Publishing and the rise of 'content'
29 March 2017
We’re surrounded by content. Inasmuch as we live in an Information Age, we live in a Content Age – Michael Bhaskar, The Content Machine
Content: then and now
Within the field of publishing today, one word crops up repeatedly: ‘content’. Content, we are told, is what publishers do. They solicit it, edit it, package it and distribute it. Although the term has become so pervasive that most people don’t give it a second thought, the framing of publishing as a form of content production is a recent shift – one that’s largely a twenty-first century phenomenon. For this reason, it’s worth reflecting on how and why this concept became ascendant. This is my goal in what follows, where I seek to both denaturalize the term and interrogate its effects.
Today, the meaning of ‘content’ is radically different from its connotations in the fifteenth century, when it was coined. According to the Online Etymological Dictionary, the term comes from the Latin contentum, the past participle of continere (contain), and literally means “that which is contained”. This definition held sway until the nineteenth century, when content began to acquire additional meanings, largely as a result of Hegel’s philosophical writings on aesthetics and his attendant distinction between ‘form’ and ‘content’ (Houlgate 2016).
Although influential across a variety of fields, it was art criticism that became most associated with the form/content distinction – as the endless parade of art books with ponderous titles such Eye of Man: Form and Content in Western Painting attest. Indeed, most people born in the pre-millennial era were introduced to this notion in high school art classes, although it arguably retained a conceptual separation from content’s everyday meaning as “that which is contained”. Thus, my trusty 1982 edition of the Australian Pocket Oxford Dictionary defines content as follows: “n. capacity, amount contained; substance (of art etc., opp. form); (pl.) what is contained, esp. in book, document, etc.”
Arguably, this emphasis on content as substance was critical to the term’s subsequent path in the final years of the twentieth century. In particular, via its uncoupling from form, content could now be conceptualized as something that is (or at least could be) uncontained and thereby unconstrained by a physical medium – an assumption that was critical to the emerging structure of the internet and the imaginaries upon which it was based (e.g., William Gibson’s Neuromancer). Thus, it was with the rise of the internet that ‘content’ in its contemporary sense was born (Salem 2010; Bhaskar 2013).
The primary advantage of the term was the way it enabled conversation about the transmission and distribution of information without the baggage of existing terminology, which was “unduly governed by the physical containers” themselves (O’Leary 2011: 7). While terms like ‘books’, ‘magazines’ and ‘newspapers’ are still closely wedded to their physical forms, ‘content’ is an expression uniquely suited to the digital era. As Michael Baskar (2013) notes, with the rise of digital networks, content (tellingly, I can think of no other suitable synonym here) has become “malleable, updateable, transferable. It has geographic simultananeity. It becomes fluid” (p. 49).
For some in the world of publishing, it is the field’s failure to fully embrace the implications of the rise of content that is limiting its capacity to respond to changes in the publishing landscape in the digital era. Brian O’Leary (2011, 2014) argues that publishers remain overly wedded to a container model of publishing: they are fixated on the creation, management and sale of physical and digital objects and view other forms of writing and reading as potential threats to their established markets. This ‘container myopia’, he asserts, limits their imagination. Michael Bhaskar (2013) likewise suggests that the key to salvaging publishing is to recognize its intrinsic connection with content. In his words, “Publishing can never be divorced from content. Wherever you find publishing, you find content. It follows that a theory of publishing grows from a theory of content” (p. 6).
In these accounts, the term ‘content’ is generally invoked uncritically and straightforwardly – as if its meaning is so self-evident that it requires no explicit definition. However, one only needs to do a search of the phrase “I hate the word content” on Google to see that not everyone is enamoured with the term, or its current proliferation. In light of the fact that ‘content’ is valuable precisely because of its differences from the terms that preceded it, it’s important to consider exactly what those differences are. If, as the anthropological linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf famously argued, language influences thought and predisposes us to certain choices of interpretation, the term is not merely a neutral signifier, but one that actively shapes the ways we think about the collection of activities it signifies. Thus, what is gained and what is lost by conceptualizing publishing in these terms?
Content as democratic
In many respects, the ascendance of content can be understood as a reflection of the democratization of media production and distribution in the internet age (see Anderson 2006; Shirky 2010; Fitzpatrick 2011). Content is an intrinsically more democratic term than its predecessors, because it references substance in a generic sense. Content, as Jonathan Salem (2010) points out, is agnostic: “without distinctions of authority”. Importantly, this was an intentional part of the internet’s design – its technologies aimed to promote the open exchange of data in a content-agnostic fashion: “The network treats any packet of data just like any other”, Kathleen Fitzpatrick (2011: 55) observes. This choice wasn’t just ideological (although this was unquestionably part of it), but a function of digital technology itself. After all, text, images and sounds are equally code, effectively privileging no medium above another (Fitzpatrick 2011). Under the digital gaze, all content is, quite literally, equal.
The social and cultural effects of this technological shift have been significant. From Saramonsterkitty (one of countless ‘content creators’ who post daily pictures of themselves on Instagram) and fan-fiction writers, to celebrated academics and literary fiction’s latest bright young thing, they are all equally creating content. Viewed in this light, there is no intrinsic difference between, say, Roger Ebert and Harriet Klausner: both were reviewers who created widely read content that helped people decide what to watch and read. Content thus becomes the great leveler, discursively erasing differences in the cultural, social and economic capital of its creators.
There is little doubt that the term’s democratic sensibilities are partially responsible for the discomfort it has engendered in some quarters. Content erases established hierarchies of value, thereby threatening the assumptions upon which publishing has long been premised. This sense of threat comes across clearly in the Ad Contrarian’s diatribe about the term:
Content is anything you can upload to the web. In other words, it is pretty much anything. It is a Shakespeare sonnet and a picture of my cat’s ass. It bestows value on anything, and in so doing, debases everything. It takes the symbol of a witless age – the selfie – and gives it status. You’re not guilty of narcisstic [sic] self-indulgence, you’re creating content! (Hoffman 2014)
Commentators argue that if anything and everything is content, questions of quality and value (and attendant notions of authority and expertise) start to erode. “Democracy and mediocrity go hand in hand” observes a posthumous Washington Post article on Harriet Klausner (Kaplan 2015). This same concern underwrites Michael Koslowski’s (2014) efforts to articulate the difference between a ‘writer’ and a ‘professional author’. In his words, “Just because its [sic] easy to upload your written word, so that it can be downloaded to another machine does not make you an author, any more than me buying a stethoscope allows me to be called a doctor”. Much like the Ad Contrarian, Koslowski goes on to argue that using the term ‘author’ for anyone who uploads a document on the internet “devalues the word so much, it makes it meaningless”.
But, of course, this is precisely why proponents of the “mass amateurization of publishing” (Shirky 2002) emphasize its liberatory potential. In Clay Shirky’s (2002) words, “This destruction of value is what makes weblogs so important. We want a world where global publishing is effortless. We want a world where you don’t have to ask for help or permission to write out loud” (2002, emphasis in original). He argues that the frequent recourse to physician analogies by defenders of ‘traditional’ publishing is flawed because such analogies assume that “every time professionals and amateurs differ, we should prefer the professionals” (2010: 153), although we clearly value amateur-ity over authority in some contexts. For example, when searching for new restaurants, we generally prefer the aggregate reviews of our peers to the opinion of a single professional critic. Here, Shirky’s arguments take considerable impetus from Chris Anderson (2006), who suggests that a distinctive attribute of the internet is its reliance on probabilistic systems that benefit from the wisdom of the crowd. Thus, while no single blog is authoritative, “collectively blogs are proving more than equal to mainstream media. You just need to read more than one of them before making up your own mind” (Anderson 2006: 69).
Salem (2010), however, has challenged this celebratory view of content, pointing out that “online content is supposed to be vetted by the invisible, magical hand of The Crowd. Only it doesn’t work all that well, despite the advocates who claim otherwise, because most subjects or issues can’t be reduced to a simple thumbs up or down conclusion” (Salem 2010: emphasis in original). In light of recent political events, and growing concerns about fake news and the attendant rise of so-called ‘alternative facts’, these observations seem particularly prescient. Consequently, some commentators place the blame for these events squarely on the shoulders of the term ‘content’ itself. Thus, Morgan Guyton (2016) recently railed:
…the word ‘content’ is uniquely vile to me because it’s a metaphor for everything I find disgusting about the age of social media and platform-building and branding and search engine optimization. I consider ‘content’ to be the master-signifier of an age consumed entirely by intellectual prostitution… This is the reason why Donald Trump is our president. Seriously. Donald Trump happened because art, philosophy, science, policy, etc. have all been reduced to content.
Content and commodification
Although Guyton invokes the same hierarchies of value that people like Shirky are fighting against, he usefully highlights the relationship between content and commodification. As Anne McColl (2015) observes, “a ‘content producer’ sounds like a factory worker”. This sentiment is echoed in the rise of terms like ‘content mill’ and ‘content farm’, which, according to Wikipedia, describe the growth of internet publishers focused on the production of content exclusively to satisfy algorithms that maximize retrieval by search engines. The goal is to increase reader page views and, ultimately, advertising revenue. Here, far from being divorced from value, content – as pure commodity – becomes the indirect means of generating it.
Bhaskar (2013) argues that the rise of free digital content has been attended by a major shift in commercial emphasis, “from consumers buying the product to consumers becoming the product” (p. 72, emphasis added). In such contexts, the ‘audience’ is conceived in a two-fold fashion: as comprised of both readers and advertisers, with the former effectively being sold to the latter. However, this model has long been a feature of periodical publishing, so it’s hardly unique to the internet (Bhaskar 2013). Indeed, Richard Lohrmann (1996) illustrates that editorial material was often subordinate to the advertising relationship in magazine publishing well over 100 years ago. But while the lines between ‘editorial’ and ‘advertising’ have always been blurred, the concept of content arguably serves to erase them entirely. Under its framework, all outputs, whether from writers or “the artisans of branding’s dark arts”, are equivalent (Salem 2010).
This shift is exemplified in the rise of content marketing and the growing view that brands should focus on publishing instead of paid advertising. According to a recent book extolling the virtues of this approach: “Instead of advertising, the shift is toward publishing… Marketers are buying less and less media. They’re becoming the media, and the best of them are actually competing with ‘real’ publications for audience, users, and eyeballs. Some marketers are even beating publishers at their own game” (Lieb 2012: xiii). As Brian O’Leary (2011) notes, the digital era facilitated this convergence, making it not only possible, but inevitable. Marketers have increasingly become publishers, publishers have become marketing arms, and new entrants are a mixture of both.
But strikingly absent from these commentaries is a sense of the ethical implications of this shift – an effect, I would assert, that is at least partially a result of the term ‘content’ itself. For example, it’s worth bearing in mind that the ‘content’ the Instagrammer Saramonsterkitty is ‘creating’ is her own commodification. While this is clearly nothing new (for example, the distinction between an actor and a star is premised upon it), the term arguably naturalizes this effect by treating it as akin to any other form of production. Likewise, the collapse of the line between publishing and advertising that content marketers advocate (clearly thin to begin with) becomes unremarkable – and unremarked upon.
Once again, the phenomenon itself is far from new. What today is termed ‘content marketing’ is readily evident in magazines as far back as the 1920s and intensified dramatically in the 1980s. For example, following the abolition of advertising regulatory standards in children’s programming during the Reagan administration, children’s toy makers became masters at creating program-length commercials for their products that looked and felt like cartoons – Care Bears, He-Man, Transformers, Jem and Rainbow Brite being just a few of the more successful examples (Langer 1989; Goodman 2010). But what in the last two decades of the twentieth century evoked considerable ethical debate (see Ciment 2006) is today taken for granted. No one seems to mind that The Lego Movie, which has a 96% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, is effectively a “90-minute Lego commercial” (Gonzalez 2016); indeed, content marketers frequently tout it, along with He-Man and co., as an example of the genre’s success. Again, my point is not that the phenomena themselves are new, but that the term ‘content’ itself actively facilitates a conceptual collapse between marketing and other kinds of ‘cultural’ production.
As the sociologist Beryl Langer notes, drawing on the work of Raymond Williams, the particular definition of ‘culture’ that gave the term ‘culture industry’ its contemporary resonance “emerged in the 19th century, with ‘culture’ constructed as a sphere of beauty and higher value in opposition to the ‘dark satanic mills’ and the proletarian ‘masses’ who worked in them” (2002: 68). Thus, ‘culture’ was ideologically located in the realm of the ‘sacred’ – a sphere of value that set limits on the processes of rationalization and commodification that marked other aspects of the modern world. However, because neither of these processes were self-limiting, the question of where limits should be set was an “endlessly negotiable ethical dilemma” (Langer 2002: 69).
For the past century or so, conversations about publishing have hinged on this question of the lines between its “hustler and humanist” dimensions (Bhaskar 2013: 5). Although the ‘culture vs. the market’ frame is a singularly un-nuanced one through which to conceptualize publishing (at least to this anthropologist), it does attune us to the possible limits of commodification – even if these are constantly shifting. ‘Content’, I fear, does precisely the opposite. While it’s clearly a more democratic term, one that erases – and thereby usefully exposes – existing forms of distinction, the political events of the past year have shown us that not all content is equal and that treating it as such has some distinctly undemocratic effects (a topic being rather sensationally explored on the newest series of Homeland).
Invoking the ‘wisdom of crowds’ is not the antidote to this problem. It’s worth noting that the concept takes direct inspiration from the eighteenth-century economist Adam Smith and his notion of the ‘invisible hand’, with its assumption that the market will sort things out without the need for formal regulation (see Surowiecki 2004). Viewed through a cynical eye, the wisdom of crowds is largely the wisdom of the market writ through the language of participatory democracy. Thus, if we want to ensure the future viability of publishing, I’m not convinced that a wholesale embrace of ‘content’ is the best way to do so – at least, until we think much more carefully about the implications of the term and its own conceptual baggage.
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