Though I write for a living, the demotion of “writing” to “content” snuck up on me. The change was well under way by the time I first noticed it seeping into my assignments. First, the term “branded content” began appearing regularly in job descriptions for work that had nothing to do with pharmaceuticals or products being promoted, which I naively thought went hand-in-hand with branding. Branding, in fact, began to be applied to everything, because a “brand” could even be something an individual, much less a company, could have or want to protect or develop, the way Oprah Winfrey or Kim Kardashian have.
My Unbranded Space
I was clueless about the change because at the time I first noticed “branded content,” around 2010, I still inhabited what I now understand was an unbranded space, writing for unbranded channels and assets, writing medical information for healthcare professionals and patients–material that had no real promotional element. But when I started working on a new, quasi-educational project about a serious health condition that was being treated by a recently approved drug, I was introduced to the concept of branded and unbranded content. I had to look up the terms “branded” and “assets” when the editor used them while describing the project. At the time, I imagined it would be unusual to see these terms with any frequency because I rarely did work for agencies and I didn’t write for promotional projects.
So it came as a shock when I began to realize that the only time I would be working on “unbranded” material was the now-rare occasion I was asked to write about studies or health conditions just for informational purposes. I’m very late to the realization that marketing has penetrated every form of writing and editing, even work that is not done within or for agencies, and that technology and marketing together have driven and forever altered media.
The word “content” replaced “writing.” There are academic papers and entire courses—somewhat ironically called Writing Studies— that describe what content is and explain how to properly create content so that content management systems can properly digest it and disgorge it for online consumption, how to optimize it for search engines to bring it to the attention of a maximum number of eyeballs. Writing studies professor Lisa Dush begins her 2015 writing studies essay, “When Writing Becomes Content” thus:
“To work with writing today means to work with writing as content. If, for example, you’ve composed in a content management system such as WordPress, you understand good writing practice to involve both crafting well-written posts and optimizing these posts as transportable, findable, content, by applying categories, tags, and SEO (search engine optimization) metadata.”
Recently this email/spam landed in my inbox:
Hello, I noticed that your On-Page SEO is missing a few factors, for one you do not use all three H tags in your post, also I notice that you are not using bold or italics properly in your SEO optimization. On-Page SEO means more now than ever since the new Google update: Panda. No longer are backlinks and simply pinging or sending out a RSS feed the key to getting Google PageRank or Alexa Rankings, You now NEED On-Page SEO. So what is good On-Page SEO?First your keyword must appear in the title.Then it must appear in the URL.You have to optimize your keyword and make sure that it has a nice keyword density of 3-5% in your article with relevant LSI (Latent Semantic Indexing). Then you should spread all H1,H2,H3 tags in your article.Your Keyword should appear in your first paragraph and in the last sentence of the page. You should have relevant usage of Bold and italics of your keyword. There should be one internal link to a page on your blog and you should have one image with an alt tag that has your keyword….Now what if i told you there was a simple WordPress plugin that does all the On-Page SEO, and automatically for you?
After marketing stomped all over writing, tech took its turn, and writing was turned into content created to suit “cross-platform repositories” (some of which were once called publications). As a result, writers and editors (now called content professionals) are creating content and “deliverables,” and managing that content in a “space” for “properties” that were once journals, magazines, and perhaps even books, for the “industry” of publishing—once the most unindustrial lines of work imaginable. A recent job advertisement I saw listed photography as an industry. The photography industry?
As the essayist Tim Kreider wrote in his 2013 New York Times article, “Slaves of the Internet, Unite,” delivering content suggests that words, writing, and art are mere filler to be delivered and placed between ads: “The first time I ever heard the word ‘content’ used in its current context, I understood that all my artist friends and I — henceforth, ‘content providers’ — were essentially extinct. This contemptuous coinage is predicated on the assumption that it’s the delivery system that matters, relegating what used to be called ‘art’ — writing, music, film, photography, illustration — to the status of filler, stuff to stick between banner ads.”
I Ain’t Gonna Work on Maggie’s (Content) Farm
It’s gotten hard to distinguish so-called “sponsored content” from ordinary content, which is the logical extension of what happens when writing is grown on “content farms” and subjected to content audits and search engine optimization (SEO). When I use the word “content,” I don’t wonder about its authorship– who wrote, filmed, or photographed the content. The individual imprint of the content’s creator matters less than where the content is residing and “iterating,” and you want to increase the clicks, the views, the traffic, no matter what it is or how well it was written. HubSpot just put out a report called, “What Kind of Headlines Make People Not Click?” The report is supposed to answer the question of what has negative effects on the CTR (click-through rate). Might it be bad writing, like the title of the report?
Content is valued more for its dissemination than its quality. The quality of content has become binary: it’s clickworthy or it’s not. A major design website intones, “Content on the Web is always temporary.” I get it, I get it. The content of the content is secondary to the medium that carries it.
This excerpt from a recent job listing sums it up:
“… seeking a creative, energetic, and data-driven editor to work closely with team members in the daily creation of content. … play a key role in scheduling daily content for your assigned channels, …and developing on-brand articles. …producing content and headlines that drive traffic…should be comfortable monitoring, reporting, and exceeding traffic goals, and identifying business growth opportunities …”
What is a data-driven editor? I envisioned an editor in a room full of content consumers reading screens as their CTR is measured and analyzed. It’s an endless loop: first there’s audience research to find out which topics website visitors are likely to be interested in; this prompts the website to hire content creators for their content farm, addressing those particular topics. The website sets up these “articles” with targeted ads that are also based on audience research. Everyone’s happy. The eyeballs are pleased because the site gives them what they think they want; sponsors love it too. Happy, happy, happy. An endless feedback loop of giving the customer what he or she wants. The effect of the giving-the-customer-what-she-wants mentality is that it limits readers to only those things they already know or believe, never to stumble over something surprising or mind expanding. The goal is to drive traffic.
And here it comes……straight out of an episode of Silicon Valley: having a passion for creating self-important content with the power to improve lives! You too can write yet another article on the Top 10 Reasons To Exercise.
I wonder how hard it is to find an experienced (but, oh, God, not old!!) content professional who shares a passion about the brand mission to create “health condition and lifestyle content” that improve lives using sponsored packages of pretested and optimized content.
The Human Touch
One of the scarier implications of a content-creation mindset is that we are moving to a place where humans need not be the ones creating content. A 2011 article by Steven Lohr in The New York Times reported on a news brief that covered a college football game, which was produced within 60 seconds of the end of the game’s third quarter and was “written” by a computer using software produced by Narrative Science. According to Lohr, the Big Ten Network began using Narrative Science for updates of football and basketball games in 2010, and it was said to help drive a surge of referrals to the Web site from Google’s search algorithm, and was responsible for driving the network’s Web traffic for football games 40% higher than the year before. So the computer-generated content was getting the eyeballs better than, and for less money than, the human content creators. The same software is used by a trade publisher to provide monthly reports on more than 350 local housing markets for the construction trade. It had become too costly to hire people to write the articles for the trade website, but it’s less than $10 for each 500-word article created by Narrative Science software. No need to worry about those pesky humans and their need to be paid!
One of the effects of the transformation from writing to content is that writing is devalued. Since it’s devalued, it’s no longer worthy of being paid for. Unique and unexpected topics are too risky to run when you’ve got to worry about the CTR. Anyone who expects to be paid a living wage for their writing can forget about it because they’re competing with entities who are happy to give things away for free, because the free content is just there as a delivery device to get the eyeballs to click on the revenue-generating stuff. And we don’t really need editors anymore, because content can be crowd-edited if needed on its next iteration and refreshment.
Back to Tim Kreider’s article: “Not long ago, I received, in a single week, three (3) invitations to write an original piece for publication or give a prepared speech in exchange for no ($0.00) money… People who would consider it a bizarre breach of conduct to expect anyone to give them a haircut or a can of soda at no cost will ask you, with a straight face and a clear conscience, whether you wouldn’t be willing to write an essay or draw an illustration for them for nothing. They often start by telling you how much they admire your work, although not enough, evidently, to pay one cent for it.” Apparently, writers are supposed to be paid in the currency of “exposure,” all those eyeballs. “’Artist Dies of Exposure,’ goes the rueful joke,” Kreider notes.
It feels like a permanent internship. Last week, a company that I have been working with for about five years—and which is growing by leaps and bounds–changed its policies on freelancers and said that if I wanted to continue working for them I would have to write the same-length articles for half of what I had been making, with the additional tasks of pitching the subject matter and getting the needed sources. When I tell editors I can’t accept a fee that is the same or less than what I was being paid in 1980, the year I graduated from college, I am not saying that for effect. It is true.
Writer or Content Creator?
Remember that email I got? It ended with: “Your Keyword should appear in your first paragraph and in the last sentence of the page.” Ok, I’m going to take that advice. My keyword must be content, so here goes.
No one would call John Steinbeck a great “content creator”–at least I don’t think that’s happened yet. In all likelihood, however, the days are numbered even for fiction’s currently unbranded space. In the not-too-distant future, kids may tell their parents, “When I grow up I want to be a content creator.”
[Cartoon, by Bruce Eric Kaplan, used with permission of The New Yorker]