I’m thinking about successful new communication channels, and how we talk about what’s in them. On Twitter, we say tweets. In the blogosphere and on Facebook, posts; also rants, reviews, and flames. Facebook has likes and now everything has links.

But I note the entire absence of “content”; the word, I mean. Yay! I’ve loathed it ever since its first powerpoint-pitch appearance, meaning “shit we don’t actually care about but will attract eyeballs and make people click on ads”. Except for they don’t say “people”, they say “users”, a symptom of another attitude problem.

With every year that passes, it’s increasingly clear that the appearance of “content” in any business plan is a symptom of (likely fatal) infection by cluelessness; and a good predictor of failure.

History · It’s on my side. Nobody calls Hollywood’s output “content” (or Bollywood’s either): They’re movies and flicks, with a lovable posse of modifiers: horror, chick, war, Elvis, zombie, romance, slasher, Bond.

Publishers produce novels and epics and mysteries and bodice-rippers and procedurals and memoirs and hatchet jobs.

Musicians make songs and symphonies and anthems and albums and jams and (along with DJ’s) sets. Theater companies put on plays: musicals, tragedies, comedies, farces.

Findings · “Content” has the stink of failure; of hustlers building businesses they don’t actually care about. Which is icky and usually doesn’t pay off.

Enough with the negative findings, because there’s something important and positive to say here: If you’re building something that’s used for communication, and you find that people are using an idiomatic name for what they’re sending and receiving, you’re probably on to something.

But if you’re about “generating content” you’re dead.


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Jesper (Dec 15 2013, at 09:47)

Thank you. This exactly. I can't fathom why anyone would want to refer to their works with the most generic, exploitable, distant word possible. The next time someone asks you about "content", ask them what they think about the sack of carbon and water who created it.


From: Duncan Ellis (Dec 15 2013, at 22:06)

I saw this post linked from G+ with the closing thought as the tag line, and I had a frisson of doubt, anger and fear - I'm a writer who makes novels, and some people call those content! What's the warning for content creators here?

But I love this distinction between actual stories, artifacts of human expression, and the vapid, meaningless content.

I'm glad I write real things.


From: Brett (Dec 15 2013, at 22:11)

The only thing going for "content" is that it's generic. Posts, links, shares, likes, and tweets are all a form of content, yeah? Would you prefer "stuff" instead?


From: Hanan Cohen (Dec 16 2013, at 02:56)

Somehow related : "This is a Website" by Jeffery Zeldman



From: Ellis Pratt (Dec 16 2013, at 05:28)

So you're a Technical Communicator and you write a sentence or a paragraph. It appears in the Help file and the FAQ. It's embedded in an application screen. It appears in a training guide and in a printed user guide. The same paragraph in different publications and in different media.

This sentence or paragraph may be reused across other media in the future.

If you don't call it content, what do you call it?


From: Reto Meier (Dec 16 2013, at 07:30)

Interesting - so what word would you use to describe a heterogeneous collection of such things? The output of the collection of people who create movies, books, blog posts, and photos is what?


From: Paul Morriss (Dec 16 2013, at 08:57)

A few years ago a BBC Radio 1 DJ who is known for making prank calls called up one of his colleagues (or got someone else to) . They were heard to remark to one of their other colleagues as they took this prank call, "It's probably Scott trying to look for some more content". Yuk!


From: len (Dec 16 2013, at 16:10)

Oh I dunno. It's a stage. Use it.


I want my user-generated real-time 3D with high def audio. SOOO much "content" can be soooo much more



From: Ian Rae (Dec 17 2013, at 05:48)

Yes, when my po-mo english lit friends start talking about "texts", I have the same visceral response. They're not texts; they are books, poems, and plays.


From: Keith (Jan 03 2014, at 18:22)

I have used the term "content-free" in the past to refer to those pointless user manuals that tell you the obvious things, but fail to tell you what you need to know to *understand* when you would want or need to use them.


As you point out, content seems to be losing the war. Pure form is winning.


From: Brian Dear (Jan 03 2014, at 18:40)


Having done several startups which involved the Hollywood movie studio and record label businesses extensively, I can tell you with certainty that Hollywood execs refer to their products as "content" all the time. Maybe not the filmmakers, maybe not the actors, but the studio business people sure do. Just got to any Hollywood technology conference, like the ones VARIETY puts on, and you will hear "content, content, content" all day long, it's all they talk about. They own it, they love it, and they live to own more of it and charge you as much as possible for it.

Your observation that the term "content" is a term used by "hustlers building businesses they don’t actually care about" -- well guess what -- that describes Hollywood execs to a T, in my experience. They're in it for the money.They could care less what it is they shovel to audiences as long as there are audiences that pay.


From: unwesen (Jan 04 2014, at 02:39)

Actually, the term "content owner" is quite widespread in the film industry, which makes your Hollywood example unsuitable. That's not invalidating your argument, of course, although it's quite difficult to find an example that would work better, and that in turn is something to consider, I think.


From: Sam (Jan 04 2014, at 06:23)

Agree that 'content' is a current marketing buzzword, and therefore often used by knaves and fools to describe stuff.

But what's your alternative?

Editors and media owners need a term that encompasses all those Tweets, videos, photos blog posts and gifs.


From: Earnest Pettie (Jan 04 2014, at 08:33)

I'm ambivalent about the word "content." That is able to describe so many different things is what made it appeal to me, but what is distasteful about it is that it is so generic a term. I will say that I remember Sony referring to what we call content as software long before they even had The Sony PlayStation. They refered to themselves as a software and hardware company because they sold hardware, audio players and video players, and software which was music and movies they produced.


From: Mark J. McPherson (Jan 04 2014, at 10:53)

Are we kids or what? I get the idea that purely in terms of a communication platform,device or service,"content" can connote condescension unto contempt for those that would use your product to communicate. But the word "content" still has negative relevance because so often the platforms,services, search engines, etc filter and direct people not to whom or where or what they are looking for, but to some client of the provider. Perhaps,Tim, your employer is familiar with the concept of monetizing information, communication and sharing. We have something to say and share with some portion or all of the world. At one point companies like Google seemed to be on the side of the angels, putting people in touch more effectively than ever before. Now it seems more focused on interposing their clients adds between otherwise communicating people. Content to me means not having this communication obscured by misdirecting adds.


From: Dave Winer (Jan 04 2014, at 14:33)

As a writer, I hate to have my wonderful prose called something as undifferentiated and slurry-like as "content." But I have made peace with this, because I am also a longtime developer of Content Management Software. That really is the best name for what it does. That is what people call it. If we changed it, what would we change it to?

I wrote a post about this earlier today, lots of things have multiple names depending on the context.


A mother is also a sister and a daughter. A car is both a method of transport, and as source of revenue for mechanics.

My artful writing is content to the systems guy who is managing the site.


From: j michael rowland (Jan 06 2014, at 07:38)

Perhaps you're using one word ("content") to talk about two different things?

The thing you're really commenting on, here, is that the way a lot of websites seem to be run is: 1. someone decides that there must be a web page, and then 2. someone looks for something to put on it.

This has less to do with separating the page from its content than with just making a page for the wrong reasons in the first place.


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