“Content Is King”

by Jan 31, 2013Work and Life

I’ve been looking for this for a long time and finally tracked it down: the text of Bill Gates’ 1996 essay, “Content Is King.” I have become increasingly irritated by the buzzword “content.” Gates’ words give me heart. He focuses, as one would expect, on commercial opportunity. What he does not do is erase the creator – and creativity itself – from the construct. This essay speaks of three distinct phenomena and three corresponding opportunities arising from the precipitous drops in costs related to producing, duplicating, distributing, and storing textual, audio, video, and graphic material. One is the opportunity for creators to become publishers:
“One of the exciting things about the Internet is that anyone with a PC and a modem can publish whatever content they can create. In a sense, the Internet is the multimedia equivalent of the photocopier. It allows material to be duplicated at low cost, no matter the size of the audience.”
Another is for suppliers – producers, publishers, broadcasters, and distributors – to operate at greater scale.
“But the broad opportunities for most companies involve supplying information or entertainment. No company is too small to participate.”
A third is for people with specialized interests to bypass “publishing” and simply share.
For example, the Internet is already revolutionizing the exchange of specialized scientific information. Printed scientific journals tend to have small circulations, making them high-priced. University libraries are a big part of the market. It’s been an awkward, slow, expensive way to distribute information to a specialized audience, but there hasn’t been an alternative.
These days, those ideas are hopelessly conflated. Certainly, creators must learn to use the tools and navigate the markets of our time. In both cinema and television, for example, artistic innovation has followed technological innovation – from the talkie to the multiple-camera sitcom to CGI. However, “content development” will never replace singing, composing, acting, writing, filming, or drawing. That’s the case whether the purpose is fine art, entertainment, or marketing. Gates again:
“Those who succeed will propel the Internet forward as a marketplace of ideas, experiences, and products – a marketplace of content.”
I think it’s no coincidence that the “golden ages” of film and of television came when the technology was new and enthusiasm was high for novel modes of expression and the ability to reach more people. Watch an old Milton Berle show on kinescope; you can feel the excitement. The ubiquitous buzzword “content” has become an indicator of a cynical vision: lots of people and companies making lots of money by bombarding the public with anything at all; lots of other people making money by facilitating the transmittal; the ideas, experiences, and products we want and need turned into commodities and creative workers into cheap labor. Perhaps we should go back to the kind of language we used before Bill Gates’ essay gave us a new term to abuse, when marketers commissioned videos, corporate spokespeople wrote white papers or opinion pieces or columns, nonprofits sent out newsletters, researchers released reports, and the creative products of artists went by their everyday names — specific words that refer to the substance of what we make and consume.
Barbara Ruth Saunders is a writer, editor, and writing coach.