On “Content”

Posted on Mon, August 18, 2014 in Internet Marketing, by Alum

When did writing become “content”? I was in journalism school in 1998-99, and it seems to me that it was some time after that. In school we talked about the content of a piece, but did not refer to a piece as content per se. It seems like content as a stand-alone term is a fairly new in our media world, and it seems to have become an indispensable term since media went digital.

“What kind of content do you produce?” is now an entirely acceptable and standard career question for a writer. This bothers me and I'm trying to figure out why. Twenty years ago the equivalent of that question might have been, “What kind of writing do you do?” Maybe the former question seems to me, as a writer, a bit cold and soulless, devoid of recognition of inspiration. Does calling a piece of writing “content” extinguish all potential for grace and beauty? No, it’s just a label. Yet saying “I create content” versus “I am a writer” feels like it devalues the craft of putting voice to thoughts, readability to emotion or argument.

The allure of digital content – and its fallout, social media – is clearly irresistible, but perhaps in our current trend to Twitterize and make sellable our content, we could recall that when the media theorist Marshall McLuhan said in the 1960s, “the medium is the message,” it was recognized by some not as a triumphant and celebratory statement but as a cautionary foretelling. Partly, what McLuhan was conveying is that how a message is delivered controls how its audience perceives it. It can also control how members of that audience relate the message to one another, and then, in turn, how those people relate to one another in general. It leads me to think now that amongst all of our digital content and all of our likes and retweets and hits and pins, what we’re sometimes doing isn’t fully communicating but publishing and consuming information without processing or analyzing it, and I find that to be limiting in many ways, and I feel that in some way, the current way content has become commodified is to blame.

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