We book people tend to sniff at the term “content” — it is a bit too computer-esque for us I guess. Of course we can’t get away from some responsibility for the word: when was the first List/Table of Contents printed in a book? We find Caxton referencing one in 1481. Wikipedia tells us that it actually predates printing by a long way: according to them Pliny the Elder credited the first Table of Contents to Quintus Valerius Soranus who died in 82 B.C.

Kate Eichhorn, via the SHARP listserv writes “I’m currently working on a short book exploring the history of ‘content’ and the ‘content industry’. In my own book, I start the history in the early 1990s. At this time, John P. Noon attempted to trademark the term content because, at the time, his company, Content World Publishing wanted to launch a magazine called Content for people working in the emerging content industry. This didn’t happen, but he later did launch the Content World Trade Show. Again, attendance wasn’t great and his entire enterprise collapsed around 2004, which is also when he sold off various content-related domain names. Ironically, just as Noon seemed to be abandoning his content-related enterprises, a range of technological and economic shifts converged (social media platforms, Google Adsense etc.), finally enabling the content industry to explode.”

Professor Eichhorn does refer to “the emerging content industry” which helps get me past my agony of worrying whether I hadn’t in fact spent my life laboring in a vineyard labelled “Content Creation” as part of that content industry she alludes to. Seemingly not: content in this context apparently means something with less structure and meaning than what you’d find in a book. Content World still appears to exist, though I’ve no way of knowing if there’s any kinship with Mr Noon’s baby. It is a kind of conference for people who care about content marketing, an innocent sounding term which, the more you look into it, appears to mean less and less. Wikipedia has an entry on the topic: if your mind is like mine, you’ll learn little from this other than how it’s possible to string together lots of words with definite meaning and create text with none. If you can’t bear to follow that link, the picture below will provide you with the knee-weakening feel of it all.

“Organizing for content marketing. This figure depicts how companies organize to create content in harmony.” Image and caption from Wikipedia. Created by Altimeter Group.

I suspect my problem relates to an unwillingness to believe that content marketing doesn’t refer to the marketing of content, but instead means using content to market any old stuff. I suppose it’s as if I were trying to sell you sewing thread, and used this blog to make you feel good about my yarn-spinning abilities, slipping in every now and then a subtle suggestion as to where you might go and buy a reel of cotton.

Of course content has long been a pretty non-value-laden word referring to what’s contained in some container or other. Its metaphorical extension to include the content of a document is of early date. The Oxford English Dictionary gives an example from Shakespeare and another from the King James version of the Bible. Linguistics may also bear some responsibility for the isolation and salience of content. The OED gives us a 1963 reference to content-analysis by J. B. Carroll in his The Study of Language.

Rudolf Ammann, on the same SHARP listserv, attributes the usage “content” in its current computer-dependent sense to the introduction of markup language for text processing: SGML famously wanted us to separate content from presentation. We had never had to think about such a distinction when we were just making books; the one was inextricably tied up with the other. This would take us back to the late 70s, which sounds about right: though of course it’s impossible to remember if we talked about what was inside a book as content before the arrival of computers. But I’m content to believe we didn’t.