The perils of classifying everything on the internet as ‘content’

You’re probably reading this on your phone. Did the algorithm throw it at yours feed? What is your feed like? What was the last thing you scrolled past; the last thing you saw, watched or read on your device? How long have you been watching it? And how long did you think about it then? How did that make you feel? Did it do you any good at all?

I’m not a particularly violent person, but I had a violent reaction recently when an acquaintance told me that they “liked my content” and referred to some of my published articles that I had posted on Instagram. Surprised by my strong reaction to what was obviously intended as a compliment, I thanked them as best I could, internally wincing.

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It hurts to have described your work so soberly after all the time, effort and care you put into making it. A thousand-word essay titled “Content” feels like a failure. It also feels like you’re just another figure on the vast battlefield of social media, where everything seems like “content.” The term has become a catchphrase for anything created, written, shot, drawn, thought, produced, or made publicly available by a person, regardless of quality, medium, and most importantly, intent.

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I delved into the history of the word to find out why it annoyed me so much. Etymologically, “content” was derived from the Latin root contents, meaning “to fill,” and is used for what’s contained in something else—the contents of a glass, for example. The focus is on filling the glass, what’s inside is vague. It could be water or poison; blue or pink; liquid or solid. There is no knowledge of its value, properties, meaning, or even its physical condition.

Contextually, as we use it online, if “content” gives you an aura of dispassionate, sterile shallowness, that’s really the point. It’s a utilitarian market term that dates back to the burgeoning days of internet stardom, when social-sharing platforms like YouTube began commercializing their creators, using them for advertising and building a consumer base. The all-encompassing “content” made sense because it included the work of creators across all genres and made it easier to create blanket monetization guidelines. The people whose tills were connected to these platforms didn’t care what filled their channels and networks, just that some did; and therefore they saw the labors of love of these creators simply as “content”.

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