A bit more about content

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I got a nice email from Joshua Fruhlinger about my post on Harper’s denial about having any content in their magazine. It seems that I’m a bit in the dark about how this word is being used in the tech industry these days, which shouldn’t surprise anyone. Here’s what Joshua wrote to me:

The ad is a somewhat cheeky response to a particular way that the word “content” has come to be used in the publication industry in the last decade or so. As the internet has become the main (or at least the most novel and talked about) publishing platform, the tech folks who are designing the new infrastructure tend to label and lump together as “content” the stuff that isn’t in their department – the actual text, video, audio, or what have you that various exciting new publishing platforms are designed to present.

I see, so the tech folks think of “content” as the stuff that’s not in their infrastructure. So far, so good. Joshua continues:

Some people whose job it is to create that content sort of see this terminology as a symptom that the shoe is on the wrong foot.

I can certainly understand that reaction. Joshua explains more:

Web sites can become well known and get venture funding because they’re designed or structured in some exciting way, and are sold around the design and structure, because the people who designed them and structured them are the ones selling them. The people in the traditional media would normally be thought of as the whole purpose and selling point of the exercise – and the writers or filmmakers or artists are just called “content providers,” and are something of an afterthought.

It’s something of a specialized debate, and it was probably a more keenly felt issue back during the first dot-com boom, when people were really trying to sell web sites just because they were web sites, without regard for what information they actually conveyed. But Harper’s is basically saying that, for them, the actual writing is at the forefront of their enterprise; they’re not focusing on improving the packaging of some “content” they’re buying from the lowest bidder.

If I understand this properly, Harper’s wants to tell us that what really matters is the original content that is in the magazine, not the way the magazine is packaged and not the content that they could (but don’t) buy from others. So why then, does the ad tell us that Harper’s has no content? Why not tell us that it contains only original content written by their good writers? But the really interesting part comes next in Joshua’s email:

You have to be a little involved in the industry to get the nuance, which is always a mistake for an ad. People who write ads assume their readers are going to be just like them.

Ah-hah. Now we may be getting to the problem. Insiders use language the way other insiders use it. It’s efficient and appropriate for medical specialists to use shorthand terms, abbreviations, and terminology among themselves. There’s nothing wrong with this as long as they don’t expect outsiders to understand them. The same goes for many lawyers, accountants, mechanics, engineers, and, I hate to admit it, linguists.

The ad writing team may have used the meaning of “content” in the way those in the design and packaging business use it – to mean the opposite of content packaging. But, like Joshua, I wonder if Harper’s thought it was using “content” to mean original writing rather than stuff purchased from outside sources. The problem with both senses is that most of us (I think) don’t even know about the specialized meaning of “content” held by the packaging industry and we can be equally confused if Harper’s really meant that they use only original material. Either way, by advertising that Harper’s has no content, many readers are likely to be mystified.

Insider words can get you in trouble. Good ads see life from the perspective of their readers. Like Joshua, I still believe this ad didn’t do this.

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