Let’s Stop Calling It “Content”

Hollywood and tech firms want to reduce culture to a slurry of interchangeable bits. Let’s not help them out

Clive Thompson
9 min readSep 30


Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash

I remember the first time I started hearing the word “content”.

It was back in the late 1990s, during the delirious height of the “dot com” boom. Corporations were rolling out web sites, the hawt digital technology of the day. These companies all wanted their web-sites to be “sticky” — i.e. to give people a reason to stick around. That meant they needed to have lots of arresting, cool stuff to read and view. And that meant they were commissioning articles, photography, animations, and occasionally even short films or commercials (though most Americans still had dial-up modems that made online video farcically slow).

It was thus, for a brief year or so, a weirdly good time to be a writer, a photographer, or an illustrator. Money for one’s work was plentiful.

The only unsettling thing for me was the terminology. All those companies building web sites, and all their creative directors and the folks running the web-design startups, kept collapsing these very different forms of culture — writing and photography and animation and illustration — into one all-fungible phrase:


As in, We need some content for this site!

I’d get a phone call — to my landline phone, bien sur, this was 1999 — and it would be a friend of mine who worked for a web-design firm. They’d ask if I knew any writers: “Our new client is gonna need a ton of content.”

From the get-go, I found “content” a truly depressing coinage.

Sure, I could understand why all the tech and business folks used it. “Content”, as a phrase, is usefully efficient. It gives you a blanket term to discuss a huge variety of forms of expression — prose, photography, TV, drama, music, illustration and more.

The problem, of course, is that “content” — the way these folks were slinging it around — more or less posits that there is no distinction between any of these extremely different cultural forms. Text, pictures, animation, comedy, drama, reporting, marketing: Whatevs, folks, it’s all content, right? The point, back in…



Clive Thompson

I write 2X a week on tech, science, culture — and how those collide. Writer at NYT mag/Wired; author, “Coders”. @clive@saturation.social clive@clivethompson.net