Somehow, the vast variety and scope of information created and published online has been condemned to reductive summary in the vacuous designation “content.” We may be stuck with the word. Ubiquitous usage of the term has too deeply embedded itself into the culture and practices surrounding the production and consumption of online work.
Certainly, “content” has some use as a general “catch-all” term. Yet, the generalized and generalizing character of “content” also points to the term’s essential shortcomings. Vague references to online “content” do not adequately signify the purpose and value of genuinely meaningful and creative work.
“Content” literally means “that which is contained.” As a designation of work published online, “content” refers less to the specific character or purpose of the work itself, and more to its function as something–anything–contained by (or presented on) the internet.
The deficiencies of the word standout when compared to alternatives. Even references to online “work” at least refer back to status as something made by others. The term “content” resonates of an alienated anonymity–not something made by creators for audiences, but rather, something that simply exists, without context, online.
As a designation for “that which is contained,” the term “content” does not imply any intrinsic potential for significance, nor does the term in anyway refer to the ways in which work published online impacts audiences. Characterizing work published online as “media” or a form of “communication” would at leas highlight how this work actively facilitates social relationships and connection.
Then there’s the term “information.” Unlike “content,” “information” presumes at least some minimal standard of relevance and meaning potentially employable in higher-order forms of thought and learning. “Information” refers to the meaningful organization of facts and data that can lead to new insight or knowledge, perhaps even new levels of understanding or wisdom.
The problems with the word “content” go beyond semantics. For those engaged in creating online “content”--a practice that permeates (and in fact blurs the boundaries between) professional and personal life–over-reliance on the very term “content” threatens to reduce the significance and relevance of online publishing.
As more and more people spend more of their time engaged in online “content,” the stakes of online publishing far exceed the work of producing “that which is contained” on the internet. While use of the term “content” will not likely fade anytime soon, we can at least try to diversify our terminology to adequately reflect and capture the importance of the work.