"Content" has the stink of failure (and it's a lie, besides)


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I agree. It’s an example of self conscious media marketing speak escaping to the larger world. I think a lot of times when you hear people using the term “content” it probably means there is some new “consumer” technology that someone is trying to sell to the “public” but which not enough “creators” have actually been developing anything for. (when HD video was new, or a smartphone OS other than iOS or Android, 3D TVs, etc.)

Anyway, I gotta go now and consume some more of this awesome internet content…

Jeez, you sound pretty contentious!

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When a web programmer says content and presentation can be separated, they mean something very specific. Trying to apply that to all communication, ever, takes the original idea far out of it’s intended context. The intention of separating content from presentation is to allow Cory to type up the text for Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom once, and then publish it on the web, in print, to a kindle, to a mobile device, etc. The text of the story (the content) is the same, regardless of which form you read it in. I for one don’t think the experience of that content is appreciably different whether I read it on a kindle, an android, an Iphone, printed page. Is Cory’s story different when you change the font size? I don’t think so, and that’s what the separation of content vs presentation means in a technical sense.


People who think for themselves are rarely appreciated by people who don’t.


I’m in total agreement with Bray’s point, but surely his examples are very one-sided; in movies, music and publishing, some egregious sharks minimize the artistic output in exactly the same way. The web has just popularized and accelerated this diminishment. When it comes down to it, there isn’t much difference between Buzzfeed and EMI.

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Form is content and content is form; this is bread-and-butter working knowledge in poetry (and by extension, language-conscious writing of all kinds). The technical features of “form” and “presentation” overlap to a degree that I think makes the old saw relevant here.

There’s probably an easy way to map “content” and “presentation” onto the distinction made by I.A. Richards (in “The Philosophy of Rhetoric,” 1936) between the two components of metaphor: tenor and vehicle.

We have the same problematic distinction in education where content is distinguished from pedagogy, and some pedagoy experts (notably Howard Barrows) have claimed to be able to teach any content, whether they understand it or not. The truth is that context is critical to memory formation and recall and content learned independently of context hardly qualifies as learning at all.

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Love you Cory, but please write at a lower grade level that makes my head hurt.
Content is lumber and drywall, presentation is the house? That shows both the truth, and lie of this way of labeling “content”

So is Cory going to abandon WordPress and replace every boing boing post with a flash embed, then?

Separation of form and content is an artificial constraint, but great works of artistic expression have often been done under constraints. The principle of separation underlies a lot of the success stories of the web - Wikipedia, for example, the blog revolution, online news, Twitter, etc etc, because it lets people focus on one thing, while skilled stylesheet/web designers focus on making it all look nice (and yes, commercially viable). Further, use of standardized forms hands control to the user, to customize the presentation to their individual liking through their own stylesheets and user scripts.


I read most of this article in a state of confusion, until I realised that that the term “content” must have been overloaded, re - appropriated and absorbed into managementspeak.

As a retro computer nut, I spend a lot of time reading pages hand coded in notepad using HTML 2 with no flash or CSS or other modern tomfoolery, and to be honest it doesn’t detract from the “content” a jot.


Now that the Web’s in its second decade of common use, it’s pretty clear that “content” and “presentation” are never fully separable.

Technically, of course, that’s essentially false. Instead, you mean that some content relies on its presentation to convey the full meaning. The are some clear, if trivial, examples of that on the net (eg re-purposing an infographic into plain text or references to “the above diagram” on a device that cannot display images). But that’s not enough to build this into a problem beyond the old idea of “shovelware”, which refers to shoddy, syndicated, or otherwise carelessly processed content that’s there for other reasons (like clickbait).

I think the argument here is essentially bogus in the wider context. If anything, the history of the Web has shown that exactly the opposite to Cory’s assertion is true:

The Machine is Us/ing Us

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I agree with this and was going to post something similar. Where I work we generate technical documents. What the technical people do (write and edit copy, prepare scientific diagrams) and what the designers do (make it look good, among other things I don’t understand) are kept seperate because different skill sets are involved.

When I read the linked materials, though I didn’t think that was the point. I think the points are more that A) ‘content’ is a bland, marketing word, and if you are using bland marketing words it calls what you are selling into question, and B) if you object to the way intellectual property works today (buying/selling/renting/producing/consuming/restricting) you may fine ‘content’ reinforces those ideas.

I agree with A. I don’t have a strong opinion on B. Or maybe I missed the thesis?

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Content is just a word to describe the words and sentences attached to formatting tags. I’m just not too worried about it but I will feign anxiety for free bagels and coffee.

It’s bad, but it’s just one of a fleet of hideous business-isms, flying in loose formation.

Was reading a newspaper yesterday when I stumbled over an advertisement for some service or other targeting “Business Thought Leaders”. (With obligatory clip-art of earnest – she was wearing heavy-framed glasses – 20 year old female in business suit, presumably meant to represent one of the Business Thought Leaders in search of a service).

What is a Business Thought Leader? Is it perchance the alpha zombie in a shambling crowd of pin-striped undead, looking for someone else’s brains?

I need AdBlock in Real Life so badly.


I ways figured that “content” embodies the idea that the words, art, music, etc are fungible. One unit may be substituted for any other; the unit count and format is what matters more.

This also strikes me as a way of thinking inculcated by intellectual property, which encourages the perception that creativity is best understood in economic and quantifiable terms.

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I have to disagree almost entirely with this. Content is indeed separable from form in text (although form when applied to content significantly modifies perceived content – as McLuhan says – and form and content can be entwined in a way that’s impossible to separate without losing information; but, your typical blog entry is not one of these circumstances). The thing is, in the context of the web, you cannot distinguish form from content effectively because of what amounts to a standardization error: you’re really supposed to put your content in XML and your form in CSS, but XML bakes in a very important part of the form (where text is separated is part of the form, not part of the content) which CSS cannot then modify, meaning that CSS rearrangements of documents written with w3c best practices will be shallowly re-skinnable at best. For instance, if something is intended for the typical discussion forum form (wherein there is a title for the first post and then a sequence of posts following with no title of their own, single-thread), the XML representation cannot then be used purely in CSS to become (say) a blog post representation (wherein each post has a title, a part displayed on the main feed, a break, and then the rest of the post).

The solution is to consider plain unformatted text to be content and everything else to be form, and then to have a language for decorating, reformatting, and rearranging spans of plain text. In other words, drop embedded markup in favor of completely seperable markup (rather than pretending that embedded markup, because it’s only used for blocking now, is no longer a part of the form and is instead content).

The result? You can take something written entirely in one form (Sherlock Holmes – a serial) and automatically turn it into another form (a series of blog posts, complete with breaks) or overlay two unrelated text streams without changing the underlying content or bothering with xml parsing and rewriting.

Thanks – you nailed it. This is especially true when some versions of the content are being used for accessibility – captions, a transcript, a speech synthesized rendering of a text document, etc. What’s the big objection to a generic term that works because everyone knows what it means?

Nope. Any artist worth his salt will tell you that you are actually missing what the presentation really is, and that your transformations don’t change anything. In Cory’s case, the presentation consists of the succession of words, sentences, paragraphs and chapters. You can put this on a webpage, or in a PDF or Mobireader file, or in a dead tree book, or even an audiobook, and, provided the succession of words, etc. is the same, you still have the same book. The general idea (the “content”, if you will) can be paraphrased with other words, but the precise idea is inseparable from Cory’s presentation.

Cripes, I’ve been composing for over 40 years. Do you really think it changes anything if you play my works back on YouTube, on SoundCloud or in a public concert? The air is still going to vibrate within the parameters I’ve set as necessary for presenting the idea. What you are changing is the source of the presentation, not the presentation itself. When you lay out Cory’s books, yeah, it might look ugly if you don’t do it well, but the essentials of Cory’s presentation don’t change: items like font choices and formatting aren’t the necessary parameters of the presentation (and very rarely are, except in some very specific cases where writing starts to resemble collage).