Drew Breunig on how journalism, writing, photography and art have become “content”.
To achieve its representative breadth, the word “content” makes two assumptions:
- Each piece of “content” is equal and is therefore interchangeable: As stated earlier, “content” is used to represent a wide breadth of works. A Pulitzer winning report and a Business Insider slideshow are both single instances of “content.” The word must remain formless, devoid of emotion, and of indefinite form and quality. Any characteristic which might differentiate two works must be ignored. This rhetoric categorization gives rise to the second assumption.
- “Content” production is trivial: Since each bit of “content” is interchangeable, “content” is only as hard to create as the easiest instance.
Publishers buy into these two assumptions because “content” allows them to easily measure and analyze their output. Messy qualitative measures are hidden so output fits neatly within Excel cells. This is the allure of “content”: it allows comforting, structured data which simplifies the complexity of a large business and makes decisions less intimidating. Executives aren’t making qualitative picks regarding art or an artist, they’re merely signing off on whichever “content” produces more valuable metrics.
At The New York Times it’s conceivable that editors and executives have a handle on their output. But businesses with strategies dependent on massive levels of “content” production cannot know the quality of everything that ships. Think YouTube, where users upload more than an hour of video every hour. Or content farms like Demand Media, which claims to have created 2 million articles and 200,000 videos as of June 2010.