Aug 102015


Every time a digital product manger says the word ‘content’, it makes me cringe. Sometimes, it’s appropriate, but mostly it’s a careless shorthand way of commodifying everything, with or without meaning.

When I was younger content referred to the actual meaning of what you were painting, reading, making a film of, or whatever. I got told off by a teacher for reading X-Men and Childhood’s End rather than The Scarlet Letter. (I did, actually, read TSL. It was good, just not what I always wanted to read). She, of course, hadn’t read either, but comics were all story, devoid of any real content.

Fast forward a decade or so and there’s this… Internet thing. I think the first time I heard the word “content” was about 1998, when the company I was working for brought in a specialist to help us strategise what the website was going to be, outside of the main functionality. Did we want people reading articles (there were no blogs), or to come away with something besides an efficient dispute resolution process? The content of the website was what mattered.

It still made sense, then.

Everything on the Internet is described as content now. Words. Pictures. Videos. Flash mobs. Happenings. Content has turned into a catch-all phrase, a commodity. It’s a convenient shorthand, and there are people for whom it works, but it puts in the same bucket The Onion, The Atlantic,

And here’s the thing: a commodity by definition isn’t unique, it’s interchangeable. If you’re buying pork belly futures or soybean oil it doesn’t matter if you get those things from east or west. You get the oil, the grain, sand, whatever, and it does the job, however it works.

But what we’re calling content is – usually – different. The written word is a precious thing. If I go to The Atlantic to read Ta-Nahesi Coates I don’t want to read words written by Boris Johnston. It’s not a commodity, but we treat it as though it is.

I would suggest that if you want better content for your website (or, you know, whatever web-enabled 2.0 property) that the first order of business is to stop referring to it as such. Call it writing, or films, or articles, or whatever. Writers write words. They don’t create content. Good writing is unlikely to have an expiry date. Unlike, hopfully, this post.

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