In the timespan of almost a year, the project I last worked on has become something entirely different, going from a content discovery platform that I made so that I could learn Ruby on Rails to a content studio with a website built on a no-code platform. Instead of moving in the direction of automation and community aggregation as I have been conditioned to believe is the move to make when you’ve spent a while in tech, I decided that for my foreseeable future, I would commit to making creative work about communication and experience without a fancy startup idea behind it.
Why did it take me so long to get back to writing? Well, based on the curiously suspicious timing of it all, I’d venture to say it had something to do with the pandemic. Some of us got extra productive, and some of us became productively paralyzed. In true Gemini form, I was both but what I had done very little of was write.
For those of you who subscribe to this newsletter but don’t know me in real life, I left my job in content quietly at the end of last year without much of a peep at all online, like a French exit in a world where it feels like everyone announces their goodbyes on social media. Having been rather avoidant of social media over the last year, it seemed strange to announce that I was leaving at the same time that I was announcing my presence period, like saying goodbye at a party when nobody even realized you were there.
Since then, I’ve been living on my savings. I spent some time first recovering from burnout, then more recently, trying to rebuild momentum in my career now that I am well rested with my new sidekick, George the croissant cat, to accompany me on my desk-ridden journey. What have I been doing? I took a few courses (most of them free, some paid ones that I never finished), read over 60 books beating my goal of 50 for the year, and made a few things. But the biggest focus of my sabbatical was constantly looming and that was to figure out what I wanted to do next.
I had fervently demanded to myself that I would find something different, something where I didn’t feel like I was in a constant hamster wheel reaching into the depths of my work/life/soul/internet to constantly feed the beast that was modern content. I was so confident that I even declared this to my coworkers who asked what I was going to do:
Not sure, anything but content probably!
I was so ready to finally make the career change I had been dreaming of for the last 5 years (at least), only to be in a loop of the same “figure out your career” exercises and conversations with my mom I’ve been having for decades. Damnit!
But here I am back again, mostly because I’ve realized that all love-hate relationships stem from the opposite of dispassion and this is often the root of creativity, not the things we find so mundane to have no opinions about them at all. And as it turns out, I seem to have a lot of feelings and thoughts about “content”.
Now, remember, this is a newsletter documenting creative influence and the sometimes mundane and macro ways in which what we pay attention to become our perspectives and perceptions in our work and our lives. And I suppose this one gets super meta, because this is content about content.
Let’s set the stage first.
We are super-consumers of content, the average person spending 2 hours and 24 minutes a day just on social media (that’s actually an entire month out of the year, if you were to forego sleep!), the average 18+ adult watching 23.7 hours of television a week (I won’t scare you with how much of your life that is because let’s face it, you’re probably doing something else at the same time)—and on it on it goes to count all the other forms of media we consume, which includes but isn’t limited to social media or television.
When I started to tell people I was getting back into content, and yes that is my final answer, most were really confused.
So what is content exactly? When I talk about content, depending on your industry, you may already have an idea of what that is. But you may not be sure if that’s what I mean when I talk about content. There’s a semantics barrier here. So let’s try to break it down.
If you’re in tech, maybe you’re talking about content marketing, and in your mind you have terms like search engine optimization, social media marketing, keywords and growth hacking swirling around.
Or you could be thinking about content without the marketing, which is confusing because content marketing without marketing is just content, but this version of content is technically about marketing (and other things) too. This version of content is about the content on designed experiences (ie websites and apps), so what copy goes where, how the page is structured, how pages are structured as part of the whole, and how everything comes together to reflect the goals of the brand, customer experience and user experience. In this world, you’ll come across various terms like UX writing (which I learned about just two years ago) and content design (which I learned about just a few months ago). I taught myself about these things during my sabbatical, sometimes putting names and terms to things I was already doing from “intuition”, which wasn’t intuition at all but experience and practice from well over a decade of work, hunches that had turned subconscious insights.
Okay that was a long one. Next!
In advertising, content can mean visual media or it can mean just writing (copy), or it can mean both.
If you’re in fashion or consumer goods, content may be social media or ad campaigns.
If you’re an entertainment company, content is movies, music, now even “experiences” (more on this later). Publishing? Books, magazines, editorial.
We’re living in a world where content crosses boundaries and disciplines: magazine articles have become books which have become television shows (see: Modern Love column from New York Times, which is also a book and an Amazon Prime tv series), books become movies become fanfiction become books become movies (see: the whole roundabout journey of how Twilight inspired 50 Shades of Grey), and now even Reddit posts are optioned as movie scripts (see: “My Wife and I Bought A Ranch”, which Netflix won in a 6-figure deal).
If you’re Bill Gates or the legions of marketers who have been saying this for the last three decades, content is king. (You can read Bill’s prophetic 1996 essay here.)
Content is everywhere. If I were to try to define content in a way that not a single industry can monopolize as their version of content, then the only definition of content that works is the one from god of all information, the one and only Wikipedia:
Information and experiences that are directed toward an end-user or audience. Content is "something that is to be expressed through some medium, as speech, writing or any of various arts"
And seeing as how the internet is a medium, then everything we consume on the internet is content, whether content is the product itself (Spotify, media publications) the messaging and experience of the product (copywriting, visuals, architecture, structure), or somewhere in between, how the product is marketed through messaging and experience.
So then all of a sudden, when you put it that way, content becomes really interesting because it not only has this built-in flexibility and creativity, but also the power of scale (content can reach many people), demand (many people consume lots of content), and impact (content influences decisions, perceptions, and experiences).
In Ride of a Lifetime, a book recounting Robert Iger’s journey and 15 year stint as CEO of The Walt Disney Company, he recalls setting a clear vision for the company, reorienting it back on the path of innovation after years of stagnancy and under-performing releases. Many speculated that the golden age of Disney was past with new, more modern rivals like Pixar taking over (Disney later bought Pixar, as well as Lucasfilms and Marvel, and now owns some of the most lucrative and iconic cultural stories and worlds of our time.)
Robert’s strategy was made up of three core things: great content, innovative technology and international scale, with great content at the very heart of his vision to revive Disney.
The rise of the content executive in recent years is a sign of the explosive leverage and growth of content as everything, now that the internet has allowed us to access it, stream it, carry it with us it at our ultimate convenience. Today, companies are all playing not in the game of whoever has the most money to throw at ads (because in case it wasn’t already obvious, nobody likes ads), but in the game of attention and experience (not in years but in brand, customer and user experience).
Want to know what companies value? The same way we can judge a company’s true commitment to diversity not in performative statements but in who is on the leadership team; just take a look at what roles are in their C-suites. Say hello to the era of the Chief Content Officer, a rising contingent made up of former journalists and tv producers infiltrating all kinds of companies outside the traditional media company.
Anna Wintour, formerly just the Editor-in-Chief of Vogue, the top fashion magazine in the world, was promoted and is now Chief Content Officer at Condé Nast too. Coursera, an online education platform, hired last year Dr. Betty Vandenbosch, a leader in academics, to be their Chief Content Officer. Netflix’s Chief Content Officer, Ted Sarandos, is in fact, also Netflix’s co-CEO.
Martha Stewart, Anthony Bourdain, Marie Kondo, these are all entrepreneurs I admire and they are all content creators. All three of them kickstarted their careers as authors: a catering manual for Martha, crime novels for Anthony, and an international bestseller that was first written as part of a publishing course for Marie, all before they leapt into the world of tv and modern celebrity status.
You may have noticed this, blurred lines that were sped up during the pandemic when actors were out of work: the world of traditional celebrity and entertainment and the world of self-made content is converging and we have content creators turned major influencers and the reverse too as major celebrities morph into lifestyle content magnates, podcasters and YouTubers. To complicate the content ecosystem even further, these blurred lines extend into product and brand when content creators start building products and sometimes multimillion dollar companies, turning the vague yet no less addictive lure of likes and clicks into tangible economic value.
We can’t talk about content without talking about some of the dangers of content: content addiction, the exploits of the modern algorithm and how content shapes our worlds sometimes with misinformation and manipulation. See We Are What We Behold, an open source game about the vicious news cycle. That’s content about content too.
So what is it about content that excites me? The people who know me from the latter part of my career so far know me as mostly a writer and a “content person”, but I started my career wanting to design clothes because I imagined a practical form of design, one where what I made up in my mind using colors, textures, fabrics and concepts could be worn, felt, touched, seen and loved.
Content to me is an extended form of design and world-building, actioned through information and media, the most potent, wonderful and sometimes dangerous building blocks of the world today.
You know that saying, “You are what you eat”? Well today, our most potent form of consumption of the consumption of media. You are what you consume, content too.
What are your favorite movies, books, articles, websites? These are the pieces of content that resonate with you, the way that my very first TED talk, Sir Ken Robinson’s Do schools kill creativity? impacted me and perhaps manifested a decade later when I left a good job to work in online education. It’s the way my favorite movies stir something inside me, whether a laugh, a sense of wonder or sometimes even an entirely new perspective, the way the movie Arrival shaped my understanding of how language is more than how we communicate; it’s also how we see. When Shonda Rhimes’ Netflix adaptation of regency-era romance Bridgerton hit last Christmas, it was a feel-good time, but it also rewired the expectations many people had about entertainment and inclusivity while setting a new record for Netflix as their most watched series ever. Of the 60 books I’ve read this year so far, the first time I truly felt like I had a sense of the American political and cultural landscape as a Canadian was through powerful rhetoric (We Are the Change We Seek, a compilation of 27 of Barack Obama’s speeches over his career) and a fictional story about a ghost (Toni Morrison’s Beloved). I still remember the first time I came across the work of information designer Giorgia Lupi on stage at a design conference, how enthralled I was by how she told a story with language, art and data together.
Content to me was always a safe space for learning and self-discovery, and one thing I love about it most of all is that it is, powered by the internet, accessible to all. I didn’t have to know anyone to learn and I didn’t have to have money. (In the sea of content we now live in with algorithms controlling our feeds and therefore our minds, there is the whole other challenge of content discovery. A problem for another day!) Here I am writing this, spending nothing more than my time, and here is how I have built my career so far. So I guess I’m not stopping.
The internet will be the home to all kinds of new exciting things in content as the value of content as a discipline grows and as the entirety the modern brand and media landscape is fuelled by content as a product, content as the message and content as the experience. The future of content is the future of technology, education, marketing, entertainment and art.
Just as all kinds of lines have been blurring, they will continue to do so, even between reality and the metaverse as we delve deeper and deeper into AR/VR and new possibilities fuelled by emerging technology. What kinds of technologies will be invented and adopted? What new stories will we have to tell? Who will be telling those stories? Will we tell them overtly (a memoir or an article) or covertly (a Trojan horse hidden inside the script of a game or in the lyrics of a song)?
I think back on my life, my work and my perspective and many of the inflection moments were either fuelled by some form of content, or supported by it. The same way the food I ate has built my body and the products I bought have built my environment and together in sum, how they have built the economy, content has built my mind and helped me affirm, change, grow it all along.
My name is Ana and I left content only to come back again! I’m also back writing Bread on a more regularly programmed schedule. See you next week.