Don’t Call It Content

The words we choose to describe things can’t help but influence the way we perceive those things.

Certain words can also become outmoded, as the thing they describe evolves. In an oft-cited example, most of us don’t really think the primary use of a “computer” is to compute mathematical calculations. But “computer” persists in the lingua franca, mostly because we all get it and can’t be bothered to think of a better way to describe it. It’s a habit.

Is that magical device we carry around primarily a “phone” or even a “smart phone”?

The word “phone” itself seems to be holding back a better way of apprehending the device and its possible future uses. McLuhan described it as the “rear view window” effect — using old media analogies to describe new media. Old and even outdated naming conventions make new technologies or modes of usage familiar to us. Over time, though, their continued use can be constraining or misleading.

I’m thinking of “content.”

I first became aware of the use of the word “content” to describe information contained in web sites or applications in the mid-90’s.

At that time, engineers and developers were primarily occupied with the forms or containers that would display or deliver information on web pages. The term “content” implied that it was secondary, an afterthought. In many cases, it was.

Engineers — being engineers — were primarily focused on creating the chassis or framework that would deliver the content. The content itself — text, maybe photos — was already known and familiar. Content was usually perceived to be the simplest part of the equation in getting a web site to “work.”

Years later, the term has persisted and adapted in many variations: content development, content strategy, content marketing. Again, the substance of content — any intrinsic value or worth information may have — is secondary. Content seems to pre-exist in some generic form — a tasteless, odorless substance that can be shaped and molded to the form of its container. It was said that you could “shovel” content onto websites.

Content’s easy. No sweat.

Well, we all know that’s not true.

“Content is king!”

High-quality information usually trumps low-quality information. Valuable information, thoughtfully displayed and easy to obtain, is in fact what we are looking for on our computers and phones. Whether that information is mostly text, a photo, or an interactive multimedia presentation, we seek useful data, insights — and emotions — that improve our lives, inspire us, and help us make better decisions.

The creation of high-quality information is very, very hard work. So why do we persist in denigrating the value of high-quality information by describing it in such generic terms? Does it really matter that much?

It does.

Because every time we use the word content, we continue to devalue its primacy and denigrate the talent and hard work of its creators. It’s in the self-interest of tech companies and their marketers to place more primacy on the medium than the message. That’s what they’re selling.

Those who say “content is king”–usually media companies–know they are holding the prized assets that the ever-evolving, shape shifting tech companies will always be coveting. No matter the medium, it’s nothing without the message.

So let’s work on the message!

Call it what it is–an essay, a gallery, an article, an information graphic, an animation–or just plain information. Focus on what is being communicated. Design for the message.

Just don’t call it content. Send that usage back to the 20th century.


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