Content consumption

The other day I was listening to a very good episode of On The Media but it reminded me of a troubling linguistic trend. I’m about to rant a little. Indulge me.

The word “content” bothers me when used to refer to art or journalism or other creative expression. I don’t hate it, but it gives me that same sort of feeling of transient disgust that you get walking down the street and getting a whiff of sewer gas. I suppose it makes sense — in a time when books and movies and games are all enjoyed through a few consolidated, multi-purpose screens, and as the boundaries between media blur, and as those bits of media all share shelf space in the same virtual stores — it makes sense to come up with a catch-all word. Fine. I would prefer simply “media,” but I can hold my nose and use “content.”

What really rankles me is the verb that gets matched with “content.” Because once you have “content,” once you reach that level of generalization, there is only one thing you can do with it: consume it. It used to be that you would read a book, or watch a movie, or flip through a magazine, or listen to music. Now all those things fall under the category of “content consumption.” Yes, that’s phrase everybody, at least in the media and tech worlds, seems to have settled on. I’m not going to link to examples. Google it if you must.

Others have noted that the word “consumption” as applied to “content” is awkward and imprecise. But it’s worse than that. The problem with “consumption” is that it takes actions like reading and watching and playing — actions that though sedentary are mentally active — and reduces them to entirely passive, painting us as the consumers sucking at the teat of iTunes rather than collaborators in meaning, integrators of experience. Customers rather than an audience.

Maybe this was inevitable as our information economy matures: “Content” is America’s future stock-in-trade, and the formerly cloistered and subtle language of ideas had no chance once capitalism moved in.

I’m not saying that art and commerce weren’t related before. A Van Gogh picture was worth a lot of money long before “content consumption” reared its head — but that was a valuation of the object itself, not of one’s engagement with it. (Yes, you buy a museum ticket to see a Van Gogh, but museums aren’t selling transcendental aesthetic experiences at $20 a pop.)

“Content consumption” joins ad services’ habit of “selling eyeballs” in tallying our time and mental activity and processing it into a crude fuel to turn the wheels of commerce.

Anyway, thanks for consuming my blog.

4 thoughts on “Content consumption

  1. Will, astute and pithy post–I couldn’t agree more. Content mystifies and obfuscates itself: it promises substance, “content,” but paradoxically delivers something vacuous, something that subtantiates its own existence through self-promotion and self perpetuation. The collapse of reading, watching and actively participating into the singular of consuming possibly consigns us to a narrower, bleak future.

  2. I’ve noticed this change in language as well. It’s another sign of our steady march from being citizens to consumers that started in the 1920s.

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