I Hate the Word “Content”

[This essay appeared on my blog, Dim Bulb, on May 10, 2010. It survives thanks to the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine]

Calling the output of writers, musicians, moviemakers and even the artisans of branding’s dark arts “content” is like referencing the substance of every meal “food,” or labeling the specific events of human experience “life.”

It has slipped into common usage due to the prevalence of technology and, since qualitative attributes don’t necessarily register on site architectures or CRM flowcharts, it replaces substantive description with referential convenience. Content is a box that needs to be filled, and it doesn’t matter that the entire contents of the Library of Congress could thus be called “data.” The POV negates any recognition beyond format.

We talk of content instead of ideas or meaning because we choose to base those conversations on process in lieu of purpose.

Or at least that’s my conclusion when I read about the content farms that have emerged over the past few years (like this one). The premise is simple in a VC-funding sort of way: behavioral modeling can allow web sites to gauge topics in which site visitors are interested, which will then prompt content services to reach out to freelancers to produce stuff on said topics. Sites will then tee-up these prequalified articles and videos (or whatever) along with the targeted ads that are based on similar audience research.

So visitors are happy because the site gives them what they want, just as sponsors are thrilled to know why the visitors are there in the first place. It’s a perfect win-win exchange.

Or is it a blueprint for a perpetual motion machine?

It’s not reasonable to expect consumers to know what they want to know before they know it; conversation isn’t a self-referential do-loop, but rather an amorphous, porous system that requires newness. People need to acquire novel insights somewhere and somehow but it won’t be through a mechanism that presumes to guess what they’re already seeking.

In this sense, the content farm approach is no different than Google’s “last click” approach to selling: since the qualitative steps of experience are so hard to control and monetize, they’re literally outsourced to other providers.

In other words, let some stupid mainstream publisher go broke promoting something more unexpected or unique. Content is effectively generic, and the only reason its has any value is because someone else paid for the privilege of educating or inspiring consumers to ask for it.

It gets worse.

Many of the for-profit creators of art and/or information are on commercial deathwatches because they’re competing with entities who are happy to give things away for free (they make money via other aspects of their business models), and/or with individuals who are just plain disinterested in making any money whatsoever.

So while technology frees the unlimited creation and distribution of digital bits — I’m a fan and beneficiary of it — the result is that the Internet is flooded not with insight or awareness or knowledge, but rather…yup, you guessed it…content. Agnostic, without distinctions of authority or reliability and thus equally tolerated, online content is supposed to be vetted by the invisible, magical hand of The Crowd.

Only it doesn’t work all that well, despite the advocates who claim otherwise, because most subjects or issues can’t be reduced to a simple thumbs up or down conclusion.

The Crowd rates content on its content-ness but it doesn’t regularly originate net-new substance. Think less library card file and more agitated audience at a daily bear bating or gladiator duel. The parties or individuals who do otherwise are more the exception to this rule, and I’d wager that few if any consider themselves in the content business.

And then we get to brands, most of which have wholly embraced the content idea.

When the substance of marketing communications is seen as content, we see the true realization of form without function, as brands spend money to effectively waste consumers’ time. Conversation has an absolutely value, as does entertainment, humor, and any behavior that prompts people to prompt any such behaviors in others.

Content is a box that appears on PowerPoint presentations between charts on users and metrics; it’s more what than why and most of the latest marketing campaigns value its frequent dissemination over what it qualitatively communicates.

I’d wager that we could track the decline in corporate reputation and price premiums with the use of the world “content” as a descriptive for what gets created by brands. So brands create content, the net regurgitates and propagates it, and then content farms respond to it by producing more of the same. This just seems like such an incidental or partial perspective on how people learn and interact.

Since my interest is with marketers primarily, I wonder what would happen if we simply stopped using the word entirely, and instead referenced the substance of our efforts by our qualitative (what we are hoping to communicate) and quantitative purposes (what we want people to do with it)?

Would we create better ads and more tangibly useful social campaigns? Aren’t we less “content creators” and more “sales enablers?”

Calling the guts of what we create “content,” whether as marketers or artists, imprisons our hopes and limits our efficacy.

I hate the word.

I’m president of Arcadia Communications Lab, a global collaborative solely focused on helping established businesses get value from communicating about innovation. You can follow me @jonathansalem