What is ‘content’?

Should we describe creative material as ‘content’? Founder of MUBI, Efe Cakarel questions the use of the word.

Not since the shorthand “app” rocketed into being default and everyday nomenclature has a word so taken hold of digital culture like “content.”

Content, as we understand it in this moment—and hopefully for not much longer—is the intentionally generic term for the effluviant creation, remixing, and/or resurrection of multi-media specifically for the intention of bald profit-seeking and near-immediate expiration. This designation is without a doubt a tremendous denigration to good work—done by artists, craftspeople, and laborers alike—and to the works themselves: the journalism that informs and the art that challenges and moves us. The world should not be like this.

When content is created, it is being done so as content. Not as a powerful film. Not as investigative journalism. Not as a hilarious podcast. Not as a soaring song. Not as an intimate personal confession. Not an surprising photograph. It is being created as content, and nothing more: a piece of media with which to capture and keep consumers from whom money is to be made. This is an overwhelmingly cynical perspective to take on our culture, brutally and cruelly simplifying the fact that those who create culture for the rest of us to enjoy should be justly compensated for their work and our pleasure.

Content should no longer be the default, infinitely malleable term we use for nearly all valuable (or supposedly valuable) cultural creation in a digital economy—we must be firm that the term, and its use, implies the cold quality of computer algorithms dastardly conflated with the inhuman need to exploit people on both sides of that creation, the creators and the consumers. Content is good work and bad treated as advertisements for advertisements, an untenable attitude that disrespects and condescends both its audiences and its creators.

The creator matters. The subject of the creation matters. The perspective the creator takes with the subject matters. The publisher of the creation matters. The perspective the publisher takes on the creator, the subject, and his or her perspective matters. But when you describe the creation as content, all of this seems extraneous, if not non-existent. “Seems” being the operative word: Uncoupling the density of meaning, motivation and implication in any given cultural object from the context of its creation takes us to a dangerous place. It takes us to a place where it doesn’t matter who made what, when—or why. It robs the culture of its crucial specificity for the sake of clickbait, quotas, CPAs, and so-called virality. It is in this place where fact and expertise blurs ever-so-imperceptibly—and then very perceptively, indeed—with fiction—with the fake.

I therefore stand by the term content, but only as seen for what it is: cultural exploitation. More importantly, I stand by what is not content: All the cultural interchange—both creation and enjoyment—that involves inspiration, ingenuity, artistry, perspicacity, pleasure, risk-taking enlightenment, and a mutual sense of community. News reporting, novels, movies, albums, painting—these things and more are what we should support, encourage, enjoy and share. They are made by people who share a part of themselves and their work with us—and what an honor that is!

To this end, and since I work in the film industry, here are some of the art I was honored to encounter and share last year: the generous inquisitivity of Agnès Varda and J.R.’s documentary, Faces PlacesCall Me By Your NameA24 (the folks this year behind Lady Bird and A Ghost Story); the reporting on Harvey Weinstein by the New York Times and New Yorker; Oneohtrix Point Never and Jonny Greenwood’s scores for Good Time and Phantom Thread, respectively; the stunning jump to feature filmmaking by Jordan Peele; the overwhelming emotional force of A Quiet PassionGirls Trip and Elizabeth Moss in The SquareTwin Peaks: The Return. These are not content—and that you know—you feel—when you experience them.

Founder of MUBI, Efe Cakarel was writing for The Space’s ‘Self-Publishing and the arts‘ essay collection

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