The content fallacy

On the internet, many people fall for the content fallacy. But content neither just happens nor exists independent of its container.

There is no such thing as content. It’s an abstract concept that loses almost all of its meaning when put into practice. The term content conveys the notion that there is something existing independent of a container. That’s a fallacy. This model certainly works well when it comes to global trade, container ships and 20ft containers. For digital media, it utterly fails.

Every new medium starts with repurposing and replicating old media content. In Germany, the first radio broadcast was a Christmas concert. Television borrowed its initial content from the cinema. And newspapers forayed into the early internet with their written stuff. Text could easily be rendered in digital form, since the editorial print layout systems back then were already digitally-based.

I will happily concede that we still listen to concerts on the radio, watch movies on TV, and read our news on the internet. But radio, TV and the web are so much more than just concerts, movies, and news. Over time, every medium develops its own content production ecosystem, with distinct formats. Consumption habits and usage patterns vary wildly. It’s not enough to simply take what you already have and adapt it to the new channel. Or worse, pour your precious content into new containers without adapting it.

Newspapers, for example, appear daily, reporting roughly on what happened yesterday. As soon as publishers start reporting via the internet, they’re suddenly in the real-time news business. Instantly, it’s about what happens now. Is it enough to simply publish the same stuff both immediately on the web and then on paper one day later? Probably not, and publishers learned this lesson the hard way. It’s a completely different business with different metrics, cost structures and revenue streams. Or, in short, different products.

Everything is content

The content fallacy masks this little fact. The internet and its offspring have greatly enlarged the scope of this fallacy. Digital technology reduces content to mere data. Data can move seamlessly over digital networks, or so it seems. Viewed this way, it doesn’t matter whether we have text, pictures, sound, or video – everything is just content. The internet holds books, newspapers, radio, TV, movies, and plenty of other stuff – it’s all content, but a plethora of different products.

Of course, if you are Bertelsmann, you can turn a book into a TV movie that you then broadcast via your own TV channel and promote via your own print magazines. These are totally different products, and you need to carefully manage each of them. It’s not as if you could simply decant some fluid content from one container to the other.

Since the internet is a content-driven medium, the content fallacy now appears almost everywhere. Wherever there is a website, an app or other digital product, there is content. Alan J. Porter defines the content fallacy as

an unstated belief that “content just happens.”

18,000 variants of one piece of content

He gives a real-world example:

“When discussing with a client how they would meet a C-suite level mandate for personalizing the customer experience as part of the their digital transformation strategy we discovered that to meet all the different vectors of marketing campaigns, product types, customer segments, industries, languages and delivery channels they were targeting, they would be looking at potentially delivering over 18,000 variants of one piece of content.”

That’s the same basic problem at a whole different scale. We have reached a level of complexity that requires a new approach. It doesn’t make sense to render 18,000 variants of a single content piece in advance and then store it until it’s needed. We need to render these variants on-demand and in real-time. That alone commands some sophisticated content engineering. And this leads us to a discipline that is still underappreciated, despite the internet being a content-driven medium.

Here’s a definition:

“Content engineering is the practice of organizing the shape, structure, and application of content. Content engineering is broken down into seven primary disciplines: model, metadata, markup, schema, taxonomy, topology, and graph.”

A multi-dimensional game

We already see that it’s not so much about writing code in the first place, but of organising all this “content stuff”. This is a multi-dimensional game. Content must be treated in so many different ways that almost nothing in common is left, apart from the label “content” itself. However, content production isn’t entirely automated. Despite GPT-3, we still employ human beings to write this blog. But in this day and age, content production is the interplay of human ingenuity with digital technology.

Oftentimes, content is used as a synonym for text, and the art of writing is treated separately from design. This aspect of the content fallacy is similar to the early days of advertising before the advent of the art director/copywriter combo. Does history repeat itself?

The internet has spawned so many different kinds of content that it’s hard to find a meaning of the word that’s saying more than the stuff inside of a container. Or: the payload data of a content management system – another circular definition. But content cannot exist without its container. That’s different from the world of container ships and trucks.

There is no such thing as content. Or, to put it differently: On the internet, content is everything. And without content, your product is nothing.

Last updated on July 5, 2021. Photo by Nicolas J Leclercq on Unsplash