Content and Writing Are Not the Same Thing

Photo by  Ivan Ji

Photo by Ivan Ji

Since April, I’ve had the pleasure of helping to share a CreativeMornings x campaign called Own Your Content on our global platforms. It was mostly orchestrated and created by my friend and now former colleague Paul Jun.

Own Your Content is essentially its own story and content series encouraging creatives to take ownership of their content, platform, and ultimately the future of their work.

This week we’re sharing our interview with Khoi Vinh.

While I’m not a designer by trade, I’ve heard about Khoi’s work several times within the digital halls of the creative world. Khoi is Principal Designer at Adobe, author of How They Got Here: Interviews With Digital Designers About Their Careers, and a writer who’s been publishing on his blog, Subtraction, for nearly 20 years.

I loved he that pointed out something that’s been bothering me for awhile: content and writing are not the same thing. It seems like an obvious distinction, but it’s so common now to hear people using the words interchangeably:

“Not that the work I do is all that important or memorable, but I prefer to think of it as 'writing' rather than as 'content.' And for me, that’s an important distinction. Content and writing are not the same thing, at least the way that we’ve come to define them in contemporary society. Content is inherently transactional; its goal is to drive towards some kind of conversion, some kind of exchange of value. This is why platforms just think of it all as 'content'; for the most part, they’re indifferent to whether it’s good or bad writing, or even if it’s writing at all. It doesn’t matter whether it has any kind of inherent worth, whether it’s video or animated GIFs or whatever.”

Reading this interview was a good reminder to not get lost in the sea of content and to focus on writing for the sake of the practice first.

I personally can’t imagine handing over all of my labor to a centralized platform where it’s chopped up and shuffled together with content from countless other sources, only to be exploited at the current whims of the platform owners’ volatile business models. I know a lot of creators are successful in that context, but I also see a lot of stuff that gets rendered essentially indistinguishable from everything else, lost in the blizzard of ‘content.’
— Khoi Vinh

The Culture of Sameness

Khoi’s interview also reminded of a Longreads article I read not too long ago titled On Flooding: Drowning the Culture in Sameness:

"There remains a tension that critics, and the larger media, must balance, reflecting what’s in the culture in all its repetitive glory while also nudging it toward the future. But we are repeatedly failing at this by repeatedly drowning ourselves in the first part. This is flooding (a term I just coined, so I would know): the practice of unleashing a mass torrent of the same stories by the same storytellers at the same time, making it almost impossible for anyone but the same select few to rise to the surface."

* * *

"This infinite cycle of death and renewal is the perfect metaphor for what has actually happened to monoculture in a world that runs on social media, which is that each week it is resurrected around something new, for a brief period, with all the loudest voices in attendance, before expiring again, only to coalesce the next week around something else.

Theoretically, the 'democratization' that everyone continues to harp on about persists — anyone with internet access can produce content — but what’s not democratic is the dissemination. There are niche sites for any of your niche needs and niche corners of mainstream sites, sort of, but with these sites progressively dwindling and the ones left behind scrambling to secure their place, which is secured by clicks (still!?), they gravitate toward what’s trending."

* * *

But this is what we do. We shift around the same ideas, and we shift around the same people, creating an overrecognized few and an under recognized many.

* * *

“…lasting conversations do not come out of Twitter trends, and that diversity means diversity — more that is different, not more of the same differences. As one curator told the Times in the piece about older black artists getting their due, 'There has been a whole parallel universe that existed that people had not tapped into.' Tap into it.”

Okay, what now?

There are a few things I’ve started to do again in order to regain my focus muscles. I mean, it’s not easy. Once our brains have gotten addicted to the “blizzards” of content, it takes a lot of intentional habit rewiring and resetting to get to a place that feels good again.

More on this later.