The Problem with "Content"

The Problem with "Content"

Back in the early '00s, John Perry Barlow said "I didn't start hearing about 'content' until the container business felt threatened." Linux Journal was one of those containers—so was every other magazine, newspaper and broadcast station. Today, those containers are bobbing around in an ocean of "content" on the internet. Worse, the stuff inside the containers, which we used to call "editorial", is now a breed of "content" too.

In the old days, editorial lived on one side of a "Chinese wall" between itself and the publishing side of a newspaper or magazine. The same went for the programming and advertising sides of a commercial broadcast station or network. The wall was transparent, meaning it was possible for a writer, a photographer, a newscaster or a performing artist to see what funded the operation, but the ethical thing was to ignore what happened on the other side of that wall. Which was easy to do, because everything on the other side of that wall was somebody else's job.

Today that wall has been destroyed by the imperatives of "content production", which is the new job of journalists and everybody else devoted to "generating content" in maximum volumes, all the better to attract "programmatic" advertising.

You can see the wreckage of one such wall in a January 2017 The New York Times story titled "In New Jersey, Only a Few Media Watchdogs Are Left", by David Chen. In it he writes, "The Star-Ledger, which almost halved its newsroom eight years ago, has mutated into a digital media company requiring most reporters to reach an ever-increasing quota of page views as part of their compensation."

As I explained in my January 2016 article "What We Can Do with Ad Blocking's Leverage", the advertising we're talking about here isn't the old Madison Avenue kind that lived on the other side of journalism's Chinese wall. It's a new all-digital kind called adtech. While adtech is called advertising, and looks like advertising, it is actually a breed of direct marketing, a cousin of spam descended from junk mail.

Like junk mail, adtech is data-driven, wants to get personal, finds success in tiny-percentage responses and excuses massive negative externalities. Those include wanton and unwelcome surveillance, annoying the crap out of people and filling the world with crap—including fake news and fraudulent advertising.

Here's one way to tell the difference between real advertising and adtech, using the Star-Ledger as an example:

Real advertising wants to be in the Star-Ledger because it values the paper's journalism and readership. Adtech wants to push ads at readers anywhere it can find them, based on gathered intelligence, algorithms and whatever else shows up in live auction markets for eyeballs.
Original author: Doc Searls


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