This Is Content

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been seeing a lot of smart people experiencing small paroxysms of insecurity about the use of the word “content” to describe the stuff that people publish online.

“It’s impersonal,” goes the narrative. “It’s a buzzword.” “It takes all the humanity and warmth out of our stories and insights and makes them sad and grey.”

Tactical Fail

Here’s the thing. Most people who do content work have had a difficult time selling it, even to clients who desperately need it. We are just beginning to get mainstream companies and organizations to care about “Content Strategy” thing. This is not the time to go on a vision quest in search of a perfect, non-buzzwordy neologism to describe what we do.

More importantly, though, there’s nothing wrong with “content.”

There Is a Problem, and It’s Not the Word

The tradition of speaking about content vs. form goes back to Aristotle’s distinction between an argument (logos, pathos, ethos, and d’Artagnan) and its presentation (lexis). True, when we speak about “web content,” we mean both the ideas and their rhetorical formulation, but the leap from Aristotle’s breakdown to the one we use on the web—content, presentation, and behavior—is a small one. And in the context of the website-making world, it makes perfect sense to talk about “stories” or “insights” or “ideas,” however they’re presented, as content.

I’m a true believer about the power of crappy language to throttle the intellect and numb the conscience. And if you’re feeling lousy about writing or reading lifeless, perfunctory content that tastes like moldy cardboard, it can be tempting to blame it on the lexicon.

But “content” isn’t the problem. The problem is believing that quality is optional, that publishing more is automatically better, that this nonsense and its ilk are anything but an antisocial exploitation of a temporary loophole, or that paint-by-numbers content or social media or SEO or anything else is going to save your ass when you’re not creating something genuinely valuable.

People of Earth, Remember

Good content people, whatever medium they work in, understand that storytelling is the main way we get knowledge out of the head of one clever primate and into the head of another. They get that you need to sound human, and that the only way to do that is to BE human. Nothing the Cluetrain guys said in ’99 is any less true today, even if their neohippy lean got a bad reputation during the post-bubble dry spell.

Stop dithering. Go forth and make great stuff.

6 thoughts on “This Is Content

  1. Well put. One bit I wonder about though (warning: unfiltered off-the-cuff ramble ahead):

    There’s an entire army of people out there at “traditional” (scare quotes mine) publishing companies, be they newsroom editors, op-ed writers, textbook acquisition mavens, or pulp novelists, who’ve honed the act of creating quality content on a regimented schedule/budget down to a fine art. At the previous two such institutions I worked for all of these people were simply referred to (and officially payrolled) as “Editorial.” It feels like there’s a huge potential talent pool of these folks with existing skills that can be brought to bear on this issue, but aren’t in the mix all that much yet, possibly because the new terms are throwing things off a bit. (I can think of several brilliant editors who could fill a role at shops like Brain Traffic and totally elevate the work to the next level, but it would take me at least an hour to explain to them that this Content Startegy stuff is something that they already do everyday, after which they’d probably chuckle a bit and pat me genially on the head for my Internets World Precociousness. ) In addition to the evangelizing the Web community, should there be more outreach to these folks instead, and in some cases adopting their terms, titles, and knowledge so we can avoid reinventing the wheel? I say that with true respect for the necessary trailblazing that you and others are doing right now in the community.

  2. Concise and well said – you hit the nail on the head. I’m feeling overwhelmed these days by quantity and the lack of quality…that’s not a novel thought, I know, but that should tell us something. Finding content that is truly worthy of existing – intrinsically valuable and purposeful – is a mighty task, on the web or otherwise. From being bombarded by valueless second-by-second tweeting/retweeting of various industry events to clients wanting to publish things that are generated by PROGRAMS scraping web pages (dear GOD)…we need a serious realignment of values and to get our itchy trigger fingers off the “publish” button. Kudos for helping to lead the charge.

  3. Brilliant post! I think a lot of the “more equals better” mentality comes from those who focus too much on “hits” without realizing in doing so they’re more prone to “misses”.

    Editorial schedules based on frequency over quality dilute the overall value of content over time. And, really, that’s what it’s all about – “value” …to your audience …to your business …to society as a whole.

    Whatever you choose to call it – content is what makes the web valuable to all.

    To paraphrase Gerry McGovern – a movie that is three hours long isn’t necessarily better than a five-minute short. A novel of thousands of pages may hold no more value to humanity than one stanza of a poem. Greatness is in the telling (connection/emotion), not in the word count.

  4. What a beautiful post (and I loved your inside joke referencing classical rhetoric).

    I’ve been following the tweetstream today from #wcconf. And I’ve been dismayed that folks seem to think “content strategy” started with the web. This is exactly the kind of flippant remark that gets “content strategy” lumped in with other new-fangled buzzwords. As David Sleight pointed out, writers and editors have been doing this forever.

    I was amused that Kristina Halvorson didn’t put a definition of “content strategy” right up front in her otherwise excellent book. It might have made the first 32 pages easier to put into proper perspective.

    But I think this kind of pussyfooting around typical for our “industry” – we shy away from definitions because of the infighting we’ve seen in the UX/IA/IxD communities. Yet here’s the kicker – we don’t need a definition at all, only a simple description. No need to make CS a “hot topic” at all. It’s just something you do when preparing stuff for publication.

    On page 32, though Kristina finally lays it out: “Content strategy is the practice of planning for the creation, delivery, and governance of useful, usable content.”

    Simple. Concise. Useful. But honestly, it’s probably pretty much what the editorial board of the Old Testament went through during their deliberations.

    Reviewer #11 “Genesis”: “Good storytelling. High emotional qualities. Ought to get our message through. Love that opening line ‘In the beginning…’ Can’t wait to read ‘Exodus'”.

    Why does the online crowd so insist on reinventing the wheel? Why do we ignore the lessons of the publishing community, the advertising creatives, the service management crowd?

    Anyway, thanks for letting me rant. You wrote a great post!


    P.S. I just discovered that Bob Boiko’s “Content Management Bible” is longer than the real Bible. Food for thought…

  5. Pingback: 2010 in articles and blog entries | Richard Ingram | Shut the door on your way out Cicero…

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