Are You a “Content Creator”? And Is That Enough?

Content vs SubstanceOne of the maladies of the twenty-first century is the ease with which we use the term content. We talk about content marketing and content management. We also describe ourselves as “content providers” and creators of “information products.” Yet our casual use of this term glosses over some key distinctions and might even undermine our work.

Maria Popova, creator and curator of the venerable Brain Pickingsdescribes content as:

… a term by which no self-respecting writer or artist would refer to what she makes, and yet one forcefully seared on to writing and art by the tyrannical vocabulary of commercial media, that hotbed of professionalized consumerism concerned not with the stewardship of culture but with the profitable commodification of it.

Maria is blunt. And she raises a fair question: What is content, anyway? Here we can easily go astray. There are so many questions to ask, such as:

  • If you write a book, are you creating content? Or is that something you do only when creating text, images, video, or audio to appear online?
  • What if you take text and images from your book and adapt them to appear on your website? Have you taken one thing and turned it into something else?
  • Is the New York Times a “content provider”? How about Shakespeare or other great authors, if you read their work online?

In an interview with James Altucher, Maria contrasts “substantive writing” with content. She riffs on the cliché that “content is king,” contrasting “substantive writing” with listicles and clickbait:

… content is not king. Content is currency. Substantive writing is king in the sense of that it really nourishes and inspires us and just makes us feel a little more alive.

In response, James points out that list-based articles on the Internet sometimes do convey useful ideas and information. Maria concedes this point, citing her wonderful post on Umberto Eco and lists as the “origin of culture.”

One path out of confusion is to remember the difference between what’s ephemeral and what lasts. Let’s distinguish text and images that are forgotten within minutes of publication from the human creations that turn into classics. If you’re creating a list that people will still be reading 100 years from today, then you’re probably creating literature—defined by Ezra Pound in the ABC of Reading as “news that stays news.”

When we raise our creativity to this level, then we can put aside the whole debate about content versus substance. Our ancestors will simply know that we created something remarkable.