Writing Content vs. Writing Writing

Image of a Manual Typewriter

The folks at Creative Mornings recently interviewed me about blogging, which is a topic you don’t really hear a lot about these days. They did this in collaboration with WordPress, who are of course proponents of people publishing their own websites—and owning those sites—using their seminal blogging software.

In fact, the interview is hosted at a WordPress-owned site called Own Your Content, a beachhead for an eponymous campaign that encourages creative professionals to “own their content, platform, and the future of their work.” Unsurprisingly, one of the questions addresses the issue of centralized writing platforms—which, frankly, means Medium—and whether or not I believe that people should be using them or should be using independent publishing tools like WordPress. In my answer, I try to draw a distinction between the idea of publishing “content” and “writing”:

…far be it from me to pretend that I know what most people should be doing. Many terrific careers have been borne from creating works on centralized platforms, where the creator has only the most tenuous ownership over what he or she is creating or its brand.

That said, I personally can’t imagine handing over all of my labor to a centralized platform where it’s chopped up and shuffled together with content from countless other sources, only to be exploited at the current whims of the platform owners’ volatile business models. I know a lot of creators are successful in that context, but I also see a lot of stuff that gets rendered essentially indistinguishable from everything else, lost in the blizzard of ‘content.’

Not that the work I do is all that important or memorable, but I prefer to think of it as ‘writing’ rather than as ‘content.’ And for me, that’s an important distinction. Content and writing are not the same thing, at least the way that we’ve come to define them in contemporary society. Content is inherently transactional; its goal is to drive towards some kind of conversion, some kind of exchange of value. This is why platforms just think of it all as ‘content’; for the most part, they’re indifferent to whether it’s good or bad writing, or even if it’s writing at all. It doesn’t matter whether it has any kind of inherent worth, whether it’s video or animated GIFs or whatever— so long as it’s driving clicks, time spent, purchases, etc.

Again, I’m not suggesting that what I do has any superior worth at all, but what I will say is that the difference between content that lives on a centralized blogging platform and what I do on a site that I own and operate myself—where I don’t answer to anyone else but me—is that my writing on Subtraction.com has a high tolerance for ambiguity. It’s generally about design and technology, but sometimes it’s about some random subject matter, some non sequitur, some personal passion. It’s a place for writing and thinking, and ambiguity is okay there, even an essential part of it. That’s actually increasingly rare in our digital world now, and I personally value that a lot.

In retrospect, my view on content is a bit too harsh, I think. Content is an unavoidable reality of the contemporary Internet because it’s virtually impossible to do anything online today without being involved in a transaction of some kind. And there’s a lot of good content out there too, much of it on Medium, in fact. What I regret though is that it’s almost all become content, and that there is relatively little writing on the Internet these days that isn’t transactional, that actually has a tolerance for ambiguity. Read the full interview at ownyourcontent.wordpress.com.