Contented with Content

Lisa Dush. Writer and Associate Professor at DePaul University.

In the essay “When Writing Becomes Content,” Lisa Dush introduces her audience to the concept of ‘content’ and the difference between this new term and writing, proceeding to explain the variety of ways content can be utilized in today’s market. This new term originated in the early 2000’s when the internet first became an international phenomenon. Even then, professional writing experts realized the implications of this new technology on the writing field. In order to understand these implications, one must first understand what ‘content’ means.

In the first section of her essay, Dush breaks down content into separate components and then forms a working definition. According to Dush,

Content is writing—or composed texts—also conceived of as digital assets, conditional in their shape and value, that are assembled within and pushed out to networks, where human and machine audiences will asses them, assign value to them, consume them, appropriate and repurpose them, extract from them, and push them into other networks.

Dush 178

Before she arrives at this final definition, she breaks down each element. Content consists of four different aspects that are necessary for its existence. It is conditional, computable, networked, and able to be turned into commodities. Content’s conditional quality allows it to take many different forms with no set guidelines as to what it is, what it can become, where it can go, and who can access it. Despite the freedom that this can allow, creators can only control their content so much, because of content’s computability. Since it is essentially created using numerical data, it is easily programmable and can be changed in a multitude of ways, often taking a different shape than its original creator intended. Furthermore, content is now being networked, which in this case refers to an audience of humans and computers. Because of new tools that keep track of site analytics, creators have a greater ability to understand who their audience is and how they use their content. These networks seem to care more about the quantity of content and less about the quality. The final aspect of content is its ability to be commodified. Content can be broken down, repurposed, and redistributed to garner as much attention, and ad revenue, as possible. This is because content is not valued by its usefulness, but rather by its ability to be circulated to a greater number of consumers. All of these aspects come together to create content.

We form genuine, emotional connections to writing that we do not form with content. We write to explain ideas, tell stories, teach lessons, and so on and so forth. We create content to garner views and to collect ad revenue.

Dush argues that content should be distinguished from writing as writing has certain associations that causes a disconnect when applying it to content. Writing reminds one of its material components (pen, ink, paper, etc.), the body (eyes and hands), and its emotional components (bedtime reading by parents, teachers, favorite authors). We form genuine, emotional connections to writing that we do not form with content. We write to explain ideas, tell stories, teach lessons, and so on and so forth. We create content to garner views and to collect ad revenue. Dush agrees that “the content professions offer a compellingly familiar understanding of the social and material dimensions of writing and are an intriguing career path for our students” (191), but she worries that students will no longer believe that having a career as a writer using one’s own idiosyncrasies and ideas is feasible. Creating content requires an entire team of people, not just a writer, that work together to formulate and test various strategies to appeal to a network. This, coupled with the idea that content needs to appeal to a majority of people, leads to a loss in the individuality of a writer.

After enumerating the various ways that content is now vital to our economy, and explaining that all writing can, and most likely will, be turned into content, Dush encourages writing academia to take a stand.

            What teachers and scholars in writing studies can do, as a productive way of intervening in content work, is articulate ways to include our field’s core values—such as social justice, civic participation, access, accessibility, ethics, and sustainability—in the core of content work. Said another way, the “magnificent future,” if we allow ourselves to believe in such a thing, is surely not one of higher sales, better ROI, or more customer satisfaction; it’s one where people feel agency, where fulfilling and just work is done, where big social problems are tackled.

Dush 192

It seems as if content is an inevitability, so we as writers need to adapt and use it for our own benefit. If we can study and learn to use content effectively, maybe we can keep our individual voices while still appealing to our networks. Dush appears to take a negative spin on content creation, but, like anything else, it is a neutral concept than can be used in any way, including in a way that benefits writers. Technology advances more rapidly every day, so it is the responsibility of writers to learn and grow in order to not stagnate.

Writing, as with all art, at its core, is an expression of the human condition. To even consider the possibility of replacing it with content is heartbreaking. Just like humans have always and will always create art, they will also always write. Utilizing content is an effective marketing strategy and an excellent way to stay competitive in the digital world, but it cannot replace humanity’s inherent need to express themselves. Just like oral storytelling transitioned to hieroglyphics and then to the written word, content is simply the next step in language’s evolution.

Sources

“Lisa Dush.” Lisa Dush | Faculty | Writing, Rhetoric and Discourse | Academics | College of Liberal Arts & Social Sciences | DePaul University, Chicago, las.depaul.edu/academics/writing-rhetoric-and-discourse/faculty/Pages/lisa-dush.aspx.

Dush, Lisa. “When Writing Becomes Content.” College Composition and Communication 67.2 (2015): 173-96. Print.

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