The Trouble with ‘Content,’ Part 1

Rachel Lovinger   October 29, 2013
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.

10 Responses

  1. Shelly Bowen says:

    I never imagined we’d be here… but here we are!

    I had an early conversation with a new client recently about what the company needed to achieve their goals. Many of the words I was using were quickly censored as jargon, including “content,” “content strategy,” and “brand storytelling.” She said her team would squirm if we used these words, and we’d have a hard time moving forward.

    This made me smile … because, yes, overused or misused words often become jargon, but you’re so right, Rachel. It was a challenge to talk about content without an all-embracing word for it. And using a broad word (like “product”) doesn’t mean it’s not a high-quality thing.

    I wonder if the word “content” is suspect because we, as content strategists and content creators, love to create it … and everyone knows it’s so much work, so how could we possibly feel that way or make it great?

    Love the food analogy. I’m definitely going to spread that around. Thanks!

  2. Thanks Shelly! I’m sure a lot of people in our line of work run into this problem all the time.

    There have been some interesting responses to this piece on Twitter, and in one of them @willcanderson shared a link to this post he wrote a few months ago about the use of the word “consumption” when we talk about content in these broad strokes:

    It’s interesting how the food metaphor carries through here – but in a way, that’s part of what makes it disturbing. Our complex relationship with food is spilling over into our complex relationship with “content.”

  3. These are great observations, Rachel. I think one issue is how abstract the word “content” sounds. Its sounds so inanimate. An IT person may say: “content is just unstructured data” – which of course it is, but it’s much more. Content is meant to be meaningful to humans (as well as machines, hopefully). But is an item of content fully meaningful on its own, or is the true meaning obtained when it is placed in relationship to other content? My hope is that over time people will come to see content not as inert stuff, but as raw material that has many possibilities, just as do the contents of our imagination.

  4. […] Lovinger at Razorfish blogged a very apt response: “Hating on the word ‘content’ is like a chef saying ‘I don’t make […]

  5. Great post Rachel,
    When I worked as a Managing Editor at Microsoft you had to be careful about using the term ‘content’ in front of the writers. The preferred term was ‘stories’.

    I guess you adapt to the culture you’re working in!


  6. Barbara says:

    I have no problem with “content” as an umbrella term. For instance, when streaming breaks down, Hulu displays a message that says, “Your content will return shortly.” In that context, “your movie or song or TV clip” would be unwieldy, and the problem at hand is with the stuff *as* content, as a technical doohickey that isn’t operating.

    Where I get irked: I’ve heard the term used to refer not to finished artifacts of any kind but to the raw information floating around in people’s heads. So the videographer isn’t recognized as the content creator. “Content” is the stuff floating around some bureaucrat’s head, and the status of writer, videographer, or illustrator who turns that vague subject matter into something is reduced to that of a tape recorder.

  7. Joe Gollner says:

    Very interesting post. It managed to provoke a few new ideas for me so thanks for that. I didn’t want to pile too many of these ideas into your comment stream but I did toss up a public reflection on it on Google+ (

    As a very short summary, I wholeheartedly endorse your rejection of the overly simplistic and generally unhelpful definition of content as “stuff”. And inline with Michael’s observation on the popular IT characterization of content as “unstructured data” I too have routinely found this characterization to be at best unhelpful and often pernicious. I touched on this particular problem in a post called “Fear of Content” (

    And I grabbed onto and will now probably, and perhaps problematically, drive in innumerable directions the idea that you have introduced that our task is to help remove the transactional shackles that many organizations, and I dare say technologies, place on our content. By extension, these shackles are also placed on to content creators who can deliver so much more provided we give them the chance and the avenues to effectively reach people.

    I just love having a new idea to drive around. It really is the holiday season. Thanks again.

  8. Gareth says:

    Where is part 2? You left me wanting more :-)
    Go content!

  9. It’s still in the works! There are a few other posts that have to come first.

  10. Sorry to be so suspenseful. Part 2 will have to wait until sometime after SXSW. We actually have a bunch of other things we’re working on between now and mid-March!

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