Content Matters

I have long argued here (see the links in “for a long time” below), and elsewhere, that “content is king” and that we should be focusing our efforts, both as producers ourselves, and as teachers on the dimensions of producing great stuff. With a background in humanities and a love of science, however, my goal is to encourage the creation of things of substance: nonfiction books, films, websites, audio programs, and images that, yes, capture our attention, through careful attention to production details, but also make a contribution to our understanding and appreciation of the world. In my ideal world, scholars and scientists would not only be trained in their disciplinary traditions but also in communicative technologies.

Why add to the burden of knowledge producers? Because I have seen too often how so-called content creators, people focused only on the communicative technologies and filling a particular channel, produce rather predictable, and in the end dull, material that, at best, enjoys a moment but rapidly loses any value. Real content creators, to my mind, are focused on the content: they love the plant, the molecule, the community, the event, the idea involved and what we need to do is equip them to communicate the nexus of ideas to others.

Please note that I did not use the word *story*. Not everything is a story, and I’m tired of people wanting everything to be a narrative. Some things will be tell-able in a story, but not everything. And it’s the spread of possibilities that actually makes for better content, I think.

Unfortunately, at present, too many people, like my own university, are only focused on getting students to see everything through a camera lens, because, you know, reality television has been such a gift to human understanding. And video in general is the only way to communicate. This in an era where information technologies actually make it possible to embed video in texts — like this one! but also in ebooks. More importantly, you can embed just about any kind of media in any other kind of media: I have seen three-dimensional drawings embedded in PDFs. And you don’t have to be stuck producing a half-hour or hour-long (or, really 24 minutes and 44 minutes) program to fit into a broadcast schedule or a 70,000 word document to fit into a publication schedule.

From what I can tell, it’s going to be some time yet before we see real innovation at the level of content. For the time being, in a moment where some universities, like my own, are more concerned with workforce development than knowledge creation and distribution, we are living through a moment in which media specialists, and not content specialists, have the upper hand. What this means for content can be seen in the current state of content: a wide raft of reality television programs. Some of them, shows like Mike Rowe’s _Dirty Jobs_ have a real heart, but, I would argue that’s because Rowe has a heart, and a mind, for content.

Now, no doubt, some readers will know my current circumstance and will, rightly, believe that I am in part raging against a machine, a local machine, that makes it possible for communications producers to grab an idea from a content producer and make off with it like it was their idea. So be it. But, I would also like to note that, like the book which seems to be in the process of being copied in some fashion, I have been making the case for the importance of teaching communication skills to our content producers [for][] [a][] [long][] [time][] — some of those links date back six years now!

Why bring this up now? Because I want to fold into my own teaching some explorations of various media forms for students to try out — ideally, one would have an entire year to play with a variety of forms all around a single topic — and so I am seeking out resources to share with my students. I have come across some great introductions to film and film technologies and techniques, one of which is embedded below. Brooker’s argument is that editing is everything and that in a moment where it’s easy to produce a whole lot of video footage of almost anything, and the goal of a lot of video production is simply to grab someone’s attention long enough to show them a commercial, then editing for “dramatic effect” becomes the priority. And that fact has some disturbing consequences for how we perceive a given “reality.”

Video pieces like this could just as easily be used, I think, in a variety of courses focused on representation to remind students that any book, audio, image, or video they encounter, no matter its claim to reality, is a representation, a *re*-presentation. Any reality contained within is already distant and thus every event, every character, should be understood as serving a function within the larger fiction.

How does this relate to my argument about the difference between content-oriented production and media-focused production? Well, obviously any particular text must be judged on its own, but I think the more interesting texts are going to come from individuals and teams who are content-oriented. Unfortunately, from what I can tell, it looks like we are living through a moment in which media specialists have the upper hand. So, if content matters to you, you need to get in the game, learn something about media and media production and begin to think about the various ways you could reach the diverse audiences, who really do exist for almost any topic you can imagine. (And the web really is amazing for this: it allows audiences to find *you*.) But, you have to be there to get it. You have to be producing some version of the content you love in a form that can be consumed by others. I don’t particularly like that verb, *consume*, but there you have it.

Of course it takes time out of already packed days. Content specialists are already pressed to find time to study the things they study. Here I am pressing more into their day, a day already spent trying to figure out how to deal with the latest institutional “assessment” or “evaluation” “metric” or “rubric” — if those in corporations thought those in universities were getting a free ride, think again. We live in the same measurement culture, and it’s often executed by individuals with even less awareness of organizational development than you face. No, really.


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