Dis-Content: Learning to Write in the Age of the Digital

By Chris Townsend

Anyone attempting to make a living for him- or herself through the written word in the modern digital day will be all-too familiar with the ubiquitous term “content.” The daily, desperate perusal of job listings is streamlined by the fact that nearly all roles related whatsoever to writing, editing, or proofreading now contain this ever-present buzzword. Content writer, content editor, content producer, content manager. Content strategist even, content creator, content developer, content marketing executive, content communicator, content buyer. Junior content delivery operative. Head of content. “Content,” in the marketing sense, is not by any stretch a brand-new concept, but it is one that has gained an uncommonly tenacious purchase in our modern or postmodern times. Content of this ilk exists to bridge the ever-increasing gap between print and screen cultures, as a one-size-fits-all category for both the old world of writing and the new paradigm of images. Content is a solution to the brave new world of the digital.

Actually, it isn’t — but it is a term enforced by precisely the kinds of marketing minds that first cooked up the rhetoric of “solutions.” The British fortnightly magazine Private Eye has, for the past half-decade or so, delighted in reprinting the best of these brandspeak solution-oriented slogans in its pages. Landscape gardeners do not mow lawns; they provide herbaceous growth solutions. The Los Angeles Review of Books, perhaps, provides literary-critical evaluative solutions. It’s an especially applicable term to app culture: Postmates provides takeout solutions (the problem being going to get the take-away), and Uber offers transport solutions. This talk of solutions is indicative of a mindset that sees the world as a series of problems in want of fixing: systems that need optimizing, costs that need driving down, gaps that need filling — the ruling logic underlying the “there’s an app for that” maxim. It’s this same pervasive neoliberal attitude that has given rise to the new “content,” quite distinct from its traditional meaning.

When we talk about “content” in the terms of literary history, we are usually talking about a text’s ideas in their abstract relation to its form. An idea might act as the “content” of a work, in the same way that a work can be seen as the substantial “form” of its idea. Comparisons to a summer’s day might be the content of a poem, but the sonnet is its form — its strange and invisible container, without which the the idea of the “sonnet” itself is lost. Content is usually supposed to be the meaningful part of a text, and form its shape and appearance. There are difficulties with this metaphysics of containers — it is one we can compare, after all, to the crude understanding of ourselves as a division of body and soul. If meaning is just “content,” then can we pour it out of one container — say, an epic poem — into another very different one and expect the same results? Even if a sense of Homer’s language was carried over into an essay, it is hard to imagine that the Iliad or the Odyssey would offer the same literary reading experiences if we tampered with the form. The relationship between form and content becomes complicated when we start to acknowledge that form plays a hand in meaning — that it is an extension of, and not a casing for, content.

The point of this loose history of the form-content distinction is to sketch precisely the niceties that are missing from the use of “content” as it appears across and throughout the new media. Content, now, is something that fills a hole — a kind of writerly space-stuffing solution — and it can be freely spilt from container to container. It is the ad men who are the providers of form and forms, with writers being brought in to flood the gaps in problem-riddled reality. “Got great content?,” asks a sponsored advert for Outbrain, the online advertiser responsible for stuffing links to excrementally bad fluff and guff at the bottom of Guardian articles, and other otherwise admirable websites. (Outbrain itself currently promotes an article by its Head of Product Marketing: “The Golden Age of Content is Here.”) This is worse than hack-work, the act of writing to tight guidelines and deadlines; this is writing where almost anything carrying the brand’s mark will do. No matter the size or shape of the hole — be it blog post or clickbait news article — it is the writer’s job to fill it. “Content” is a kind of linguistic Polyfilla: cramming any hole, smoothing over any crack, taking the shape of any loosely-defined form. Doing a job.

The very concept of “content” serves to denigrate the act of writing. So common are the content-producing websites, blogs, articles, listicles, Facebook posts, tweets, that the notion of text or image as a kind of stuff or gunk, one that fills holes in magazines and the internet, and bleeds out into other forms of writing. (William Blake’s memorable description of Dutch painting, as “Flemish ooze,” creeps into mind.) Writing is not supposed to live in an abstract relation to form, nor to be conceived of as mere text; writing, surely, should aspire to be more than a combination of words that make a bare minimum of sense so as to fill a gap. When a writer, or a commissioner of writing, conceives of the work as “content,” then it is already stamped with the mark of consumerism. Writers have always had to earn a living, but writing has generally managed to occupy a strange and uncertain relation to the money it can bring in. “Content” effaces this uncertainty, erases the possibility of critical prose, and refigures writing as a kind of vague, slogan-bearing substance. This is to be resisted.

At its best, the explosion of publishing that the internet has birthed has led to an unending plurality of voices and views, critical depth as well as breadth across an entirely public forum, and the real possibility of mass communication that is at once democratic and external to capitalism. At its worst, though, the internet has done a kind a of violence to the act of writing. Where consumers might have been expected to show a little more discernment in their reading habits, choosing between thousands of competing posts at any one time, we are instead being taught to read badly, to see writing as a product of the marketing department. It all starts to blur and to look the same — we see only vague content. In a provocative article for the Canadian web magazine the Walrus, Alex Good has recently turned over the evidence that “we live in a post-literate age.” How to argue against this, when the literature of the age is caught up in the great swirling pools of content? More than ever, professional writing is now in large part governed by the very people who seem most to hold it in contempt, and our words are more and more becoming the vessels not of great ideas, but of brands.

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