The Economics of Content and Why it Will Always Rule

November 2015

I’m writing this post as a response to this notable piece about the death of content in ELT — something I feel needs to be properly refuted.

Proliferation

In the comments section, a couple of people remarked along the lines that “the world has way too much content” and that “we are fairly swimming in it.” To me, this is crazy talk and here’s why: the world is also swimming in literature, which is a form of language learning content — an extremely important one. But have we met the end of the novel? No, that would be ludicrous and as a reality, disastrous. There might be a proliferation of crap out there. But at the same time, without that crap where would the next classic come from? You can’t just shut the door on great writers or content creators, even if you wanted to. Content is always going to be here, it’s always going to increase, and the good will always rise to the top.

Connect


Distinction

As I wrote in the comments, content cannot be classed as a commodity. Much of the garbage content may be equally alike and equally poor. But come on, where do we differentiate ourselves? First and foremost, it is in the content we create. Content contains the real value. Content is where we learn things. Content is what inspires more content, and thus content has genetic characteristics. We know from biology is that there is an order of complexity in nature, while adaptation and extinction are necessary givens. This is no different to the internet and the content world. Without weak, poor, or flawed content, there would be no drive to make better stuff. It is the absolute DNA of education and entertainment and that is not going to change.

Educate


The view that all content is essentially the same and thus a commodity is really the McDonaldization of content (cf. grammar McNuggets). It is a lowering of the bar and a disparaging view of the one thing of real substance, and I don’t want to be a part of that. Commodities are the opposite of content. They are fundamentally things that come from the earth with little or no value-added, and as such compete essentially on price. Calling content a commodity is a cheapening of the original output of minds and hands, and is not just intellectually but factually wrong. And so a move to commoditise any carefully crafted product should be resisted at all costs.

The Internet

Google cares about content because that’s what people want. Things get searched for and shared, not because they look pretty or because they are well coded or well packaged or well curated. Actually that’s often a sign of the gimmicky stuff. People search for and share something because it has value. In marketing terms, advertising and SEO are crass and superficial in comparison to content, or education marketing as it’s sometimes called, and they fall way behind in the results they achieve.

The beauty of this is that recognition is no longer reliant on capital. The internet massively levelled the playing field and democratised knowledge so those with content can be heard. It has enabled content and knowledge — things of real worth, to reign above all that was truly noise before: glossy promotion and shiny baubles with no substance. No one who considers this properly would think that is a bad thing or would wish to put controls on, or denigrate the role of content.

Participate


When people say there is too much content out there, what they really mean is there is too much bad content out there. That shouldn’t be a concern for those seeking to create the quality stuff. You can always package a bog standard product in fancy clothing, but the truth is you can’t polish a turd. And the people who try to, get found out in the long run because content is indeed king.

Losing the facade of pretty packaging also means that, importantly, content is now out of the hands of the big publishers. How could that be a bad thing? The ELTJam post was almost suggesting we put power back with the cartel of corporate machines where conformity and commoditisation rule and where innovation and creativity die as a rule, by dint of being qualities that are not easily measured.

So please let’s not go down the road of desiring bland uniformity and corporate hegemony. Let’s instead appreciate that the peripheral spheres of UX, design, and distribution can’t live without content, not vice versa. Content contributes and empowers far more than anything else, so it shouldn’t be deprecated as a concept. It is the lifeblood of what we do as educators and it is only going to become more central to our work as time goes on and quality develops.