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.”
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.