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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Content isn't a playing card...Assessing the value of content...

Well over a year ago, I read Andrew Odlysko's "Content is Not King," which argues that connectivity and point-to-point communication is far more important in terms of the net's growth and value than is traditional content.

Last week, I read a post at "What Will You See Next," which makes a similar argument. Hayden Shaughnessy, using "Mobile Web 2.0" by Joakar and Fish as a jumping-off point, maintains that content is being subsumed by connectivity in terms of overall importance.

Shaughnessy titled the post, "Content is King-Make that Queen, Jack. Content is Unimportant."

I don't think content is king. I don't think content is a queen, a jack or even the seven of spades. In my estimation, content isn't a playing card at all. It's the reason we gather around the table and play the game in the first place.

Those who are arguing that the value of content is in decline often point to the experience of wireless providers and various elements of the growing "Web 2.0" movement as proof that content is a relatively small cog in the overall internet machine.

Shaughnessy, for instance, asks the very insightful question,

"What is MySpace other than content as the wrapper to facilitate connections?"

Odlysko states,

"The Internet has done quite well without content, and can continue to flourish without it. Content will have a place on the Internet, possibly a substantial place. However, its place will likely be subordinate to that of business and personal communication."

I'm a content producer. I have a vested interest in people believing in content's importance. Oldysko astutely warns those interested in the content vs. connectivity argument to beware of people like me because we have every reason to defend content's role as part of a healthy and growing web due to our own financial and personal interests.

My background is in communication and communications studies. I'm not just a content peddler and I am keenly interested in the communicative potential of new technologies.

Meanwhile, Oldysko is Head of the Mathematics and Cryptography Research Departments at AT&T Labs, so we should probably keep the potential biases and attitudinal tendencies associated with that line of work in mind, too, right?

In any case, don't judge the argument by the messenger on this one. Consider why one shouldn't reach any hasty conclusions with respect to how most of us interact with the web and/or run online businesses.

Let's start by conceding about 90% of the argument folks like Shaughnessy and Oldysko are making. Connectivity is at the heart of the online experience. The ability to connect with one another and to communicate is wildly important and is a driving force behind a great deal of usage. It's a big part of why people "go online" and as the email experience and all of its point-to-point successors demonstrate, it's a bigger piece of the online pie than information retrieval or knowledge-gathering.

That's right, I'm starting my defense of content's value by conceding a significant portion of the "content is unimporant" argument. I'm not going to make unsubstantiated claims that the net is all about content. That isn't the case now and never really has been. The content detractors are correct in their thinking on that level.

The problem with the "content is unimportant" perspective isn't in the base evidence. The problem is interpretive. You can't reasonably jump from "communication is the biggie" to "content isn't that important."

That's because there is an underlying meta-question that has "content" as its answer. That question is "Why do people want to connect in the first place?"

I don't want to email you because I have some vague need for a pen pal in order to satisfy my human desire for communication. I don't want to contribute to a forum, IM you, blog about content, or make a call via Skype out of a desire to connect for the sake of connection.

I want to connect with you so we can have a meaningful exchange of some kind. More often than not, that meaningful exchange involves information or perspective. I email you for your opinion on Widgetry. I want to know what you think and why. You reply with an answer based on your understanding of Widgetry and the information you have. We dialog about Widgetry.

In the view of some, this is proof that content is of secondary value. See how connectivity is king and content is the four of diamonds? We want to connect, not to read or to experience a broadcast!

That's flawed thinking though. You see, my motivation to ask you about Widgetry was spurred by something I read about the subject. Your answer was informed by your research on the subject. I might have been curious about your reaction to editorial content about the future decline of widget use. Your response may have been based on a short film about widget history you watched just the other day.

Our connectivity orbits the sun of content.

Now, an IM exchange that involves little more than "Wazzup?" "Nuthin'" "Cool." may not have that kind of foundation in content, but once we work our way past the longstanding tradition of adolescents yammering back and forth to one another just for the sake of doing something, we find ourselves relying upon content to give our connectivity meaning.

Look at Digg.com, for instance. It's a social tool, a means of sharing and connecting. What are Diggers using? What are the connecting over? Content. Right there at the heart of every Digg entry is content. Web 2.0 might be changing the way we connect with one another, but it isn't changing why we are making the connection. Information, opinion, insight, data... It's always about content.

You want to make a communicative connection with people. Part of that is probably an innate human need. However, you don't run around trying to befriend every person you see just because you feel a burning need to talk. You tend to be choosier. You find people with similar interests or who have interesting opinions. That way, your communications have a depth of meaning and offer a fulfilling experience.

What do you talk about with those people? What is the subject of your connectedness?

Something tells me that your answer probably has an underpinning in content.

Admittedly, online content is divorceable from the net. If the internet existed merely as a point-to-point communication tool with no additional content present, it would still have a slew of emailing, IM'ing and otherwise connecting adherents. Their discussions and connections would revolve around their personal experiences and interactions with content found in other sources.

However, the web is the perfect launching pad for content. "Publication" is efficient and easy. The net has given voices to many whose opinions would otherwise go unheard while the big boys are also getting their messages out. Content may not be a prerequisite for the net's success, but it certainly fits within the technological framework quite nicely.

It's also become quite clear that the internet is being used more and more as an information source. Just ask your local newspaper editor. Now, the information gathering patterns may be somewhat non-traditional, as the folksonomic underpinnings of Web 2.0 show, but content has found a home on the web and there's no compelling reason to think it will be changing its address any time soon.

Could the net flourish without content? To some extent, yes. It could be the 21st century telephone, a connectivity/communication tool with popularity and utility completely divorced from any particular message.

Does that make content unimportant? Not at all. It may not be a necessary element of the web's existence, but it has certainly become an essential and expected characteristic of the online experience. Using the web as a means of distributing content makes sense on a variety of levels.

What is Shaughnessy's insightful blog post if not content? What is Odlysko's paper?

They are both messages. Part of a communicative process, but simultaneously content that spurs additional communication and content (i.e. this post).

Trying to argue that content has minimal value while writing an archive-ready piece online about the topic isn't just a cute irony. It's proof that content does matter--even in a world where point-to-point communication tools are the killer apps.

All of those blog posts, reports, papers, rants and essays are "wrappers" for connectivity. Unlike bubble gum, however, you'll find it difficult to enjoy the morsel on the inside without the wrapper. The wrapper influences, directs, creates, inspires and provides meaning for the connectivity.