[linux-elitists] Content and its discontents

Ben Finney ben@benfinney.id.au
Thu Mar 4 14:54:44 PST 2004

On 04-Mar-2004, Mister Bad wrote:
> 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".

My impression is that this usage of the term comes from the "content
industry", i.e. the copyright-holder and rent-seeker industry that
sprang up to combine the power of copyright with the value of creative

Through fear of dependence on creators of works, and through fear of the
established idea- and culture-sharing memes, they dragged along a model
they understood: distribution of fungible material items, packaged
nicely.  Since they were seeing themselves as a shipping business, the
poorly-understood stuff inside the containers is referred to as the

Anyone got references supporting or opposing this view of history?

> I think this word may have come from discussions among software
> developers when talking about file locations, formats, and internal
> structures.

If I'm right in my above impression, the computer people weren't talking
about this stuff as "content" until the copyright-holders started doing

> I actually think it's a kind of an ass-backwards word.

Agreed.  It has the same problems as "consumer": it presupposes the
distribution channel is the central, all important part of the system.

> 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.

A semi-conscious intended effect, under the copyright-holder world view:
if the stuff you're selling can be thought of as fungible, the people
who make it are also fungible.

> 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.

As a side point, why are you so interested in a term that excludes
source code?  As already pointed out in this thread, source code *is*
content, if presented that way; its human audience may be more limited
than other expression, but its expressive quality is no less.

> "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. 

The term "work", while not losing the fungible appelations, has at least
the existing, positive connotation of "creative work".

> 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.

Which may be a good reason to reclaim the term.  I think what you
describe is symptomatic of the problem you're trying to fight: the
general media-consuming (using that word consciously) public is already
indoctrinated with the idea that "culture" comes from *somewhere else*.

That's a horrible idea; to reclaim the importance of expression you're
talking about, we need people to realise that they're easily capable of
being culture creators, not just consumers.

Perhaps using the term "culture" to refer to stuff that is quite
obviously not buried under the sea is a good place to start.

 \        "I went to court for a parking ticket; I pleaded insanity. I |
  `\   said 'Your Honour, who in their right mind parks in the passing |
_o__)                                        lane?'"  -- Steven Wright |
Ben Finney <ben@benfinney.id.au>
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