The winter of our content

As you may already know, I'm writing a paper on the idea of "content." The word "content" is thrown around so much these days that it all but lost all meaning, and it makes you wonder if it ever had meaning in the first place. After all, stop and ask yourself, "What is the content of content? What exactly are we talking about here?" Deep, right?

Also, if you've spent any time with me over the last few months, you will probably have heard me mention Alan Jacobs, writer, Baylor prof, and internet curmudgeon. He blogs here and writes about technology here and pops up from time to time elsewhere on the internet.

I mention these two things to warn you that I will be posting a lot about "content" over the next week or two and, in all likelihood, I will be posting a lot of links to stuff Jacobs has written.

For starters, there's this:

[O]ne of the most reliable ways to sharpen your own thinking is to find out what other smart people have thought and said about the things you’re interested in — that is, to take the time to read. But the content-hungry world of online publishing creates strong disincentives for writers to take that time. Almost every entity that has an online presence wants to publish as frequently as possible — as long as the quality of the writing is adequate. And often “adequacy” is determined by purely stylistic criteria: a basic level of clarity and, when possible, some vividness of style. That the writer may be saying something indistinguishable from what a dozen or a hundred writers have said before is rarely a matter of editorial concern. Get the content out there!

And of course, writers want to be published and be read. If they can’t have their work in print magazines or books, then having it tied to a URL is the next best thing — sometimes even a better thing. The passion for self-expression is incredibly powerful. Consider, for instance, the unvarying lament of literary journals: that they have far more people submitting stories and poems to them than they have readers. (Would-be and actual creative writers rarely read, and often know nothing about, the journals to whom they submit their work and whose approval-via-acceptance they so desperately crave.)

I'll be honest, those last two sentences made me laugh.


So between the writers who desperate to be published and the editors desperate for “content,” the forces militating against taking time — time to read, time to think — are really powerful. So writers tend to trust the first thoughts that come to them, rarely bothering to find out whether others have already considered their topic and written well about it — and in fact not wanting to know about earlier writing, because that might pre-empt their own writing, their publication — the “content” that editors want and that will keep readers’ Twitter feeds clicking and popping with links. In the current system everyone feels stimulated or productive or both. And hey, it’s only reading and thinking that go by the wayside.

Whatever I conclude from my study of what we mean when we use the term "content," I expect to include some version of what Jacobs says here. Our economy (ecology?) of content stimulates us and makes us feel accomplished while taking away any incentive to actually weigh and consider what we read and watch — and for that matter, to read or watch at all.