toy robots in a line
Is your art just an interchangeable unit of content?

Writers, musicians, artists — stop calling your work ‘content,’ FFS

“Content” is what marketing folks, or platform builders, call video, music, text, and so on. For them, songs, movies, and stories are equal, interchangeable units, the purpose of which is to fill up their online stores.

When an artist describes their work as “content,” they belittle the work itself. By referring to their creations in the terms of marketers and salespersons, they reduce it to a widget on a production line. Meanwhile, they reduce their own role to that of a factory worker, a cog that keeps the vending machine full.

Musicians call their work songs. Writers write poems or stories or articles. A painter paints a picture, and a filmmaker shoots a movie. They don’t “produce content”.

Harmful and confusing

Another downside of using the term content to replace so many other nouns is that you don’t know what a person is talking about. Take this headline, for example, found this week on the excellent CDM music blog:

[…] Your VJ tool is also the easiest way to make content and music videos [emphasis added]

What does that mean exactly, “to make content”? Does it mean music? Mixes? Kinds of video other than music videos? It is not clear. Here’s another once, a quote from this week’s episode of the Upgrade podcast, at around 5 minutes in:

[…] we’re like we must start watching Formula One, and there’s been two races, and it’s been absolutely fantastic, and it’s just nice to have something like that; like there is actual content being produced now. It’s happening live, and there are people doing it. [emphasis added]

Yes, that’s Myke Hurley referring to a Formula One race as “content being produced.”

Selling out

Content isn’t the only marketing word that creators have adopted, to the detriment of our own value. We’ve already mentioned one: Produce. In this context, produce is as unspecific as content. You write, shoot, record, or edit. You don’t produce (unless you are a movie producer). At best, this is lazy writing. At worst, it assumes, again, that the means of creation is as interchangeable as the product. Also, production assumes the creation of a product to be sold.

We adopt marketing terms in other places too. Color becomes colorway when blogging about pretty much anything that can be purchased in different colors. Price becomes price point. Again, price point has a specific meaning in marketing terms. It refers to a particular product’s place in a range. It is not a synonym for price. Taken alone, these habits are no worse than any other misuse of language on the internet. But together they reveal a trend towards adopting marketing terminology for general use. And this can lead us to view the creations of individuals as manufactured units.

Language shapes thought

All these terms are valid in their own context, of course. But if we, as writers, or photographers, or animators, refer to ourselves using the terms of the market, we commoditize ourselves, and — worse — we begin to think of our work as a product to fill the machine, rather than as an individual expression. And as “content producers,” our identity is as important to the end product as that of Foxconn factory worker is to the iPhone in your pocket. Unless, that is, we get well-enough known to become a brand, in which case we become the product.

Language shapes thought1, and if we continue to refer to ourselves as mere suppliers of interchangeable digital goods, we will become exactly that. The position of the artist-creator is already precarious, and we’re making it worse for ourselves.

Meanwhile, the beneficiary of your reduced status is the middle-person, the Medium, the Spotify, the YouTube. For them, your stories, songs, movies and photographs are just interchangeable blocks of content, none of them different or more valuable than the next.

If you think of yourself as a factory worker, then you become one — and that suits the market just fine.

  1. Otherwise swearwords and slurs would have no power, for example.

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