A little secret about "content"

Welcome to The Attentive Rebellion, a newsletter that helps people stop wasting time and attention on stuff that doesn’t matter — and start focusing on stuff that does.

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Today, let’s focus on content.

I’ll start with a secret: I hate the word content.

When I was growing up (a time when kids played outside and therapy animals didn’t fly on airplanes), the word "content" in its modern context was used sparingly — the content of the school curriculum, the content of her argument, etc.

Only when the Internet and smartphones put information in its myriad forms at our fingertips at all times did the term become ubiquitous.

And maybe that's why the negative connotation persists in my mind. As information was packaged into blog posts, landing pages, YouTube shows, podcasts, tweets, magazine articles, web articles, eBooks, review sites, eCourses and TikTok videos — seeping into seemingly every facet of life — I grew weary of it. Suspicious of it even.

An interesting paradox, considering the word “content” has been included in every job title I’ve held for the past ten years.

But I can’t be the only person to wonder — how and why did all readable, viewable, listenable, consumable information become lumped together as “content?”

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So I googled it:

Interesting. If you believe The Internet, the idea of content (Wikipedia offers a surprisingly useful definition) is inextricably linked to marketing.

This helps explain my discomfort with the term. I work in marketing. As a marketer, I create “content” designed to manipulate people’s attention, influencing them to take an action — buy something, try something, sign up for something.

Does the content provide value to the consumer? Sure, to some extent, if I did my job well.

But if marketing — commoditization, influencing of behavior, a hyperfocus on profit, etc. — is an integral part of the information we consume every day…then in theory, it requires careful analysis to decipher which of that info is genuine and what’s merely a sales tactic.

And that’s one of the reasons we should approach every piece of content we consume intentionally, mindfully, and with a healthy dose of skepticism.

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Why does this matter?

For content publishers, eyeballs = dollars. It’s always been that way.

But the Internet has exponentially increased the amount of eyeballs available for harvesting. And with that, a seemingly limitless number of commercial interests have emerged to capitalize.

In his book The World Beyond Your Head, Matthew Crawford frames the problem this way:

“As autonomous individuals, we often find ourselves isolated in a fog of choices. Our mental lives become shapeless, and more susceptible to whatever presents itself out of the ether. But of course, these presentations are highly orchestrated; commercial forces step into the void of cultural authority.”

To put this in the context of today’s content landscape, TikTok influencers and celebrities are increasingly leapfrogging journalists as the primary source of news for young people.

Example 1: Italian social media personality Khaby Lame currently owns TikTok’s largest audience at over 161 MILLION followers. His claim to fame? Posts that mock “life hack” videos.

The value of which is…debatable.

Example 2: YouTube user DaFuq!?Boom! launched a video series earlier this year in which toilets with heads bulging their bowls seek world domination.

Stupid and irrelevant at first glance, yes, but this dude built an army of 27 million subscribers (more than every traditional media outlet in the US) in less than a year. His videos have amassed more than 9 BILLION views on YouTube alone.

Life hack parodies and human-toilet hybrids — the pinnacle of media popularity in 2023. Kind of makes you nostalgic for “2 girls 1 cup,” doesn’t it?

Example 3: It’s no secret that the traditional news industry is in a massive state of flux. Americans increasingly fault the mainstream media for political polarization, with half reporting they have little to no trust in the media’s ability to report the news fairly and accurately.

Equally troubling are the important topics many outlets are neglecting to cover. Why? It’s the polarizing stuff that boosts traffic and ratings — not the stuff that actually impacts our lives.

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What can you do about it?

Today’s content/media landscape changes so rapidly, creating a static playbook for navigating it feels like an exercise in futility.

But several strategies should stand the test of time, allowing you to allocate your attention in a way that delivers value without burning you out:

  • Don’t blame the algorithms: As easy (and fun) as that would be, accept responsibility for your own content habits and consume a diverse diet of useful, factual information.

  • Avoid biased content: Use online resources like AllSides.com to identify media biases and avoid being manipulated.

  • Go to the source: When in doubt, seek out the original source of the information. When the name of the game is cheap, easy content, this helps quickly filter out bullshit.

  • Make peace with a certain level of ignorance: You can’t read, watch or listen to everything. What’s actually going to improve your life in some tangible way? Probably something other than exploding toilet heads or your TikTok feed.

  • Build an information portfolio: Choose your trusted sources and preferred media formats, then develop a habit of consuming only content that aligns with your values and goals (yes, having fun can and should be one of those values).

Don’t get me wrong. For the intentional consumer, the opportunities are endless. There’s an entire Internet full of original, useful, inspiring information — as you read this, you have access to more high-quality content than anyone in history.

In terms of your ability to gain knowledge, be entertained, learn skills, whatever…access to information is NOT the limitation.

Your ability to block out distractions while filtering out the nonsense and noise — that’s the limitation.

The information you choose to consume will help drive your emotional well-being, your professional success, your happiness and even your health.

So ignore the toilet heads. Create a portfolio of the right sources, topics and formats for you. Then consume to your heart’s content.

🤔 Attention Worthy (related reads)

 What the f**k is content scrambling? | NewsGuard, a misinformation watchdog, recently put 37 websites on blast for “scrambling” stories — i.e. copying articles from major news outlets, pasting them into AI language models like ChatGPT, then publishing them as their own.

It’s no shock that many are dumb enough to get caught red-handed, but thousands of bad actors out there are likely doing this, which is alarming. Be vigilant, friends. [link]

 Behind the scenes at a “content farm” | Armed with a seemingly useless English degree, aspiring writer Shuja Haider felt lucky to land a job at a press agency in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Slowly, he realized he had entered the realm of content farms — platforms mindlessly churning out articles for SEO purposes.

He explores the precarious landscape of modern media employment, underscoring the loss of authenticity and manipulation that often comes with it. [link]

✅ Podcast ep with the attention expert | Dr. Sanjay Gupta of CNN just spoke to Gloria Mark, professor of informatics at UC Irvine and author of “Attention Span: A Groundbreaking Way to Restore Balance, Happiness and Productivity.”

I originally discovered Gloria on the Armchair Expert podcast, and she’s awesome. In this discussion, she shares insights into what’s actually going on in our brains when we’re attentive and why we’re less focused than we used to be. [link]

🛠️ The Attentive Toolbox

No app or software review today; just try doing nothing for two minutes.

🐙 View from the Dark Side

Google is changing its attention-tracking methods to get around new regulations

The quickly approaching shift to a “cookie-less” internet and away from third-party cookie tracking has been widely publicized.

Google’s response to that shift has not.

Overall, it’s a positive development for your privacy, but if you assume the advertisers who make money through online channels are going to drift silently into the ether, you’ve been living in a cave (and I’m kinda jealous).

Long story short, Google is replacing cookies (tiny bits of info that track and share your browser activities) with a new system called Topics, which can use your browser history to categorize you into interest-based segments.

Armed with that knowledge, sites will sell real-time ads to advertisers targeting your interests.

Paul Graham, the famous investor and co-founder of Y-Combinator (and more importantly, a killer essayist), equates the new system to “spyware.”

If Paul’s not convinced, I’m definitely not convinced.

And highly skeptical.

What to do?

This change affects my company (and countless others in the business of buying ads), which is why I’m on top of it. But you don’t care about that — you care about you.

The internet experience is in the midst of a massive shift, and whether you deal with buying and trafficking ads or not, it pays to know when you’re part of a big tracking experiment. And choose not to participate if you so desire.

Thankfully, opting out isn’t that difficult. Courtesy of the good folks at The Register: 

“Depending on what Chrome version you're using, and whether you've been selected to start using Topics API, you can switch this functionality off and on by visiting chrome://settings/adPrivacy and/or chrome://settings/privacySandbox – cut'n'paste these URLs into your address bar to jump straight to the controls.”

What’d you think of this edition?

🔥 Super valuable, I'm sharing it with everyone [this]

🦥 Meh, it was okay [this]

⚠️ Not worth my attention, sir [this]

📖 Thanks for reading

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