The Insidious Rise Of “Content.” Why It’s Bad For Marketing. And How It’s Also Destroying Creative Livelihoods
If we regard all creative output as homogeneous collections of keywords, nobody should be surprised when AI comes “stealing” our jobs
It’s hard to trod five feet on the internet these days–especially if you work in marketing — without coming across mention of the word “content.”
It’s the vaunted secret sauce that those brewing it suggest can make our lives and brands tick over faster than ever before. Never mind the fact that nobody seems entirely clear on what exactly it is.
Here’s one attempt at pinning down a definition, at least:
“Content has become a sort of insipid and thoroughly abused catchword to describe everything from writing to movie making to podcasting.”
In fact, content is such a useless mental bubble gum — so hopelessly vague to have been debased of all meaning — that I’m losing faith that anybody, including those who sprinkle it into every sentence, can actually muster up a cogent definition of what it is, or at least what it’s supposed to be.
Doing so would require somebody to stop to think for a moment, which might seem like a big ask for those with Wordpress open and one finger looming over the publish button. That would of course also require somebody to briefly stop creating content.
Or at least to create the type of “dictionary-based content” (we used to call them definitions) that stands a very low chance of virality or meeting our SEO objectives. And such a thought is unfathomable. In fact it’s positively anti-content.
So what is “content” you ask again?
I sometimes tell businesses that I may be able to help out with their “content marketing” only because the type of “content” we’re prospectively talking about — in my work mostly brand journalism collateral that promotes the business or thought leadership that tries to leverage what its people know and think about things — is a bit of a mouthful. But the more times any lead mentions the word ‘content’ or does anything that suggests they want to leverage it as a commodity, the less hopeful I feel about its potential as a lead.
I know my Moz from my SEMRush. But I specialize in helping people with great ideas to communicate to find impactful ways to say them. I help humans communicate with other humans. Sometimes I need to use keywords to help reach the target audience. I know the basics but digital marketers do all that stuff better than I do. Why not hire us both?
So ‘content’ is sometimes my hook. By necessity — I work in marketing after all — I sprinkle drops of it like magic fairy dust over my own website and social media profiles.
And then I try to explain in non cookie cutter language what I actually do and try to never speak of this ghastly content thing for time immemorial.
I use real descriptors and tell prospects that simply throwing verbiage onto the internet is ultimately not going to create lasting value.
It works. For now.
But tomorrow that linguistic victory might seem like a fluke — or a Pyrrhic one when we realize we ended up stuffing in the wrong keywords (note: I have nothing against keywords or SEO. This is about commoditizing idea-creation).
Marketers and search engines have been playing a game of cat and mouse since the time some dude first plugged an ethernet cable into a networking port and created the internet (who was that guy?).
We were never going to win and I don’t foresee that changing any time soon. Creating long term value makes far more sense than trying to leverage temporary breakaways. No massive volumes of computer-aided “content” required.
But let’s put me and my little marketing business to the side for a moment and try to rationalize this a little more.
What is content fast becoming in most of its common usage (the one that content marketing has sadly spawned and which is increasingly seeing application outside of business uses)?
It’s stuff. Ideas. Thoughts. Any or none of those. Shoot me a definition as a comment.
But it’s wasn’t always like this. The skies above the Post Content era weren’t always so dis-contenting.
For those of us who make a living creating “it” — for ourselves or others — we used to at least have the noble luxury of being able to distinguish ourselves by the type of “content” we created.
Society even indulged us in this pursuit. When the world was young (it’s a Beckett quote; a great playwright / content creator).
For one, we used to distinguish “it” — whatever it is exactly— according to the format in which it emanated.
There were books and movies and … even podcasts.
And you know what? As baffling as this might seem, that really wasn’t so long ago. I didn’t have streaks of grey hair then. I blame it on all the bad “content” I’ve seen on Netflix. It was the Before Content era (conveniently also ‘BC’). A halcyon time.
But now we’re all in such a rush to churn it out that even those distinctions have been judged unnecessary.
It’s JUST CONTENT.
Hurry up and create more of it, we’re urged.
Even If The Definition Makes Sense, Its Application Can Be Damaging
As dogmatic as I might sound writing this, I have heard — and can somewhat agree with — the other side of the argument.
Content is words and images and chunks of audio.
So what better idea do ya have for it then, Mr Marketing Person? We probably need a collective noun so that we can hurry up and produce more content.
We can try to find other words that will serve as useful shorthands to refer to text, audio, and video, but we may do no better than ‘multimedia.’
Yet even that appellation somehow seems more noble to me than ‘content’.
It at least specifies that we’re using media to distribute ideas and acknowledges the fact that we’re ultimately trying to connect with human beings (my top line thoughts about SEO for anybody who wants them: search engines are never more than a conduit to a human. Hence you can never solely write for them. You can quote me on that).
Content just sounds like stuff that sits anywhere.
Perhaps the ingredients list on the back of a breakfast cereal. Or the warning label on the back of a battery. Or the billboard across the way from the cinema. All just content, no?
The main drivers of this senseless vapidity?
The trivial simplicity with which new material can be created (sorry, content).
Whatever content can be called, it can be recreated with consummate ease and — here’s what the content-abusers love most about it — at virtually no cost.
Even a YouTube vlog will get an automatic transcription in a few minutes and we can easily use TTS to spin a podcast out into a blog post and get those keywords up on the internet. (Disclaimer: I argue in favor of what I call format agnostic content but qualify that support on the idea that every medium honors its format.)
The Looming Flight Towards Format-Agnostic Content Creation: And Why It Matters (Now) For Creators
To get ahead of the curve, consider leveraging easy win syndication opportunities that straddle distribution formats
However you create it it won’t be long before you have your keywords floating around on the internet … doing something (we hope).
You can even use AI nowadays to iterate even more quickly to … create more ‘content.’ To an internet saturated with banal variations on it.
The more the merrier and the faster we can scale up production surely — but surely! — the more leads we can get in the door
If we weren’t obsessed with the notion of scaling it to its infinite end, folks like Jarvis.ai probably wouldn’t be bragging about how quickly they can make content appear from thin air with a few directives and the power of algorithms spinning the wheels of their machine.
But before we get too drunk on our Kontent Aid (I coined this one too), perhaps we should first be sitting down and trying to think through this conundrum.
It may even lead to something constructive:
We can create all the content in the universe, but who is going to be interested in reading this ever-swelling sea of it?
Think about it. “Content” — however you define it — is useless unless it gets consumed. There’s a limit to how much of it any of us can take in — particularly in a busy world populated by people with finite attention spans. Creating an endless splurge of it makes little sense as an objective.
So perhaps, then, thinking humans’ finite capacity to create quality “content” is actually a good thing. We should be celebrating out content-creating frailties rather than co-opting algorithms to do the writing for us.
Were we to do so, this would conveniently also place a natural cap — maybe better described as a stopper — on the amount of crap that can be found floating around on the internet at any given point in time.
It means that the supply of actual thoughtful ideas meets demand in some kind of natural equilibrium.
We’d be pushed to do some higher order thinking that wouldn’t be content — excuse the pun — with simply driving northward KPIs that laud the “engagement” and “views” we’ve created.
We’d have to stop and think about what we’re about, who we’re trying to communicate with, and what we really have to say that’s actually worth being written (or podcast-ed or vlog-ed). And we’d have to stop taking surface level engagement as a surrogate for actually measuring the real impact we’re creating as marketers.
The post-content era. It could be an oddly wholesome time. If we ever allow it to emerge.
But indulge me for a moment while I get back to my railing (if you’d have enough of that — and I wouldn’t blame you, or you’re not a creative — skip forward to the end for some closing thoughts about where we can go from here).
On this subject, you may have noticed, I have enough “content” to last all day.
What else sucks about ‘content’?
What it has done to those working in what might loosely be defined as creative fields.
Because the content catchall has become the greatest mushifier this world has never before known. A burger press that presses everything in its path into indistinguishable goo.
Why do I say that?
Because distinctions between formats aren’t the only things that have melted away in this frenzied rush to stuff keywords into strings of texts that sit on web servers with progressively larger storage which require ever less money to run.
You remember that time when folks used to go to film school in order to become directors or documentary producers?
Poets would sullenly pen verses they premiered at readings while journalists would lug around little notepads to report on the news in newspapers.
They dreamed, perhaps, about becoming great writers or singers or news presenters in the way that I can only presume today’s youngsters dream about authoring tomorrow’s “content.” They were distinguishable in that primitive era.
They prided themselves on their output — however they called it — on the quality of their art. Driving metrics wasn’t their primary motivator. Were we silly to indulge them in that pursuit?
They were fastidious about what they called themselves too, befitting the creative stereotype. Artistes at the very least. In the finest French pronunciation.
Now they’re much more pliant. They’re happy to be refer to their work as “content.” Themselves merely as its progenitors.
Should anybody who does that be surprised to find themselves facing a pay cut?
But we’re not at the finish line yet.
Tomorrow’s job descriptions will take this evolution further.
We’ll begin seeing the first “AI Content Bot Supervisors” popping up on LinkedIn (I called it first).
There, they will brag about how they “ensure that our AI algorithms communicate maximum value about their brand.”
Ultimately they will be bots too — just lower order ones.
They’ll even have a special setting for how much humble-bragging is appropriate on any given day. Perhaps they’ll self-react when the news cycle would render excessive mentions of the company’s innovative culture inappropriate. Finally, the only one with an actual pulse will be the CMO.
These days, we’ve decided — collectively, or maybe just the loudest content-promoters have — that such distinctions are meaningless. The path of least resistance is often easier than putting up a fight. So the grumps like me are in the minority.
What about things like passion? Uniqueness? A calling to a particular form of expression?
Human to human connection created through a medium that one has honed ones talents in?
The rousing of emotion? The elucidation of ideas? The furthering of debates?
We can let the “content creators” argue about those things among themselves.
To the content advocates I can only assume that all that sounds awfully like watching a group of Eskimos argue over which of their fifty words for ice a particular iceberg is while it’s on course to sink our ship.
Likewise when Aristotle first organized rhetoric into its three constituent elements. He was just trolling us while he hemmed out his next content idea. Ahead of his time. In every respect.
Let the writers and the video people and the audio folks squabble over it among themselves while we take corrective action. To us it’s all “content.” They’re “creators.”
Those “content creators” who still have the temerity to distinguish themselves or what they do are fast becoming museum curiosities. Interesting to observe from a detached distance. A reminder of how things rolled in the BC era. But of no practical consequence to our pressed, evolved, lives. Dinosaurs.
Today, those people — the “content creators” working at their “content” — are all one conveniently homogeneous mass whose collective purpose is the churn out as much creative output in as little time and ideally as cheaply as possible too. The payscale has been flattened (downwards). Which is good too.
Gentrification has come! “Liberté, égalité, fraternité,” it’s as if we all cheer. We have a noveau appellation that encompasses all of that, that we’re supposed to enthusiastically adopt.
We’’re content workers. And influencers if can accrue a large enough following. Note that in both cases it’s a metric that defines either our value.
Where do we go from here? Perhaps to bot-dom.
What do they do these “content creators,” you ask?
You know … maybe you don’t. Or maybe I don’t. Perhaps nobody actually does. They communicate in some format these content creators. So they do.
The richest irony of the content gold rush?
The frantic rush in pursuit of an objective whose goals and methods both seem mired in fog.
It’s a bit like the theater of the absurd.
Which is also why I love Beckett so much and insist on watching Waiting For Godot at least once every winter.
Just don’t call it theater. It was a notable era of content.
There’s an insatiable thirst for content.
We’re constantly being encouraged to create more of it.
And yet nobody seems quite sure exactly what we’re running towards, why we’re running at all, or even what vehicles can take us to the finish line faster.
Rather than logic, we’re being driven by the same kind of false economy that says that if something is cheap, it makes sense to consume as much of it as possible. It’s why people go nuts for all you can eat buffets.
Storage is getting cheaper by the season. We can fit encyclopedias’ worth of “content” onto the back of a thumb drive. So surely it makes sense to just create as much of it as possible!?
Where has all this content craziness taken us?
To the point at which companies like Jarvis.ai can proudly announce that they’ve taken content commodization to its logical next step.
Their bots can crank the stuff out faster and cheaper than even a writer in the Philippines on a mixture of cocaine, Adderall, and coffee*.
I can’t help but imagine that the vague trail-off and the ellipses on their site are there for a reason. You know. We’re making content. We don’t need specifics. You don’t. Let’s do content.
(*Please don’t ever attempt this)
I’ve argued this point before. And I’ll do so once again.
Nobody who describes what they do as “creating content” is doing creative industries any favors. Quite the opposite in fact.
And one more point for emphasis: senseless content creation is not an effective marketing strategy. It can’t create long term value.
“Content marketing” isn’t the problem. Or brand journalism. It’s the lack of thought that’s gone into the gold rush that promotes its senseless creation. Because it ignores a fundamental rule of marketing: ultimately, we’re all vying for the attention of other humans.
I see its damaging effects as being two-fold.
While creating a senseless “more is more” paradigm that seeks to create an infinite amount of “content” that nobody has the volition of time to consume, it simultaneously belittles the unique skillsets and approaches that make effective communication work and mushes them down into one meaningless and amorphous pool of mushiness. It’s often a bad approach for clients. And a bad approach for those working in the field.
The mush pile stretching out infinitely before us is currently called “content.”
And it’s spreading through the internet like a gooey landslide.
Our collective slide into a world in which every form of creative enterprise is termed “content” should be a cautionary tale for anybody interested in the power of branding, words, and messaging.
The blame’s on us too.
By failing to assert what makes our individual skillsets unique — and proudly own those descriptors — we’ve created a linguistic monster in which we’re all being conceived of as AI-like vassals (or equals) that find some way to compact ideas into keywords.
I may work as a content marketer.
But if this is what “content” has come to mean I’ll proudly stand against it while trying to encourage clients to think of communication slightly differently. “Brand journalist” is fine with me. I prefer to just say that I work in marketing communications. It’s wide enough to actually encompass the work that I do.
Sometimes what sets us apart is what makes us unique.
Perhaps it’s time to own and celebrate those differences.
We’ll all melt into a nebulous mass of nothingness.
So gooey that even a robot could cook it up.
Other Anti-Content Thinkers Whose Work I Have Appreciated
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