I’ve got a beef with “content”

Mm, mm, good!
Mm, mm, good!

Content (noun)
the substance or material dealt with in a speech, literary work, etc., as distinct from its form or style.

late Middle English: from medieval Latin contentum (plural contenta ‘things contained’), neuter past participle of continere (see contain).

Earlier in my career when I developed exhibitions, I grew to loathe the word “content”. This was unfortunate since I used it all the time in writing and speech, and later had it added to my job title. Once, a vendor pitching their mobile app development platform actually used the sentence “Just pour in your content here! We take care of the rest.” I didn’t buy their product.

It’s a classic weasel word, so generic it tells you nothing. It’s a term so flavorless that if you like stories and knowledge and stuff and ideas at all, it’ll sap the joy from you. As part of the commentary on The Andy Warhol Museum’s Digital Strategy repository on GitHub, Seb Chan said “when other industries use the term ‘content’ it means something interchangeable and of short-term value.” Jeff Inscho from the Warhol wrote, “The word doesn’t do museum missions justice and it cheapens the integrity of our subject matter.” I think they’re right. “Content” is the spackle of the digital realm; homogenous, bland, and endless. Just add as much as you need to fill any space!

What we talk about when we talk about content

So that’s my beef with a perfectly good word like content. Partly it’s what Seb and Jeff said, the term implies interchangeable stuff of little value and quality. Looking back, I also felt that “content” as a term was a way of privileging other aspects of a product over what I (and many other content creators) thought of as the meat of any project; the ideas, objects, and experiences that made our work valuable. Granted, I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder, but I just can’t shake the sense that there is something pejorative about content in the contexts we tend to use it in. You can almost see the handwaving that occurs when people talk about “content” as a way of acknowledging its existence while dismissing it so they can get onto the good stuff, be it interface, or aesthetics or hardware.

So, what’s the alternative?

Good question. I don’t think there is a one-to-one synonym that’ll allow us to a global “find and replace” of content. And that’s kind of the point. I think as an abstraction, content is just too diffuse to be useful in many of the contexts in which we use it. While I was thinking about this I went back in the Warhol’s Digital Strategy to see how they’d handled it. Sure enough, content was replaced by different phrases in different places, depending on the context. I think that’s the practice I’m probably going to pursue going forward.

Note to self: If a term is so broad that you immediately have to clarify it with examples, don’t use it.


  1. I am glad you are continuing on your discussion of the use of our favorite, or least favorite noun. So maybe this brings us back to the initial idea — Content as the unformed. It is in the mind before it becomes an experience, a label, an art show, or a digital interactive.


  2. I’m glad! I wouldn’t want the hordes of people with “content” in theirs titles to think I was trying to denigrate them or their work. I think the extent we deploy the word “content” to mask the complexity of the things we collect, curate, and create is often unhelpful. “Content” could be anything, and my experience most of the time it gets used, we’re talking about something much more specific.


  3. Interesting, as I have always approached content with the attitude “Content is king.” As you say “I also felt that “content” as a term was a way of privileging other aspects of a product over what I (and many other content creators) thought of as the meat of any project; the ideas, objects, and experiences that made our work valuable.” You can’t build an effective exhibition/display/interactive without knowing what the subject is, because the subject dictates how best to deliver the message. So yes, content is a generic container word, but it holds the potential for riches.


  4. The degradation of the word “content” began in an industry of freelancers and consultants, people who didn’t worry about the creation of content because they moved on to the next job when the content creators were just getting started. They create generic frames for whatever picture you’re trying to paint because their industry is structured in such a way that it’s simply impractical for them to do anything else. If you want to escape this trap in private industry, you pay a lot more for your website, and probably maintain a permanent staff of designers and developers who constantly work to build things just for you, and you create a culture in your workplace that encourages a different (usually more collaborative, always more labor-intensive) approach to content creation.

    So why is it that even when a museum has a dedicated online team, they still fall into the same trap? Is it because the experts we’ve hired to build our technological infrastructure use “content” in this manner, like a term of art, and it’s just rubbed off on us? Or is there a different set of cultural and institutional constraints in this sector that encourage and/or reinforce the same attitudes? Are there different barriers between those who build our technical infrastructure and those who use it? Are some of those barriers the same? What can we learn from those organizations, in any industry, that seem to have avoided this trap? What needs to change beyond the word “content”?

    What motivations and priorities are common in this sector, and how do they contribute to the problem? I feel like the denigration of our “content” is just a symptom of a much deeper set of problems, and that using a different word or set of words is just part of what needs to be a larger solution.


  5. From a past article of mine:

    Take a moment and think about your last restaurant experience. Recall the look of the menu, the choice of food items that were offered, the colors and textures of the interior of the restaurant, the furniture, the quality of lighting, and the music heard overhead. Did you have two forks that matched in gleaming silver? Or did you have just one fork, made of plastic, rolled in a paper napkin?

    I think that all of these cues lead customers to assumptions about value, quality, and service – a perceived impression for the restaurant. They signal to customers how much they might expect to pay, how they should be dressed, and at what volume they should keep their voices. The same is true for exhibition spaces: design signals expectations and generates outcomes; it leads to knowledge, perceived value, and visitor behavior. And therefore, design is content.

    This innate, simultaneous, and insatiable meaning-making moves the mind from one conclusion to another given information which is perceived in patterns established by the experiencer. Guests to a restaurant simultaneously perceive the nature of the experience just by stepping in the door and finding their way to their table. Likewise, visitors to an exhibition perceive the quality of the space in the same way. Therefore, exhibition content includes (in addition to written words and scripts) everything that defines the character of the exhibition space: environmental graphics, acoustics, choice of materials, lighting, traffic flow, staffing, etc.

    Often, content is a term that is used to mean the specific information that is written on panels or voiced and captioned in media presentations. This usage infers the narrowest definition of the term, and might be better referred to as “information.” Referring to information as content is contrary to the experiential nature of the exhibition medium where take-aways come from both ambient and direct sources.


      1. Ditto! I was going to say that I think there’s a danger when informational “content” is considered as the meat and bones. It encourages a separation between communication through design and through more traditional textual modes. There is a semiotics discussion to be had on that point, but instead I’ll just say “yeah, what Matt said!”

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  6. Agree with the Matts – and also think that the process/work of creating “content” is often a bit of a black box. We aren’t very good at articulating what the work is. Meanwhile, in the tech world, every little aspect of the development is spec’d out in detail (think about agile sprints). Perhaps this is the case with exhibition development as well? There’s a line item in the budget & schedule for choosing paint color because it costs $$, but not for content tasks like setting messaging goals, brainstorming, and tweaking experience flow.

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  7. This is a great discussion. Another thing that I dislike highly about the word content is that it facilitates a continued focus on ourselves — our stuff, our product, our voices. It doesn’t turn the focus onto what (if anything) this content *does*. At least “engagement,” for all its flaws, does focus on the outcome of content, vs. its creation and quantity.


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