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.