Publishers have stopped referring to their products as journalism, writing, literature, photography, or art. Today, everything is simply “content”.
Those working in media, especially digital media, can attest to the word’s popularity. Quantitatively we can observe this trend in the chart above: over the last ten years, annual financial reports from The New York Times have leaned more and more heavily on the word “content” when describing their business. The share of “journalism” has remained relatively flat.
The NYT and other publishers rely on the word “content” to help them understand the breadth of their output. But by reducing their writing, photography, videos and more to a single, nondescript term they’re setting themselves up for failure.
The Rise of “Content”
“Content” emerged with the rise of the Internet, which detached pieces of work from their primary media. Before the web, we referred to works by the media format which delivered them: as newspapers, magazines, paintings, photographs, records, CDs, and so on. As digital representations grew in popularity these monikers became increasingly awkward. Is a newspaper still a “paper” when the majority of its readers view it on screens? To abate this awkwardness, we began to search for a more apt term. We landed on “content”, a bucket term which we ask to describe anything a publisher could publish, from the most revelatory art to the most hackneyed rags.
At this point, “content” was an innocent, sloppy fix. A stopgap until the Internet settled down and a proper term could be coined. Unfortunately, the pace of innovation quickened and today language is unable to keep pace with rapidly emerging new ideas, art1, and businesses.
So we’ve stuck with “content”.
The Assumptions & Allure of Content
To achieve its representative breadth, the word “content” makes two assumptions:
- Each piece of “content” is equal and is therefore interchangeable: As stated earlier, “content” is used to represent a wide breadth of works. A Pulitzer winning report and a Business Insider slideshow are both single instances of “content.” The word must remain formless, devoid of emotion, and of indefinite form and quality. Any characteristic which might differentiate two works must be ignored. This rhetoric categorization gives rise to the second assumption.
- “Content” production is trivial: Since each bit of “content” is interchangeable, “content” is only as hard to create as the easiest instance.
Publishers buy into these two assumptions because “content” allows them to easily measure and analyze their output. Messy qualitative measures are hidden so output fits neatly within Excel cells. This is the allure of “content”: it allows comforting, structured data which simplifies the complexity of a large business and makes decisions less intimidating. Executives aren’t making qualitative picks regarding art or an artist, they’re merely signing off on whichever “content” produces more valuable metrics.
At The New York Times it’s conceivable that editors and executives have a handle on their output. But businesses with strategies dependent on massive levels of “content” production cannot know the quality of everything that ships. Think YouTube, where users upload more than an hour of video every hour. Or content farms like Demand Media, which claims to have created 2 million articles and 200,000 videos as of June 2010.
PHOTO OP: Content Kitty Is Content
Typewriter Series #27 by Tyler Knott Gregson
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I’m content to regard the Internet as the best and brightest machine ever made by man, but nonetheless a machine with a tin ear and a wooden tongue. It is one thing to browse the Internet; it is another thing to write for it.
We’re still playing with toys. The Internet is blessed with undoubtedly miraculous applications, but language is not yet one of them. Absent the force of the human imagination and its powers of expression, our machines cannot accelerate the hope of political and social change, which stems from language that induces a change of heart.
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