Semantic Satiation and the Problem with Content
There is a moment in Joshua Ferris's novel Then We Came to the End in which one character becomes disgusted with another regarding the word "creative."
"... you say you call yourselves creatives, is that what you're telling me?" says one character, Max Jackers. When his nephew Jack replies in the affirmative, the following moment happens:
"What are you asking me, Uncle Max?"
"Well, if that's all true," said the old man, "that would make you creative creatives creating creative creative." There was s silence as Max allowed Jim to take this in. "And that right there," he concluded, "is why I didn't miss my calling. That's a use of the English language just too absurd to even contemplate."
And with that, Max hung up.
Buffalo buffalo Buffalo...
Creative creatives creating creative creative. This may remind you of a different sentence, the famous "Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo." Or perhaps these sentences remind you of a third issue, the word mentioned in the title above that I've eschewed until now: content.
Content is king, someone said once, for some reason. And over the years this has become a mantra, appearing in digital marketing circles almost as often as "SEO is dead" or "I'm spiritual but not religious." And whether content is king or queen or duke, I'd like us to consider that we should stop saying it so much, for at least once simple reason:
Like Creative Creatives and Buffalo Buffalo, Too Much "Content" Leads to Semantic Satiation
A few winters ago, my friends and I made a short film in which the characters discussed the difference between wolf tracks and dog tracks. Not only did this require us to repeatedly say "dog tracks" while filming, but also while off-camera, as we needed to find dog tracks in the snow. By the end of the day, "dog tracks" has become a bizarre sound, a noise each of us had made at least a hundred times that day.
Surely this has happened to you. You repeat a name or a new word until it starts to become meaningless - or a word that always made sense suddenly becomes absurd, like car or teacher or water. What you might not realize is that it has a name: "semantic satiation." You can read this article in NY Mag, in which the author loses understanding of the name "Amy" while reading Gone Girl.
This is the danger with how much certain people say "content." It's what drives strategy, what builds links for Search Engine Optimization, what ties the internet together.
But what is it? Or, more importantly, what isn't it? If everything is content, then why ever use the word? Is it just a word to use in the place of "stuff" or "things" or "whatever." And if you say it every sentence - or hear someone say it every few seconds, for days and weeks and months on end - then what does it mean?
Pair it up with "marketing," as we often do now, and it makes even less sense when you say it once per sentence. Consider the following sentence:
Content content marketers market content marketing.
Is that a meaningful sentence? As Uncle Max said, it's "a use of the English language just too absurd to contemplate."
Or perhaps it's very meaningful. Perhaps there is no absurdity in any of this, other than our insistence on using "content" to fill the gaps in our slidedecks and Power Points. I say this because content marketing itself is an effort to strive for higher quality content. Specifically, content that does not read like creative creatives creating. Content that is not stuffed with keywords, content that is not "over-saturated."
What We Talk About When We Talk About Content (and Tired Raymond Carver References)
What really drove this home for me was a conference I was at earlier this week, where I heard at least ten different people make the joke "drink every time they say content." This become such a meme that I could have finished a six pack of beer by taking a drink every time I heard someone say to take a drink every time I heard someone say content.
The question is what to do with all this information. But before we do that, check this blog again soon, as I have at least two more reasons not to say "content" too much.