"Content" has the stink of failure (and it's a lie, besides)

Tim Bray's "Content-free" is a great piece on why the term "content" is so objectionable. He raises some good arguments, but misses my favorite one -- one of the origins of the term "content" in technical speech is the idea that you can separate the "content" of a Web-page from the "presentation." Indeed, scripts that present "content" to users are sometimes called "decorators."

Now that the Web's in its second decade of common use, it's pretty clear that "content" and "presentation" are never fully separable. This is a lesson that was already learned in other media -- for example, when movies progressed from being a single, locked-off camera recording a stage-play and instead began to integrate the limitations and the capabilities of film into the "content" of that film.

John Perry Barlow made this point well in his introduction to my essay collection Content (a title chosen for largely ironic reasons). It's also a point that David Byrne makes very well in the brilliant How Music Works, where he discusses the move to record each musician separately and mix the "content" in the studio, and how that produced a manifestly different kind of music than music where all the musicians played together.

In other words, "content" isn't just pernicious for Tim Bray's excellent reason ("'Content' has the stink of failure; of hustlers building businesses they don't actually care about"), but because it implies a harmful untruth: that there is a clean line that can be drawn between "content" and "form." Where this untruth flourishes, people who produce "content" that is, in fact, optimized for the form of "content whose form will be determined later" go about claiming that they have found the neutral, form-free, platonic ideal of content. Instead, they've constrained their content by eliminating all the form-dependent elements, and thereby constrained their ability to communicate the full range of human ideas.

“Content” has the stink of failure; of hustlers building businesses they don’t actually care about. Which is icky and usually doesn’t pay off.

Enough with the negative findings, because there’s something important and positive to say here: If you’re building something that’s used for communication, and you find that people are using an idiomatic name for what they’re sending and receiving, you’re probably on to something.

But if you’re about “generating content” you’re dead.


(Image: Content Writing Tips and Tricks, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from findyoursearch's photostream)

Notable Replies

  1. When a web programmer says content and presentation can be separated, they mean something very specific. Trying to apply that to all communication, ever, takes the original idea far out of it's intended context. The intention of separating content from presentation is to allow Cory to type up the text for Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom once, and then publish it on the web, in print, to a kindle, to a mobile device, etc. The text of the story (the content) is the same, regardless of which form you read it in. I for one don't think the experience of that content is appreciably different whether I read it on a kindle, an android, an Iphone, printed page. Is Cory's story different when you change the font size? I don't think so, and that's what the separation of content vs presentation means in a technical sense.

  2. MDa says:

    People who think for themselves are rarely appreciated by people who don't.

  3. Fang says:

    So is Cory going to abandon WordPress and replace every boing boing post with a flash embed, then?

    Separation of form and content is an artificial constraint, but great works of artistic expression have often been done under constraints. The principle of separation underlies a lot of the success stories of the web - Wikipedia, for example, the blog revolution, online news, Twitter, etc etc, because it lets people focus on one thing, while skilled stylesheet/web designers focus on making it all look nice (and yes, commercially viable). Further, use of standardized forms hands control to the user, to customize the presentation to their individual liking through their own stylesheets and user scripts.

  4. Zai says:

    I read most of this article in a state of confusion, until I realised that that the term "content" must have been overloaded, re - appropriated and absorbed into managementspeak.

    As a retro computer nut, I spend a lot of time reading pages hand coded in notepad using HTML 2 with no flash or CSS or other modern tomfoolery, and to be honest it doesn't detract from the "content" a jot.

  5. I ways figured that "content" embodies the idea that the words, art, music, etc are fungible. One unit may be substituted for any other; the unit count and format is what matters more.

    This also strikes me as a way of thinking inculcated by intellectual property, which encourages the perception that creativity is best understood in economic and quantifiable terms.

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