“Content” is contentious

Via Adam Tinworth (who seems to agree that I should be shorter), a note on content:

Content is crap. Nobody walks out of a great movie and says, “Wow! What great content.” Nobody who produces meaningful artistic expression thinks of themselves as content producers either. So the first step to becoming a successful publisher is to start treating creative work with the respect it deserves.

Generally, people don’t react well to the word content, especially people who are doing the work that makes that “content” valuable. Editors, journalists, reporters, writers, video producers and interactive developers don’t want to hear their work levelled in the way that “content” somehow manages to do. No one asks if it’s good content; they care if it’s a good story, a good video, good journalism. Content puts people’s backs up, because it devalues their creative efforts and reduces an article, a photo, a piece of hard work, to merely the fact of its existence. It’s about as insulting as calling it “URLs”.

Every day, at work, I write emails that require a collective term for text articles, image galleries, videos, interactives and perhaps a few other things too. I call them journalism, or pieces, or work, or news, or in extreme cases when I’ve exhausted every other synonym I list them as articles, images, videos and interactives. Every day, I deliberately avoid using the word “content”, because, as Greg Satell points out, it’s crap.

What is a blog, anyway?

This post by Andy Boyle seems to have struck a nerve on Twitter today. It exhorts news organisations to stop referring to things they produce as blogs just because they use different CMS or are branded differently to regular content. While I don’t think it quite applies across the board – this, for instance, is definitely a blog – Andy makes some very good points.

Sadly, blogs brought along a stigma that people still use  – which is wrong — that they’re done by people in their pajamas in a basement somewhere. Blogs are not the same as regular news content, some media folks thought, because they weren’t in your “main” CMS. They had a wall between them and they are different. They may even be branded differently, with a different header and logo. They weren’t the same as regular content because they were in a different system! Right?


It’s time to stop bifurcating your content as blogs and news because they run on separate systems. It is all content, so why not call it that? Even if you have outside people writing posts on your website that are unmoderated by your staff — that’s still content that’s part of your media outlet’s website. I don’t have any research proving this, but in my short journalism career many media outlets just slapped the name “blog” on something because it lived in a different CMS. We should stop this. Please.

While I don’t have any hard stats or user testing data on how readers react to the word “blog”, my gut instinct is that their readings are very different from the way news organisations tend to use the term. To a newsroom, the word blog might signify a lighter tone than news or feature. It might imply a home for specialised subject matter that might not fit with the rest of the site. It might be used to signify a linked, ongoing set of posts like the word “series”. It might mean “something done through WordPress” or “something put online without subbing first” or “a side project we give the juniors to prove themselves”. To some, in some newsrooms, it almost certainly means “not proper journalism”, despite the (somehow, still ongoing) conversations about whether bloggers can be journalists.

The question is what it means to our readers. My fear is that for them it may have more resonance with the meanings towards the end of that little list than the ones at the start. Blog shouldn’t be a dirty word or one that’s used to put down the effort of the people creating something – but in the minds of many, at the moment it still is. It’s important to set readers’ expectations by what’s on the page, but we don’t need to distinguish web-only or web-first or even tone in this way – there are other words that might make just as much sense to us, and even more to readers.

Exploring the read/write world

Paper boats carrying prayers across a sea of mapsYesterday, Nick Booth at Podnosh posted a transcript of a conversation on Twitter where he asked for useful analogies to describe the internet to people who’ve only experienced radio and tv.

The conversation – and the comments – got me thinking about the way metaphors limit what we can understand about the online world and affect how we use it, particularly the page/document conceptual metaphor that pervades our language.

We use print language constantly online. Web pages, archives, scroll, above the fold, inbox, email, post. The metaphor is pervasive and often goes unnoticed as we use the language that reinforces it, making it hard to tease out the implications and assumptions of this mindset.

But pages aren’t flat, static, words on the screen as we see in print papers. What happens if we call a page a node? Or a window? Or a stream, a fall, a flow, a conversation, a connection, a junction?

Conceiving of pages as stories, for instance, opens up the idea of letting journalists develop an entire story online, rather than in our notebooks. Posting complete transcripts of interviews, not just the quotes we think are important. Including raw footage alongside the edit for those who are interested. Asking at early stages of a project where users think we should be investigating more. Incorporating links to our research and visualisations of our data not when we think they are relevant but when we stumble across them.

Conceiving of pages as junctions makes flat print-like design stand out as inadequate – not fit for their intended purpose, which is to facilitate forward movement and choice for reader.

And what if, instead of a reader, we have a traveller? The idea of a reader implies commitment, passivity, and above all a text-based medium. A traveller is someone who can leave at any moment, and opens up the idea of the page as a literal place – a location that can be moved through and explored rather than a document.

Thinking of the web as a series of pages gets us print design replicated online, lacking the myriad subtleties that are possible in a space that is simultaneously a limitless sea of connections and a location and a conversation and a lot of other things. Essentially, it gets you the front page of the new Times website – pretty and clean, but flat and without the cues many travellers use to make meaningful journeys through the web.

Thinking of it in any other way at all requires seriously examining the words we use, and playing with putting others in their place. Each conceptual metaphor has its own problems – calling the internet a brain inadvertently implies the organised hivemind that Twitter users protest does not exist, for instance – but we need a library (or bathtub, or pantry) that’s full of different options in order to open up new ways of thinking about what’s possible online.