Sunday January 3, 2021 — Taipei, Taiwan
I don’t like the word “content” to describe artistic output. I don’t think this is a terribly unusual opinion, but most analyses of the word don’t get at the heart of what makes me so distrustful of it.
The word “content” exists for advertisers to have a way of talking about homogenized and commodified blocks of media that have advertising slots on them. The word “content” in its modern usage comes from “content marketing,” which is essentially figuring out how to best attach advertisements to shit that people actually want to see. Of course, shit that people actually want to see is hard to make, so advertisers are left with two options: either produce their own content, or pay people who make things that people actually want to stick advertisements into their work.
For companies that take the first approach, they don’t really care what the “content” is, as long as it gets clicks, and their conversion funnel is working. They’re producing “content” not because they care about what they’re producing, but because a consultant told them that content marketing is the right way to Engage with their Audience, and thus sell more of whatever they’re selling. Most of the time, companies don’t want to actually employ people to do this, so they instead rely on contractors and freelancing markets, paying people by the wordOr by the video, if they made the mistake of pivoting to video to produce something to which advertisements can be attached.Not all companies do this, and you can tell the difference when they don’t. King Arthur Baking comes to mind as an employee-owned company that publishes recipes, cooking tips, etc as a way to get customers, but they clearly care a lot about providing good, well-tested recipes and information. However, as Ann Reardon talks about, it costs so much more to make useful content than it does to content-farm recipes that literally do not work, so misinformation gets thousands of times more views than actually useful information. This is the mode of “content marketing” that ruled from the early to mid 2010s.
Eventually, companies realized that they could avoid taking on any of the risk of hiring contractors to farm content, and could instead find people who were already making things that people liked, and simply pay to put their advertisements on that. Of course, the motivation for the companies hasn’t changed. They still don’t care about the subtleties of what people are creating — as long as it’s content that has some ad slots in it, that’s what matters.
This has a dramatic influence on the way that people produce art and media today. Jordan Adika talks about how there’s a whole generation of kids that are growing up with the goal of becoming a Youtuber, and the Youtube medium is shaped subtly but significantly by the presence of advertisers and sponsorships. Video essays stop having conclusions, since that doesn’t leave any space to pivot into a sponsored segment. Even if you avoid sponsorships, people who make their income from AdSense need to think about, for instance, how to make a video analysing queer media without saying the word “queer” in a way that will cause the video to get demonetised. The dream for many kids these days is to be a “content creator,” and an inherent part of creating content is selling advertising space. That’s the entire thing separating a “content creator” from a “filmmaker” or a “writer” or a “storyteller.”
I think the ship has sailed on actually changing language here, but if you talk about something as “content,” I’m going to assume that’s because it was designed to attach advertising to. In this day and age, that’s usually a safe bet.