02 Mar 10: I hate "content"

One term of art in technical communication that just bugs me is "content". It's the term we use to describe information when we don't want to be specific about the format (text, graphics, audio, video).

The Free Software Foundation has an interesting take on this term:
... using the word ["content"] as a noun to describe written and other works of authorship ... regards these works as a commodity whose purpose is to fill a box and make money. In effect, it disparages the works themselves. ...

The term “content management” takes the prize for vacuity. “Content” means “some sort of information,” and “management” in this context means “doing something with it.” So a “content management system” is a system for doing something to some sort of information. Nearly all programs fit that description.
My objection is more on the intellectual side. "Content" is just so vague that it could mean almost anything. It implies "stuff that goes inside something else", which could include, say, peanut butter. I think the term "content" has gained currency thanks to web designers, whose primary concern is the form of a design, with the content that goes into the form being somebody else's concern. But for those of us who provide it, the fact that content fits into a form is a secondary feature.

Unfortunately, none of the alternatives is much better. "Information" and "communication" are nearly as broad. "Knowledge" is also broad, and not all content rises to the level of knowledge in the DIKW hierarchy of "goods of the mind". I mention this merely as an excuse to quote T.S. Eliot's The Rock:
Where is the Life we have lost in living?

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?

Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The best alternative to "content" that I can come up with is the slightly longer phrase "content assets". While this still relegates works of authorship to the status of a commodity, it at least makes the concept into a count noun instead of a mass noun, and implies that the commodity has some intrinsic value beyond filling a box.

I realize that "content" is already so prevalent that it's not going to be changed any time soon. But I still can indulge in an inward cringe when I read or hear bare-bones "content", and engage in a private crusade to use "content assets" instead.

Category: Writing | Posted by: jmswisher


03 Mar 10, 03:03:46 ivan wrote:

Hear what you're saying. I've always felt there was something slightly pretentious about this content.
A bit like those in the acting world referring to their colleague as ‘talent.’
I’d be happy with ‘information’.
Content assets, as a term, leaves itself open to abuse and possibly ridicule. Would ‘content unit’ possibly work?
Very nice to hear TS Elliot, by the way.

03 Mar 10, 08:20:37 techquestioner wrote:

I've also been uncomfortable with the way "Content" is used as an all-encompassing mass noun. As you say, it is now too entrenched to change. But using "content assets" at least allows us ability to classify content items by type, and to discuss them as classes or categories of assets.

03 Mar 10, 08:26:23 David wrote:

Eh, I'm ok with content. In some situations it's very useful and descriptive (e.g. "One of the advantages of using an XML-based documentation system like DocBook or DITA is that it allows you to separate presentation from content." The only alternative I can think of is "data", which would probably bug you even more :-)

05 Mar 10, 01:26:53 Matthew Stibbe wrote:

"Content" is to thinking what "Lorem ipsum" is to design; a worrisome gap that you hope someone else will fill.

BTW Thanks for adding me to your blogroll. :)

05 Mar 10, 16:27:31 Don Crowder wrote:

As a technician I used the terms "gahzintahs" and "gahzowtahs" to generically refer to the anticipated input and output of a given circuit but, just having the anticipated input and output doesn't always mean the circuit is working properly (depends on numerous variables, depending upon what, and how you're measuring). Similarly, having "content" doesn't necessarily mean that information is being imparted. Do you suppose web content needs a CIIQ (Content's imparted intelligence quotient) rating to assist in assessing its value/meaningfulness? :)

Enjoyed reading what you had to say. Thanks.

07 Mar 10, 02:32:35 Jean Hollis Weber wrote:

The term "content" doesn't bother me at all. I find it very useful as a term to use in contrast to "layout" and "presentation" (as David mentioned). Sorry Janet, but "content assets" sounds to me far more like management-speak of the buzzword or pretentious type, though I can see its potential usefulness.

08 Mar 10, 12:01:37 Ben wrote:

I agree that "content" is a generic word with almost no meaning nowadays. I avoid it in most cases and choose it deliberately.

I think I feel the way about "solution" (as in "technology solutions" or "our email solution") the way you feel about "content." Part of my job is to review departmental communications, and I strike out "solution" wherever I see it. It's a buzzword that I don't think is ever necessary in these contexts. In a lot of cases where I see it used, it can just be removed without otherwise changing the sentence, and it still makes sense.

12 Mar 10, 05:44:02 Janet Swisher wrote:

Thanks for all the comments, everybody.

Ivan: You're right that "talent" is another term that can be used to commoditize creativity.

David and Jean: I have no problem with "content" in the context of contrasting it with form or presentation. It's just the use of it as a generic mass noun that sets my teeth on edge.

You may be right that "content assets" is too much like business jargon. Where I work, we have the notion of "warranteed content" (official documentation) and "non-warranteed content" (user-generated) on our wiki. In describing this concept to someone recently, I called it "controlled information" versus "uncontrolled information". So, I guess "information" seems more natural to me.

15 Mar 10, 04:22:38 http://www.myformatfactory.com/ wrote:

Guys, what is " burn content", I had read everything from the beginning, but didnt get that.

18 Mar 10, 06:08:48 Joe Brockmeier wrote:

I feel the same way about the word "consumer." I agree with you about "content," but think that "content assets" lacks something as well. (Sorry, no offense!) I tend to run into the term 'editorial' more often, which is OK with me.

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