I have a deep, simmering hatred for the word “content”.
In 2023, I’m guessing we’ve all all heard this word. But I’ll offer a brief, imperfect, human-generated definition: “Content” is what makes up the internet.
Medium articles, instagram memes, SEO pages about the best app developer services in India, TikToks, your aunt’s political Facebook posts — these are all ‘content’.
Some of that stuff can be pretty good — so why do I hate this word? Because ‘content’ is a generic, artless term.
If you work as a ‘content writer’ (as I have in the past), chances are, you don’t really know, understand, or care about the topic you’re writing on. I was writing articles about photographing grizzly bears. Have I seen a grizzly bear in real life? Sure. Did I get a photo? Nope. Do I have a background in wildlife biology? No. Did I offer anything personal to the topic besides SEO skills? Absolutely not.
“Content” is made to fit in a box, usually someone else’s box. A social media platform’s insatiable scroll, or a business’s need for a few paragraphs on an ‘About Us’ section: content is subservient to the needs of its form. Content does not justify itself. Content does not offer a thesis. Content does not change you.
I was reading a Medium article today, where the author, Dale Biron wrote some words which apply:
I want to draw a line right down the middle of your subconscious, carving out two critical domains. The first domain is the every day, “You.” It’s the you that exists before colliding with a poem, story, or phrase that captures your attention and interrupts your usual and typical patterns.—Dale Biron, 39 Life Altering Lessons I Learned From Reading A Million Poems
The second domain is a very different “You.” It is the shifted you that comes into existance (sic) just after reading or hearing language that stops you in your tracks, language from which you can neither forget or retreat. Words that say something to you that you’ve never quite heard before. However, once these words enter your psyche, you realize they describe a truth you cannot deny. A truth you did not know you knew.’
“Content” exists in that first domain. An encounter with content does not jolt you into the second domain. If you find yourself entering that second domain, congratulate the writer, videographer, photographer — they have transcended “content”.
That is worth paying attention to.
ChatGPT will replace content writers
(Parenthetical for reference: ChatGPT is a generative language model — you give it a prompt, and it writes an original article or response. It has an astonishing breadth of ability — I encourage you to play around, check it out. If you don’t have the time for that, here is a list of 20 things it can do, with examples).
Smart content writers are already using this tool, and I don’t begrudge them that at all. ChatGPT can scan Google way better than I can, and it can write a generic article about grizzly bears in a few seconds, where I might take a few hours. And truthfully, my article wouldn’t be any better than ChatGPT’s — because when I’m writing ‘content’, I don’t care. It is work. It is a soulless task. It is, ultimately, just something to fill the space.
Much of the web is content. And content is about to be roiled by revolution.
We will drown in a wave of robot-written ‘content’. It will not be too different from the content we currently experience, but there will be much, much more of it. A human generating content will no longer be an economical use of one’s time.
There is no doubt here. It will happen; it is happening already.
But real writing — art—will not die.
(We may wish to take a moment here to consider the ratio of content:art)
True art generates meaning from *unexpected* connections — the exact opposite of how generative transformers and reinforcement learning works.
These AI models are extremely good at mimicking average human behavior and output — but art is not average. For exactly this reason, only an aberrant few amongst us can become artists.
The AI can write content to a high standard, free of grammatical errors and quite predictable. It can even ape certain popular writing styles, if prompted. SEO sites, affiliate marketing, business websites and more will all turn to these tools, eliminating the need for the large swath of online freelancers that currently fill these pages with so much ‘content’.
Do I ultimately care if a human or a robot wrote the copy on my printer manufacturer’s website? Not really.
(I never much enjoyed being a content writer, so I will not miss the job opportunities. I do sympathize with those who make their full-time living in this field, though.)
The human heart cries out for art
Writers with something to say and unique experiences to share will continue to write.
We may be drowned out by the generic, robotic chorus — but then again, this is already happening. “Content” garners more views, more clicks, more engagement and traction than true art or in-depth investigative work. I have worked in online media for many years now, and like it or not, this is the way of things.
But this is not new.
For as long as we’ve had words, we’ve had content that appeals to the masses. “Yellow Journalism” was the name in the late 1800s, when Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst used clickbait headlines to sell newspapers, a full century before that word would enter our common lexicon.
The technology and the techniques may change, but the problem remains the same: how to find the good stuff, the real, the meaningful?
To me, that’s an easy question to answer. Harder to execute — but easy to answer. Let’s return to Dale’s Medium post, where he defines poetry:
It’s the felt sense you feel in your body when you hear, read, or write it. It suddenly reveals that frontier part of you, that you barely know. It’s the creative spark. It is the “ah-ha” moment. It’s meaning is the sheer “yes” you feel when someone describes your inner landscape even better than you’ve been able to explain it yourself. A good poem that has moved you means what you say it means. And the best poems never stop meaning, nor making us feel more alive.
All the rest, is content.