The lowly carrot, elevated to an art. Photo by T.Tseng
Let’s talk about the word “Content”.
When you have a word in your job title, you tend to notice how people are reacting to it. When I started working in the field of content strategy, the impression was that no one wanted to hear about “content” because it was too “technical” sounding. In the past few years that’s been changing. People are embracing the idea of content, and the challenges and opportunities we face with creating and distributing it in the digital age. Yay, progress!
But while some people are celebrating the love fest (#ConfabFeelings became a popular hashtag during the Confab conference this past June), there’s a murmur of dissent growing in the shadows. Search for “hate the word content” on Google and you’ll start to get a sense of the range and depth of objections. Some people are uncomfortable with the word, but acknowledge that it’s probably the best option we have at the moment. Others are incensed at the destructively reductive nature of the word, and even insist that we should stop using it. Recently I read an interview with a documentary film director that closed with the statement “in an era of films being reduced to being called ‘content’ and watched on people’s phones, the studios need to encourage the love of filmmaking as much as they can.” I realized she was probably reacting to Kevin Spacey’s speech about the Netflix distribution model. (Full disclosure: I was giddy when I heard Kevin Spacey use the word “content” in that speech.)
The core problem seems to be a feeling that the word “content” reduces thoughtful, artistic expressions to a commodity. The websites and apps we develop to elegantly deliver words, images and media experiences are perceived as empty containers, hungry for content to be poured into them. Content marketing campaigns depend on calendars that demand to be filled on a regularly scheduled basis. This may give the impression that an effective approach to content is to churn out generic stuff that fits the size and shape of the container, and meets the deadlines.
No true content strategist agrees with that approach. We believe that content should have a purpose – whether that purpose is artistic expression, education, or meeting a business need – and quality is one of the top criteria for determining its value. As a discipline, we celebrate content. We support it and advocate for it. We build entire ecosystems to make sure it can get in front of people who will love it as much as we do. We adopt tools and design processes, workflows and governance plans that make it possible for people to create and maintain delightful, useful, effective content for engaging experiences.
For the sake of communicating efficiently about those systems, we need an inclusive term like “content.” It’s just not effective to say “words, stories, music, movies, games, poems, videos, photos, drawings, and other stuff” every time we want to talk about the things our systems enable people to make and distribute. In this sense, it’s a neutral word. Hating on the word “content” is like a chef saying “I don’t make food. Food is what people get at McDonald’s.” Well, there probably are chefs who feel that way, but it’s based on a fallacy. At the same time, I would never, ever refer to my favorite chef as a “food maker.” The word “content” isn’t perfect, but I don’t want to see it vilified. We need words to be able to talk about these principles and practices.
I work in content strategy because I love content. I’m pretty sure that feeling is shared by most people who do this kind of work. I’ve been fighting the good fight for content every day of my career, emphasizing that the promise of digital is that we can get away from the containers that have limited content creation and distribution, and focus on the substance. It should be all about the stories, the art, and the experience. We’re trying to create systems that don’t get in the way of the creative process, so people can tell stories, paint pictures, play music, and make movies that are better, more authentic, more informative, and more engaging.
Of course, there’s an inherent problem with creating systems for artists. I’ll get into that more in part 2 of “The Trouble with ‘Content’,” coming soon.