The first in a series of short essays in which a word, concept, subject examines itself. Inspired by the title of C.K. Ogden and I.A. Richards’s The Meaning of Meaning.
Type in the word ‘writer’ into an online jobs portal and most results will have ‘content’ in the title. Content Editor. Content Manager. Content Developer. Digital content is everywhere in the Age of the Internet, where blogs, micro-blogs, social media, and websites proliferate and hypertrophy like irradiated giant squid in Japanese B-Movies, seeking to attract, entrance and cling on to the end user in the 24/7 digital content cycle.
Content needs to be managed, its performance measured and optimised, as it moves through its various distribution streams and channels. Fluvial euphemisms pile up like terminal moraines of gibberish. A knowledge of Content Management Systems, Search Engine Optimisation and Information Architecture is generally essential. And, of course, you’ll be happy communicating with internal and external stakeholders. The latter always makes me think of butchers.
Notice how the job advert addresses you directly – you’ll be happy. Oh, I will, will I? Naturally, all this content will be part of a 360 content strategy. 360 what? Degrees? Do they require circumferentially-correct content? Could it be days? If so, the maths is a little off. I suppose they assume that, if you have to ask, then you – you who were so happy to communicate with internal and external stakeholders – are not really right for the job.
In all these adverts, in which the above italicised metaphors appear with a consistency that suggests the writers have all either attended the same Optimal Content Management course, or use the same advert template, one thing remains consistently elusive: no one seems to want to say what all this optimised, managed, edited, manicured and pedicured content consists of. This content has no content. Very occasionally a reference is made to blog posts, social media feeds (content-enriched, no doubt, to strain the metaphor yet further), sometimes articles or newsletters are listed. But the subject and topics of these content formats remain absent.
Content, then, is an empty sign, a signifier which has no referent, and is the perfect metaphor for an age of proliferating text in which the thing being piped from screen to tablet to smartphone, flushed down a digital sewage system of streams and outlet channels, to an ‘end user’, not a reader, is ultimately of no consequence. The content of this content is of such little importance that it does not merit a mention in the adverts seeking someone to create it. What matters is the ‘end user’, the things they click on the page, and the amount of time they spend there. This data is usable, it has value, for advertisers and justifying marketing budgets, for creating content about the effectiveness of the contentless content that lured in the ‘end user’ in the first place. The secondary content not only has more substance than the original content, it both defines it and usurps it. Content finds its substance ex post facto: it only comes to have content in its second order of being. Some feat.
Content is king, the mantra goes. All, any. Those text boxes have to get filled somehow. The invisible reader, a statistical figure who costs so much time and effort to find the ideal content writer to create the contentless content, in order to provide the secondary data-driven content to define and supplant the empty first lot, is the grail at the end of every streamed channel. In its turn, the secondary content will become defined and supplanted through third-order manipulations, and so on in an infinite regress, as contentless content generates ever more content-filled content, until one day a PhD student will sit down to pen her thesis, Content and its Discontents.