Keywords for the Age of Austerity 9: Content

In a press release announcing its acquisition of the much-loved TV comedy South Park and the yet-to-be-loved comedy The Hotwives of OrlandoHulu trumpeted its expanding “library of exclusive, current and library content.” Hulu’s senior Vice President and “Head of Content” Craig Erwich wrote:  

I could not be more thrilled to announce that we are continuing the momentum this year by bringing new seasons of our beloved Originals, as well as the premiere of our brand new title ‘The Hotwives of Orlando’ and new library deals that will make Hulu’s content offering more robust and diverse than ever before.

In volume 1 of Capital, Marx famously explained commodity fetishism under capitalism as an alienating social world in which, he wrote, 

the relations connecting the labour of one individual with that of the rest appear, not as direct social relations between individuals at work, but as what they really are, material relations between persons and social relations between things.

The reversal contained in Marx’s phrase—manufactured things take on the dynamic richness of people, while people themselves are reduced to mere objects—is part of what bothers Benjamin Hart, in a perceptive article in Salon, about the use of the term “content” in the contemporary culture industry. Hart objects to the degradation of art—what a TV executive might call “quality content”—by its confusion with fluff. But Breaking Bad is a commodity, of course, a product sold to advertisers and viewers in exchange for money, no different in this fundamental respect from Who’s the Boss or The Hotwives of Orlando. The problem with “content,” therefore, runs deeper than the boundary between high art and low culture, to the privatization of the desires, knowledge, and experiences we gain from the stories we read, watch, and remember. “Content” names artistic and narrative creativity, and therefore creators themselves, as things like any other. 

“Content” is ubiquitous in entertainment journalism and in industry discourse—television, film, and music industries in particular use the term regularly, while book publishers, perhaps conscious of the antiquity and prestige of their medium, seem to use it less (please correct me in the comments or on Twitter if I’m wrong here).

The rise of “content” in its current form can be traced to the broadband web. In 2000, Time Magazine reported the merger of AOL and Time Warner by explaining that the new technology of “broadband” originates in “the fat, fast pipes of cable television that could carry vast amounts of Internet content.” The anachronistic materiality of this description (the Internet as a series of tubes, or fat pipes) points out how “content” as a term underscores literary and visual media’s dissolution into digital immateriality. This is not to wring hands about the rise of e-books and small screens and the decline of print and cinema but to emphasize, rather, how digitization is an intensification of the commodification of all forms of culture.

As I found in some preliminary research on BYU’s Corpus of Historical American English,pre-2000 uses of the term “content” mostly follow the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition, even with its outdated print bias: “the things contained or treated of in a writing or document; the various subdivisions of its subject matter,” as in the table of contents.

Elaine Green, assistant principal of Detroit’s Mumford High School, told Time Magazine in June 1989 that teachers and students at her school were “pleased with the quality and content” of Channel 1, the old TV news distributed to schools that, as I recall it from my own high school days, was a beachhead in commercial advertising’s invasion of the school day. Green’s use was once typical—“content” was simply the stuff in Channel 1’s programming, not the programming itself

The term also thrived in the 1990s in calls for government regulation of music, movies, and video games. Tipper Gore’s hilarious anecdote about her encounter with Prince’s “Darling Nikki” in 1985 and Congress’ sanction of the National Endowment for the Arts in the late 1990s focused attention on the “graphic content” of music and art.

Now, an intermission (parental guidance suggested):

Its popularity among executives, politicians, and advertisers gives “content” a drearily bureaucratic ring. In common phrases like “violent content,” “sexual content,” or “inappropriate content,” the word refers to knowledge and information that should be policed. In this context, it is a purposely bloodless euphemism for any controversial narrative, visual, or verbal elements of a work of art (and it refers, in music, only to lyrics, almost never to tone, melody, or rhythm). This usage of “content,” as the raw material by which an artistic work could be judged and condemned, without any attempt at interpretation, presaged the contemporary ubiquity of the term. Today, as Hart observes, “content” is just a “substance” made of digital words, which is how Merriam Webster’s pleasingly cheeky definition now describes it: “the principal substance (as written matter, illustrations, or music) offered by a World Wide Web site.”

This digital substance is the basis of so-called “content farms,” websites that cheaply and quickly produce articles meant to optimize search results. Outfits like and the defunct Associated Content have used low-paid writers (reportedly earning as little as $3.50 per story) to produce articles intended to game Google results and thereby build a stockpile of “content” used to sell targeted ads. See the example, described by Farhad Manjoo, of an Associated Content article that used the phrase “Tiger Woods mistress pictures” 8 times.

Content-substance is undistinguished either generically, by subject matter, by level of specialization, or by style. It is a marketer’s term, used to describe anything that generates views, subscriptions, or ticket sales. But its popularity is less a symptom of the fragmentation of the media market—the multiplication of genres and the web-enabled devices where we consume them—than it is of the widespread privatization and privation of the educational, editorial, and journalistic professions, which has been encouraged, but not invented, by the Internet. The stories of journalism school graduates and newsroom veterans, like one laid-off Miami Herald reporter who turned to content farms to make ends meet in something resembling their chosen profession, are distressing cases in point.

“Content” in educational reform discourse refers to everything that is contained in a curriculum; it’s a usage that reflects the uniformity that reform critics like Diane Ravitch have criticized in the push for school “accountability.” California’s Common Core standards informational sheet, for example, refers throughout to “content areas”—what I might call a discipline or a subject, like history or math. And “content standards” are “curricular and instructional strategies that best deliver the content to their students.” The implicitly quantitative presumptions that “content” reveals here—curricular knowledge that can be measured, repeated, and reliably delivered—is especially clear in the popularity of the construction “content delivery,” beloved by media managers and tech firms.

As things we are accustomed to thinking of as “culture” that we care about—novels, cinema, “prestige” television shows, investigative journalism, Purple Rain—are understood ever more bluntly by advertisers, producers, and others as mere commodities to be “delivered” to buyers or policed for their most literal meaning, what are more obviously “mere” commodities—brand names, commercials, and other objects sold by commercials—are imbued with the aesthetic character of the work we care about. Thus, advertising site (get it?) on “brand storytelling,” and the American Marketing Association’s  seminar on “how to map content to personas and stages of the buyers’ journey.” Here, “content” is treated as a direct path to the dreams, aspirations, doubts, and fears of individuals.

Borrowing a New Agey vernacular of life as a “journey,” a consumer’s potential purchase of a brand-new plasma TV or season 6 of Who’s the Boss? on DVD is graced with spiritual consequences. New Age spiritualism was its own kind of commodified spirituality, of course, making the brave new world of content ownership and ownership “journeys” alienation of the second order.