I have to confess to having a complicated relationship with the whole notion of content.
Content: something that fills up something else, like so many foam peanuts in a cardboard box.
Content is hot. Everyone wants a content strategy, a content marketing plan, or a snazzy platform for their content. In each of these terms, the focus is on the wrong thing--strategy, marketing, and platforms. That’s where the value is placed. The content of the “content” is almost beside the point. It’s foam peanuts. The important thing is that we have a strategy for where and how we sprinkle them. We want to make sure the user has a cool experience with the box in which we package them.
There are real and useful considerations in the realm of platforms, boxes, and experiences, but none of them matter if you don't have something fundamentally valuable to offer in the first place--something insightful or amusing or profound; something new; something true.
I don’t know who came up with the catch-all category of “content,” but I can guarantee you it wasn’t a writer. A writer would have more respect for words, would know how much they matter.
Writing is thinking. It’s a rigorous discipline, an art. It’s how one person distills and packages an idea, channels quicksilver emotions, visions, experiences, questions, convictions, and hopes, and smuggles them past someone else’s face into their heart and mind.
It’s how we connect, how we influence and inspire one another. It’s part of what makes us civilized.
In linguistics, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis posits that we can’t conceive of something without a word for it. In cultures whose languages don’t have separate words for “yellow” and “orange,” people have a harder time differentiating between the two hues.
Language is inextricably tied up with cognition and perception. To learn new words is to expand the menu of your life, broaden your opportunities for experiencing and savoring all the myriad nuances of being sentient.
How comforting to know when you experience schadenfreude that it’s a common enough human emotion to have been granted a name--and how delicious to identify and surrender to it. Without the word, what would you think you were feeling? Mere guilty pleasure? (That’s different: an ill-advised whiskey on ice after bar close, or a mid-afternoon weekday nap when your to-do list looms. Distinctions, distinctions.)
To write is to find out what you think. It is to identify, distill, and articulate your own unique point of view, which, without being wrangled by the pen like sheep by a dog, might very well remain blob-like--amorphous and indistinct. And then how could it influence anyone?
The pen is a spigot on your brain. Open it up, let it flow, and things may emerge that you had no idea were lurking in that opaque rain barrel. To read good writing is to feel the top of your head lift off like a hat in a strong wind--images and ideas rushing in, taking root, and making the rainforest in your mind more alive and diverse. That’s not something “content” does.
“Content” shows no respect for gradations. A robot-generated SEO listicle equals a thinkpiece equals a confessional essay equals an in-depth journalistic exposé equals a video of a donkey in a hammock. Grist for the mill, chum for the sharks.
We have a harder time seeing the difference between yellow and orange when they’re lumped together under one word. We lose the difference between keyword-pushing blog posts, void of all meaning, and incisive, revelatory writing when it’s all just content.
Content is a bag of gummy worms you mindlessly consume until you’re guilty and ill, vowing never to do it again. (Not great, as a marketing strategy.)
Here are some words to remember and reinstate: poetry; essay; argument; manifesto; propaganda; missive; instructions; agenda; prose; infographic; sales pitch; exposé; announcement; editorial; invitation; note; letter; novel; confession.
What are you creating? Is it foam peanuts and gummy worms? If so, you can stop now. We have enough, thank you.
What are you consuming? Foam peanuts will gum up your brain. Experiment with naming the “content” you consume and see if you don’t start gravitating to more nutritionally dense and artfully rendered fare.
By Mo Perry
Mo is a writer, editor, storyteller, and performer