Definite Content || 2004-2012

What is “content?” Well, it’s one of the worst words in the on record.

During this period, we used to make cool stuff, but were becoming solemn. It happened to the best of us: jQuery (including jQueryUI) were incredible leaps forward.

It was our choice to become cold, corporate and chilled; The internet lost its way at this stage.


In this section, we’re going to try to define what content is, especially in the frame of the human past.

This word content is both vague, yet specific: It’s about something… Perhaps it contains something. Content’s contents constitute classified clues (with context) to see clearly.

Is it a written text? A photo? An illustration? A graphic? Perhaps a conversation, discourse, an understanding of self?

The world’s history and its vision, when written, becomes content – pronounced con (like a criminal, or the Wrath of Khan) and tent  (like something that protects you when you’re staying outside.) Even the pronunciation breakdowns are intriguing.

How have we gotten here?

Content, usually, is made by humans for humans. Content, in the broadest sense, was first captured in physical form as civilizations started to write them down 12,000 years ago, but by no means does this limit what content is. If you (a human) have created this (thing) for another person (presumably a human) then this is content. 

The thing is, though, humans suck. We usually believe, and mostly have always believed, and will likely always believe that our time is (or was) the best time. This idea is part of chronocentricity and underscores a key bias of how we see the world. No one time in history—nay, no one content form or story—is the ultimate.

Most social scientists are quick to correct if someone says that “History began with the Greeks,” or that America starts with Christopher Columbus. (Both are false.) In short, our content story is way older. It’s far more likely that speaking mammals have been talking about their lives, the lives of others and producing content as a core essence of what humans are.

Just as compelling beyond Greco-Roman history is the well-taught story of the Aleutian land bridge: That due to geographic conditions and likely food pressures, a large group of humans from Northeastern Asia migrated into North America. Or even crazier: Polynesians, 5,000+ years before that, sailed small boats to South America and likely have a completely separate migration story. All of this occurred before Mesopotamia. The world has been producing content, without ways to save it and an understanding of how to do so, for most of its existence. Heck, the best fart joke ever was probably told 200,000 years ago.

The best fart joke ever was probably told 200,000 years ago.

Most of the world’s content has not been captured in a physical sense; However, survivors of descendants and academic researchers have captured a narrative, and this content is just as good.

Capturing content into a re-usable form is the lifeblood of the media industry. From journalists’ news articles to newlywed VHS videos to grocery store signs, content appears in magical, wonderful places. It’s argued, clearly, that we need to save what we’ve made so that others can see it. (If you’re clever, you can even sell access to that content.) The rise of ways to save this content—from tied knots to cave painting to stone etchings to pulp paper to photographs through to digital media—has always been the problem of each “modern historical society” to capture this.

Most at risk now is oral tradition, the notion that many cultures (including our own) pass down stories in a strictly verbal way. These stories are just as full of details, truth and lore. In fact, this content is not only the original content model, but perhaps original to the intent of how we as humans agreed on discourse. Content definitely does not need to be written, captured or modern; it’s far more broad.

Some of the best content requires dedication. The best of anime cartoons requires you to be fluent in Japanese to understand puns. The best of research papers seem dry, but are rife with jokes. Meme culture requires ramp-up. Bearing through “season one” of so many TV shows is challenging, and many plays don’t get interesting until the third act. (Even Harry Potter doesn’t get good until the fourth book!)

Also, there’s an idea of derivative content about other content, such as:

  • A written movie review on a website
  • A video blog about a conversation
  • A library catalog card that summarizes a book and its location
  • An improv sketch show about the joys of life
  • A peer-reviewed journal that has articles about articles (and encourages even more response articles)

The thing is, though, content is hard to compare across forms, genres and time periods. The subway violinist might be better than Mozart, but there’s no comparative form. Our rose-tinted lenses might pretend that the premiere of Macbeth at the Globe Theatre 500 years ago was the best play ever. But maybe, with perspective, it’s Hamilton. Who was first to do it big isn’t necessarily the best, and even if experts agree on something it may not matter to you. Just as libraries and bookstores did once before, Netflix, Hulu and Youtube are rife with options for you to love what you love.

But the thing is – between decay, war and malfeasance – some of the content disappears.

  • We have less than 1% of the written documents from Rome.
  • We have less than 0.5% of the documents from Ancient Greece.
  • Only three codices of the Mayan civilization remain.
  • As time progresses, most are willing to throw out their VHSs, DVDs, CDs and tapes (plus books and other various formats too.)
  • Even if they kept these, every format deteriorates: The best of which might be 25 years, tops.

We should be trying to save the whole thing: The content story is bigger than just the encapsulated format. The VHS has a feeling that can’t be matched. Vinyl records share a warmth and tone. Even cassette tapes have a lovely warp, too.

The journey of the content story also requires the ability to understand the whole, and without the context detail it’s not the same. The more encoded and removed the content is from its intended format, the harder it is to guarantee its future consumption.

Consider the TV show Twin Peaks: It, famously, pushed the television color limits of reds and blues, creating a new aesthetic that would become something others would emulate. The challenge a content creator faces when making something for a specific from are reflected in the work, and unless you watch it as intended it’s just not the same.

I saw a 70mm print edition of Lawrence of Arabia several years ago: The epic nature of cinema, especially in that form, requires specialized hardware. But film (especially in 35mm display) has all but disappeared from the local cinema (save for arthouses) and the theater industry itself is probably next.

Sometimes expiration is the point. Consider the sand mandalas made by Buddhist monks: They disappear, but that’s the point.

Remember Google Video? It was great. Geocities was worth the time, despite the chaos. We saw here the death of free thought for “rich content.”

And content in Gutenberg is as rich and dynamic as it’s ever been: You’ve got GIF integrations (this one came from the Drop It plugin)—which can be updated as you move forward in time, staying in vogue with each current event.

GIFs are my favorite! But alas, this was for naught. In an early draft of this post, I was testing Gutenberg, but an error in the browser prevented me from saving content. I panicked: When was the last time I saved? Did I lose anything? Why didn’t Gutenberg tell me it was broken?

But I remembered the sand mandalas: Impermanence is a major topic in Buddhism. The conditioned existence, without exception, is transient, evanescent and inconstant. Disappearance is part of life. I accepted and moved on: So Gutenberg’s still got kinks, and I only lost a little bit.

So, Manifesting content can be hard.

Let’s assume the software, the hardware and the environment around us works as expected.

Are there, perhaps clear barriers in the human journey that we can see that might impact the difficulty in creating content?

  • One thought is that the world is vicious: At two years old, you learn the word No. At ten years old, you get told to “shut up” by the playground bully. As a teenager, you might have your heart broken. Out of college you might not land your dream job, and worse, as you age your life partner might divorce you. Pain is suffering, and through this you might be able to develop a better way of living.
  • One thought is that the world is precious: At two years old, you learn to walk. At ten years old, you learn where Orion’s Belt is. As a teenager, you might meet a schoolyard crush. Out of college, you might land a dream job, and better, as you age your life partner might love you even more than you love them. Life is beautiful, and we must develop a sense of wonder through it all.
  • The most beautiful part of life is the acknowledgement that you will feel: It will be hard and trying sometimes, but life also gives you victories. At some point, when you stop and breathe, you’ll need to recognize it’s time to slow down and breathe it all in.

Content, critically, is not about the first or the last page: Content is about the sum of all the parts put together. The middle makes up most of it. Life is a journey, and if you give it a good go it’ll be an adventure. 

Stop making excuses. Quit working too hard. If you wanna make, make. Your $1,000 laptop might already come with free music software, or there might be a ukulele training group somewhere near you. 

Present State

This device you’re reading this on, a mostly modern web browser, has been influenced by tens of thousands of engineers, if not more, including the authors of this project. It was designed to make content engaging.

If it were me, I’d rather be reading this content in book form, outside, offline.

At this point in my life, I probably would have bragged on social media about reading a damn book outside.

But modern content models affect our attention spans. As we consume more fast-paced media, our brains will speed up (see the Goldfish effect.) If you really want to make something meaningful or impactful today, you have to go bigger, wilder and weirder.

What we read will affect how we think and feel.

Just a few years later, in Lauren Penny’s 2014 article “It can manipulate your mood. It can affect whether you vote. When do we start to worry?” she responds to that very real Facebook study that evaluated moods of users based on what appeared in their feeds.

Nobody has ever had this sort of power before. No dictator in their wildest dreams has been able to subtly manipulate the daily emotions of more than a billion humans so effectively. There are no precedents for what Facebook is doing here. Facebook itself is the precedent. What the company does now will influence how the corporate powers of the future understand and monetise human emotion.

For so many reasons, you, the reader, is probably on Facebook or another social platform (like Pinterest, Instagram, Twitter, Youtube or Snapchat)—each of these have capabilities to do the same.

My solution? Read a book.

“Infinite Content,” the 2017 album by Arcade Fire, talks of a place where content is without bounds, where consumers of said media are “infinitely content.”

In an interview with NPR, Win Butler of Arcade Fire unpacks another critical problem here:

Like, even “Infinite Content” is just, like, a dirge of pain, you know? [Laughs.]

Having everything that you’ve ever cared about just reduced to a piece of content is kind of painful to me, in a sense. Anyone involved in music [is told] “we need more content for this thing,” or, “the content of these photos is amazing.” You thought you were making records and then everything ends up being about content. It’s like filling up a hard drive in a weird way, and you’re kind of just trying to kick against it.

So, what are the state of things?

Content creation is easier now than ever. We create, consume and share more than we’ve ever done. We also are more aware of manipulation than at any other time in our existence, and we’re watching the birth of the new new new internet.

WordPress, as of this writing, powers just under a third of the internet. The tooling inside Gutenberg (the “new editor”) makes content creation easier but also harder. Sometimes stuff gets in the way, other times you can’t find the thing you want. Honestly, the editor feels slow, perhaps like a typewriter but without that mechanical effect. They use little rectangles around “blocks” to show you what you what you’re working on: For example, I’m currently editing this paragraph. However, lots of things suck in this current form, like nested blocks, managing media, hiding stuff, block navigation and saving content. It’ll ship flawed, like a prom date with smudged makeup, and it’ll go dance anyway. It’s not clear if that blemish will be forgotten in the annals of time or if it will be a defining moment in the belle’s history.

What does tomorrow look like?

The modern generations of technology users have grown dedicated to various powered boxes, usually rectangular, that produce and display “content.”

We believe everyone should have hobbies. We believe people should find ways to relieve themselves. (Sometimes, this might be through creating or consuming content.) 

In this group of contributors, some things we do that are hobbies:

  • Building and fixing stuff
  • Playing music, both recorded and live forms
  • Cooking food

Interestingly, many of these experiences are hardly, if ever documented. The oral story about that experience is content, too —what is experienced isn’t necessarily about the tools or the contents of the content.

Chronocentricity tends to emphasize the various media forms and their time period, and in this current state we think VR is the new hotness. One day it’ll be as archaic as a wax disc, and that’s just fine. If you can have a longer, broader view, you’ll see that this will likely fade as most fads do.

As we get better at being kinder, more accepting humans, we should hope to understand that content isn’t about the end result, but instead, reflective of the creator, of their intent and for consumption to an extent.

We ask you to consider ways to make yourself more well-rounded and to put down the digital rectangles.

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