The Content of a Twinkie

from the film Koyaanisqatsi by Godfrey Reggio

from the film Koyaanisqatsi by Godfrey Reggio

In the Twinkie that is the business of online publishing, is content the golden pastry, or is it the kreme filling?

In this koan, the true wisdom remains unspoken: there is none. It is a meaningless question. Shame on you for even reading it.

This feeling of shame you now experience is the same after reading most deepities about "content." Most of them are similarly asinine. Some of them sound good at first, but they're usually not.

Why? Because they are about "content," an empty word. We might as well call the stuff we make and put on websites "stuff" or "things" instead. But you know how much marketers and ad people like buzzwords.

For people who make things that go on the Internet, "content" is what we make. It doesn't matter if we're making articles, videos, podcasts or haikus, it doesn't matter if we're doing breaking news or gluten-free pancake recipes, we've got a great buzzword, "content," to encompass it all. Then we pump its gelatinous, uniform mass into a golden pastry of some pre-baked ad model ("monetize" it), and away we go.

So, you see that I've answered my own koan. The real intention behind the Twinkie metaphor is that it doesn't matter whether the "monetization" or "content" is the core ingredient; the Twinkie paradigm is processed and disgusting.

The holy grail, of course, is to "monetize" our "content." That is, we ask ourselves this compound question: "Can I get people to pay for my content, and, since the answer to that is almost certainly 'no,' can I sell their eyeballs, eardrums, or cerebral cortices to someone else?"

After all, we can't keep making our content if we can't get any money to support it. And since it's a given (face it) that we can't get the people who like it to support it, we'll have to give it away for free, so that we can get enough "eyeballs" (that's really what the PowerPoint calls them) to sell to some company. And the company doesn't care overly much what our "content" is, nor do we theirs, as long as the little analytics lines keep pointing up.

The problem with this Twinkie is that Twinkies are gross, and, for some reason, Twinkies pop into my mind whenever I hear the word "content." That's some grade-A marketing.

The word "content" is dehumanizing, just like the process of making, buying, and eating a Twinkie, as opposed to actual food. What does our use of that word say about our relationship to the things we make and put on the Internet?

More importantly, what does it say about our relationship with the people who like our things? Who like us?

It says we've got our heads on backwards.

The easiest way to become a web publisher is to not make any money. The easiest way to make money as a web publisher is to figure out a way to make money selling eyeballs, eardrums, or cerebral cortices to advertisers, and then to devise a "content strategy" [barf] to optimize your Twinkie assembly line. So that's what most people do, and reasonably so, I guess.

The hardest way to make money as a web publisher is to make stuff you love that happens to be SOOOO AWESOME that people spontaneously give you money for it and heap praises upon it among their friends. Good luck with that.

But, for the rest of us, why not begin by thinking of "eyeballs" as people and "content" as stuff people like?

We can then think of stuff we like and happen to know how to make. Or, we can think of stuff we, eh, don't care about, but we like to make it. There are probably audiences for either or both. But before we do anything stupid, we look around and make sure they're out there. I bet we can do that on the Internet.

Then we can conceive of an audience, comprised of human beings with personalities, and we can find them, talk to them, find out what they want, and try to make it for them. If they don't like it, we make it differently.

If it starts to catch on, it might be time to think of other companies or organizations we like, maybe ones that make other stuff we like, and see if our audience likes them, too. If they do, maybe these companies or organizations might pay us to put some of their stuff in with our stuff, because our audience might enjoy it. If they enjoy it, it won't bother them to see some of it mixed in with our stuff.

Maybe they'll even click and buy some stuff. Maybe our friends at the other companies or organizations might let us keep a little bit of the money when our audience buys stuff from them.

Don't forget, all the while, we're making stuff people like. That's why they stick around. It's the topic of conversation. We all like the stuff together, and that makes us start to like each other.

If all that is going well, then we might be able to kill the last buzzword. We might be able to turn "monetization" into support for people and stuff you like.

I would be content with that.