[linux-elitists] Content and its discontents

Mister Bad mr.bad@pigdog.org
Thu Mar 4 09:41:54 PST 2004

So, I've been thinking about the word "content". This is a word we --
Net people -- tend to use for practically any digital artefacts for
human consumption that aren't software source code. For example, text,
images, video, audio, etc. are all "content".

I think this word may have come from discussions among software
developers when talking about file locations, formats, and internal
structures. To a programmer, the content of a file is part of the
user's problem -- the programmer only has to worry about getting the
content to and from users. I think the term got reinforced when
publishing and broadcasting people got involved with the World Wide
Web -- they also talk about the "content" of their magazines, news
shows, etc., as opposed to the format, layout, distribution,
personnel, etc.

I actually think it's a kind of an ass-backwards word. To a postal
carrier, what's inside a shipped package might just be "content", but
to the people who send and receive the package, what's inside is the
most important part. To users of software, the content of their files
is more important than the file format. To someone reading a magazine,
the content is more important than the distribution channels, ad
rates, and editorial process.

Yes, I've read my McLuhan. I realize that the package and the contents
are inextricably intertwingled in very interesting ways. But you get
my point.

Source code has kind of been separated from "content", although it's
not terribly different. Its dual audiences, both humans and machines,
has it bridge the gap between the world of packages and the world of
contents. It's been kind of segregated since it has functional
qualities, too. The fact that it's very important to programmers,
which "content" is not, also helps separate it out.

I guess the main reason I'm concerned is that the word "content" has
found its way into the world of Freedom, and is being used to address
creators and enjoyers of text, images, video, and audio. We often talk
about "Free Content" or "Open Content".

I think these are really kind of off-putting terms. It's kind of
dismissive to "content creators", as if all content of files were
somehow equivalent. "Please, we want your content. Doesn't matter what
it is -- just fill up a buffer with random bytes." It just sounds
really boring and drab for readers and listeners and viewers,
too. "Oh, that _content_ is free, is it? Well I'll take some stuff,
items, objects, and things along with my content, if you're dishing it

So I'm trying to think of better words than "content". I originally
thought that "expression" would be a good word, but there are a couple
of problems. "Free Expression" is unfortunately a little too embedded
in American culture as a term to be re-purposed for what we call Free
Content. And using it for all-the-digital-things-that-
matter-to-people-besides-source-code kind of implies that source code
is not expression. That's not a message I think needs to be sent.

"Art" is also not a good word, since it's also pretty loaded. Loose
cultural ideas about the word "art" kind of don't encompass software
manuals, news reports, and personal photographs. And, y'know, it just
sounds so hoity-toity. 

Creative Commons sometimes uses "culture", but that sounds so
bacterial. Also, it's got the loaded connotations of "art", with the
extra implication that whatever culture the "culture" is part of is
several thousand years old and under some salty sea somewhere.

So I thought I'd throw the question open. What is that stuff? What's a
good name for it?

~Mr. Bad

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