Zach's PEN #20: “Content”

2020 Week 50: My least favorite word and a few reasons why it's terrible.

Before I begin, I want to acknowledge that the war to defeat this word in its current usage has already been lost. Our culture has become so sick that it has fully embraced the word. For this reason, most of us who write, filmmake, shoot photos, teach courses, make radio, or do anything creative, have already surrendered.

I will not.

I’m not so selfish to demand anyone else die on this hill with me. I judge no one. We all have to make the decisions that are best for ourselves and our loved ones. But even as my own company succumbs to using this word and it begins to appear in descriptions of our offerings, I will treat the hard work of writers, podcasters, journalists, teachers, etc. with the minimum respect it deserves. As a person with inherent dignity, if you have a show, I will call it “your show.”

Here are 5 reasons why “content” is my least favorite word

  1. The word was invented by advertisers to refer to “you know, that stuff that’s between our ads.” As an advertiser (person who crafts advertising for a living), the irony that I’m bringing this complaint is not lost on me. But it’s particularly devastating because for 15 years I have been trying to spread the gospel to every customer I help that, actually, their money would be best spent making something good, like the stuff their ads usually go between.

  2. Because advertisers, like everyone else in this economic system, want to commoditize every part of their value chain that isn’t them, they deployed the most demeaning word they could. The dictionary definition of “content” doesn’t even tell you what it means: n. That which is contained; the thing or things held, included, or comprehended within a limit or limits. You know, THAT WHICH, the THING OR THINGS, GUYS. They may as well say “shit.”

  3. “Content”’s actual meaning has great utility in the creation of what the world is calling content 🤦‍♂️. Works of art and other things have often been described in terms of their “form and content.” When writing a script, discussing a concept or idea, or creating anything, it’s helpful to be able to refer to the content of the thing as separate from the form of that thing. But now the word just generically refers to everything created by anyone across all forms, all media, and all values of quality and intention.

  4. While the word means nothing at all, people think it means something, which destroys creative communication and leads to worse ideas. “Content” could be the best example the lazy type of word that makes people feel like they’re saying something when they aren’t. “We need some content” is not a helpful call to action leading anyone to any interesting place. Zero cool things have started with someone saying this to someone else.

  5. Telling good stories and making good art, with a point of view and some novelty and soul to it, requires something real. I promise I’m not trying to be precious here. I don’t think you need to care a lot or work really hard or make big sacrifices to make something good. I actually have come to believe that this kind of thinking is toxic to your work and your health. But you do need to be yourself. The work needs to come from a genuine place to have any chance of being good. And you, your point of view, your unique mix of interests, experiences, conflicts, talents, skills, DNA, intersections of weird-ass stuff… that cannot be commodified. Ever. Because it’s you. And the level to which it does become commodified is precisely the level to which it becomes shit perpetuating more shit. Basically, when you internalize “content” as the object of your efforts, you have oriented yourself to creative work in the worst way possible.

We’re entering a golden age for independent writers and artists and storytellers and teachers of all kinds. It’s not hyperbole to say there are people reinventing genres and media and the very means of creation and expression. As easy as it might be to take that whole rich landscape and call it “content creators,” I’m not going to do that.

As for what’s next for me…

This PEN is the longest I’ve stuck with anything creative and I’m cautiously considering adding something else to my regular publishing schedule. I haven’t written anything new on the blog but I feel like the “discipline” and relative low stakes of writing this PEN has really begun to prime the pump for ideas there. I also write tweets sometimes. Here’s one from this week about our super dumb economic system:

I’m not going to put any additional pressure on myself, but I may soon be starting a weekly podcast with someone I admire and a show on YouTube (not a “YouTube Show,” mind you) with someone else I admire. I’ve spent most of my life avoiding being in front of the camera, but as it’s faster than finding a surrogate through which to convey my point of view, it’s beginning to appear unavoidable.

In short: Hope to have some new things to share with you soon, PENpals.


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P. S. To all the smart-asses among my friends who will reply to this email with “Really enjoying your content.”