Fresh Content

The phrase “fresh content” brings me fresh discontent.

It conjures an image of a gray world where there are no people, only zombies who lust after a paradoxical substance that is ever plentiful, yet always in shortage. Theirs is a joyless lust, where instead of tasting, feeling, and touching, they merely consume. They do not move from fullness to hunger, and by eating, back to fullness, but remain in a constant need that can be appeased but never satisfied. There is no day, when content can be seen, or night, with its obscuring dark — instead, an unending fluorescence that renders content ever visible, never in focus.

The new hunger is felt not in the stomach, and cannot be heard in a groan or a gurgle, but only in the clicking of buttons, the tapping of keys; the accelerated hum of a computer fan, the faster spinning of a disk as content is being loaded. Loaded from where? Don’t ask, just eat, for content isn’t crafted, it it is only produced—its source hidden behind the impersonal cloak of a “personal” brand. Anyone, at any time, may produce content, for we are all created equal, and anyone may distribute it, for we are all created equal, and anyone may consume it, for we are all created equal (but if I have more likes than you I am maybe more equal), and everyone must do these things, for we are all equally starved in our excess, and dependent on each other to sustain this networked feeding frenzy. Our content hunger is experienced only in negatives, in not having enough. It is an inevitable and indefinite hunger, because “having enough” has been impossible since sometime in 1984.

Content to me sounds like a meal that might have been satisfying if it had been prepared in an entirely different way. Content is pink slime. It is imagined ambrosia with real helpings of high fructose corn syrup, and we’ll take it if we can have it now.

I see myself in the future of this world: I’ve been admitted to the hospital starving, I suffered a content shortage. They hooked me up to an intravenous content delivery network and sent a bill to my content provider. But they overcharged me, the content they served wasn’t fresh.

Everywhere, we expect fresh content — in truth, fresh content looks and feels no different from stale content, other than the timestamp it bears — yet we cannot bring ourselves to like the stale kind, to bless it with our smiley faces and thumbs up.  Without fresh content, attention fades, eyes tire – we lose whatever bit of wakefulness our drug supplied.  We are what we eat; we are only as fresh as the content we consume.

Freshness brings the illusion of connectedness, for the fact that something is fresh makes us feel close to all the other people who share our fetish for that freshness, who are seeking or consuming this newest installment of the new, as we are right now — even if their existence is known to us only through a counter. We don’t need to know more about them, as in this world we are all aroused by the same kind of stimulus, even if it masquerades as personally tailored.

They say content is king, but they don’t mean substance is king; rather, that the flow of something appearing like substance — that is king.

“Fresh content” brings to mind that moment of letdown one might experience after a period of creative work — writing, painting — during which there was no “content”, only words in motion, colors bleeding on canvas; for a musician, sound pulsing through space. At some point later there’s a manuscript, a piece of cloth with drying paint — was all that sweat really for that little bit of stuff?  The writer or painter knows that through this bit of material, another person might step into a magical world, and because of that transporting potential, we revere the physical artifact, meager as it seems — but when it is digitized and labeled as content, its future is predestined: fresh, to stale. The greatest height it might reach in this arc is to become for a brief moment popular content, liked content, shared content; if improbably fortunate, viral for a time.

When before in history have creative people aspired for their work to be viral? One thinks of Beethoven proud that his Ode to Joy had been pronounced tubercular, Proust delighted that his memories went malarial, Rembrandt tickled to know that his self-portraits had gone cancerous.

If content becomes stale after being viral, it still never decomposes, is never broken back into its elements; it may be archived, it may be indexed and reindexed, it may be forever crawled and scraped.  It will be forgotten by all but spiders, yet it cannot die, for it is what we aspire to be: immortal.

Content may be marketed, managed, monetized, strategized, farmed, tagged, pipelined, curated, mashed up, and placed in front of traffic.  Imagining for a moment that I were content, I would live in fear, because all of these things sound terribly painful.

And I am afraid, because in this world the self is identified as the content it produces.  “I = C” is the equation of our age. I am content. And yes, my dream is to be trafficked — a flash of insight — so that’s why I’m writing this!

Perhaps I am reading too deeply into this innocent word, exaggerating is implications so that I will have something to say here, so that I can produce more content? And what better strategy in today’s world for generating content than mouthing off in a fit of unchecked hyperbole?

I do understand that “content” fills a hole in our language. When speaking of the stuff on websites, we can’t speak only of text, because there is also audio, and there is video, so we need a general term; we can’t speak only of posts because there are comments and threads. And we may want to label this good stuff as distinct from the boring things on websites, like backgrounds, menus, and ads pretending to be… you know what.

What English word can do the job of describing the sort of refreshable stuff that we all want so very much? Yes, “content” means something, has a coherent definition, a reason to be used, but must we use it so often? I’ll say no more, because even before I have distributed these words, even before you consume them, I can feel them going stale; God, refresh me.

5 comments
  1. The Greeks had the solution for a miasma: you CAST IT OUT.

    • Thanks for the comment, David. What is the version of that for our age?

  2. To me content is just the stuff we post on our websites, it has no connotation of quality or currency. If keeping it fresh is imperative then all that’s needed is a timestamp that changes at the rate at which it turns stale for the consumer – a small, customizable widget entitled “Fresh Content,” and showing this timestamp, should do the trick.

    • Does that widget exist? If not, how about starting a new Fresh Content project on GitHub?

  3. Lively article.

    I like “I=C” as a characterization of our times. I produce content – therefore I am.

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