.cslewisinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/KD-2003-Spring-C.S.-Lewis-on-Chronological-Snobbery-596.pdf. Lewis was talking about ignoring wisdom from a past era because it was, well, past. Our own era is definitely one of the moment, the now, the present. Lewis may have had decades and centuries in mind. Chronological snobbery can exist in shorter timeframes as well.

Relevance is in the eye of the beholder

What I’ve discovered by listening to older podcasts and reading “outdated” posts is that the date of publication matters far less than the quality of the content and the ability of the reader to generate meaning from that content.

For example, I might come across an obscure blog post on how to run a certain function in Excel that includes screenshots from Office 2016. On the surface, it might seem like that post is a waste of time. But on a closer look, it may be that the author has provided an elegant Visual Basic for Application script that runs perfectly on my uber-up-to-date laptop and Office 365 subscription. It may be that that “old” post is more helpful than the updated Microsoft Office help docs.

This reminds me of a blog post I recently read from David Heinemeier Hannson (co-founder of Basecamp) titled “Invest in things that don’t change.” In reflecting on more than twenty years in software development, he writes:

All the energy I’ve invested into learning Ruby, SQL, HTTP, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, Linux, and the other mainstays of web development, continues to propel my work to this day. Yes, the versions have changed, the specs have grown more complicated, and most of the fundamentals have gotten slowly better. But it’s completely recognizable from twenty years ago…

…Ruby is originally from 1993. Linux from 1991. MySQL from 1995. That’s all the core building blocks of what I still work with, and all those technologies are pushing on thirty years now. Using ideas that at the time were already a decade or older!2David Heinemeier Hansson. “Invest in Things That Don’t Change.” Accessed March 27, 2023. https://world.hey.com/dhh/invest-in-things-that-don-t-change-6f7f19e1.

—David Heinemeier Hannson

Ignoring that Stack Overflow thread from 13 years ago is like me ignoring my dad’s advice about work because he’s retired. Those older blog posts and Youtube videos might have the answer I’m looking for, even if that’s not what the algorithm thinks I want.

The fundamentals of great content don’t change because people more or less stay the same. We want information that solves our problems. We want stories that engage our heart and mind.

The publish date doesn’t make or break the post. It’s the content that counts.

Citations

Scroll to Top