The one-way content revolution has got it wrong
By Billy Glennon
Like most people who came to work on the morning of September 12 2001, I felt lost, disoriented. What I was doing seemed irrelevant to the appalling act of terrorism witnessed on TV the previous day. The act of working seemed disrespectful in some way. Everyone seemed confused, frightened, and at a loss.
What was presented on our screens that week was not content. To refer to it as content is almost blasphemy. We were presented with something much more significant. We know that this week has changed us all, has changed our sense of how we are in the world.
News as content
We can imagine some people ten years from now browsing through old newsreels and reading on the Internet looking at the same footage in a slightly disinterested way and describing this as content. Much of the meaning goes, the relevance is lost and the impact on people missed entirely.
This is significant. So much information and news is being pushed at us, a whole new anxiety is emerging as we feel powerless because we can’t keep on top of all the information we might regard as relevant. We can become like machines desperate to process and access as much content as we can. Mobile phone usage is an interesting example. The number of calls is increasing but the messages are getting shorter and more banal.
There was a moment during the dotcom revolution when the expression ‘Content Is King’ was bandied about a lot. It felt prophetic; content was a buzzword. Now people are asking, “Is content really that important? Why hasn’t content worked for us? Why does so much Web content seem awful and out-of-date?”
Such questions lead us to shallow answers. The ‘solution’ currently offered is for technology to give us more, better, faster, up-to-date content, wherever we are, all the time. The result is that people are bombarded by information, leaving them with a sense of being disconnected from the world.
The only way to overcome this frustration is to change the way we think about content – to think about it in a human context, not a technological context.
The media that grew up in the 20th century evolved clear structures and processes to decide what content is ‘relevant’ (and, by its absence, what is irrelevant). The press determines what affairs are current and newsworthy; radio stations decide the music we should listen to; glossy magazines tell us what’s hot and what’s not.
The missing truth is that the relevancy of a piece of music or an article lies with the person who interacts with that content. What is meaningful to one person may or may not be meaningful to another.
Each of us brings our own ‘filters’ – different ways of perceiving – when we interact with content. Four people can read the same novel; each will have a different experience of that novel, because of their unique perceptions, coloured by their cultural background, among other things. Furthermore, an individual can read a single novel four times and each time have a different experience – depending on his or her changing moods, and so on.
Before we can take advantage of radical new technologies such as the Internet, we must first realise that the usefulness and relevancy of any piece of content does not rest with the technology, but with people.
Already we are seeing how the internet can be used to amplify the human ability to find meaning in content. Sites like Amazon allow visitors to review and rate books, music and so on. If you like a visitor’s book review, you can read other reviews that he/she has written. The reviews can be highly relevant to you, but may be irrelevant to others.
The experience of reading a trail of reviews is like going on a journey, peppered with relevant content, using a map created by another person. Indeed, this experience is closer to that of real conversation, where people make recommendations and introduce related topics.
As with the arrival of any new technology or medium, the Internet can help change the way we think about human interaction – about what it means to be human. The Internet has already made us question fundamental ideas about community and identity. For the first time, a person can choose to be part of many communities with which they might have no social or geographical connection.
Perhaps, then, we should not ask, “How important is Internet content?” but “Can we grasp these new opportunities to make our interactions with content feel more human?”
We are self-interpreting beings. Events like September 11, even though tragic, can put us more in touch with what it means to be human, and help bring meaning and a sense of peace. Great poetry and music, provided we give the time to reflect and reinterpret, can do the same.
As processors of information and users of content we can become like our machines – concentrating on processing as much as possible as quickly as possible. The machines can do the information processing much better than us. Only we can bring meaning, richness and a sense of depth to our lives and the lives of others by seeing beyond the content to the lives and the stories of the human beings.
Our capacity for reflection and reinterpretation, and the importance of such activities, has been missed by the information age revolution. Our mechanistic model of this age – input-process-output – does not allow for this essential human characteristic. This is one way that the information or content revolution of the Internet has gone wrong.
I believe that the next generation of tools will be about helping us to become more human, helping us get clear about what is important for us in our lives and helping us get connected to each other in a deeper way than our ever-increasing and ever-shortening text messages.