The Problem With “Content”  

Everyone has a pet peeve. At least currently, mine is the word “content.” It falls in the category of words like “quality,” “luxury,” and “awesome” that have been overused and abused so much that they often feel like they have lost all meaning. “Content,” however, is a bit more insidious than these other examples.

“Content” is the black hole of the Internet. Incredibly well-produced videos, all sorts of songs, and articulate blog posts — they are all “content.” Are short stories “content”? I hope not, since that is one of the most soul-destroying of words, used to strip a creation of its creative effort.

You can tell a lot about a person and how they think about their work based on whether or not they use “content” to describe what they do. A photographer who says that he is creating “content” for his YouTube channel is nothing more than a marketer churning out fodder to fill the proverbial Internet airwaves with marketing noise.

My website has my words, my interviews, my photos, and my identity — what it doesn’t have, as far as I’m concerned, is “content.” Looking at it from the other side, for platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube, everything is “content” regardless of its provenance. Each creation is merely an object, only valuable for its ability to increase our time spent on their platforms, allowing them to sell more advertising. The moment the eyes of the beholder begin to drift, the platform offers up a new recommendation designed to keep us addicted. There is no difference between good videos or hateful videos. There is no difference between factual or fake news. There is no difference between a sponsored photo by an influencer or a work of art from a struggling photographer.

“Content is inherently transactional; its goal is to drive towards some kind of conversion, some kind of exchange of value,” says Khoi Vinh, principal designer at Adobe and one of my favorite bloggers. Khoi, ironically, makes this very point on a website called Own Your Content. It is owned by WordPress.com, the folks who are supposed to champion the idea of blogging and creativity. Et tu, WordPress?

My working hypothesis on “content” relates to how the Internet has evolved into a highly quantifiable entity. From the very beginning of the modern web, publishers started using phrases like “page views” and “eyeballs.” The rise of the social web (a.k.a. Web 2.0) introduced us to the idea of upvotes in now largely forgotten web platforms, such as Digg.

Digg’s brilliance was that it added data contextuality to articles and gave readers a voice in identifying what was worth reading. The articles that reached the top of the Digg homepage generated a torrent of readers many times bigger than its predecessor, Slashdot. The bonus of being a Digg star was that you were linked to by many other blogs and were rewarded for your top status with a higher page rank on Google’s search engine. This, in turn, led to more visitors. The higher the traffic, the greater the advertising opportunities, and the better the chance to make some money. Every big publishing house wanted a piece of this action.

Step back, and you can see why it was a marketer’s wet dream come true. It didn’t take very long before many were trying to replicate materials that were popular with the Digg community, tailoring headlines and “content” to tap into the traffic goldmine. Digg treated blogs like mine as if they were on equal footing with big publishing houses. But the little guys eventually lost out, because the big publishers had more resources to tailor their “content.”

One of the side effects of GigaOM shutting down was that I renewed my focus on this personal space. Like in my apartment, on my blog, I am king. My first decree was to eschew any and all analytics. I don’t want to be driven by “views,” or what Google deems worthy of rank. I write what pleases me, not some algorithm. Walking away from quantification of my creativity was an act of taking back control.

Sites like Digg showed marketers and publishers that, if you play your cards right, any platform can deliver traffic that can be converted into advertising dollars. But I should pause here and say that I don’t want to pick on marketing professionals. Many of them are creative in their own right, but when the business side of media companies looks at what these professionals produce, it sees only “content” — something they can use to drum up a few micropennies here and there.

I recognize that the genie is pretty much out of the bottle on this one. These concepts have long since been adopted by other social platforms. Twitter “likes” and “retweets” quantified the importance and reach of tweets and whatever payload they carried. Facebook, weaponized upvotes into “likes” and “shares” so that everyone could market every life event to each other. From kids’ birthdays to family vacations, all of it is now “content.” And so are the words and images of hate-mongers and predators. Like I said before, the platform doesn’t discriminate.

This quantification of everything that occurs in the Internet means that creating “content” is almost unavoidable. A photographer who makes “content” for YouTube understandably may want to perhaps sell his Lightroom presets or a spot on his photo workshops. I have no problem with people selling stuff and finding ways to create a market and audience for their business and products. Everyone has to put food on the table.

But words matter, and we can choose which ones we use to talk about what we produce and the things we admire and cherish. I encounter so much imaginative work on the web, and I guess I just can’t help but be peeved when I hear it discussed (often by the creators themselves) as if it is essentially marketing copy.

And call me old fashioned, but I am happy to keep writing even if no “eyeballs” are watching!

This first appeared on my weekly newsletter dated June 16, 2019. If you like to get this delivered to your inbox, just sign-up here, and I will take care of the rest.

Photo by Clark Tibbs on Unsplash

A letter from Om

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