Saturday, April 18, 2009

What is "content"?

Lots to write about, but not a lot of time to write about it.

A few weeks back, I started a post entitled "What does it mean to own content?" but as so often happens, it veered off in a different direction. As you might guess by the size of the "Intellectual Property" tag, I see questions of content and ownership to be central to understanding the Web As We Know It. That is, if I thought I understood such questions, I'd feel a lot more like I understood the WAWKI.

So I'm going to try again, but this time, for everyone's sake, I'm going to try to take smaller bites. Thus the question in the title.

First, I'm not crazy about "content" as a label for all the various things we put up on the web or otherwise try to get to an audience, but for the moment it'll have to do. It's not the worst choice. If "content-free" is a harsh assessment, then content must be worth something. It fits more or less with the metaphor that the web is a web of conduits, that sites have things in them (or on them, at least) and so forth.

But what is it? I'm tempted to drop back to Potter Stewart's "I know it when I see it," but that's hardly an answer, or at least, not being a Supreme Court justice I don't personally feel I can get away with it. Another approach would be to borrow Russell Ackoff's data/information/knowledge/understanding/wisdom hierarchy and say that content is any of the five -- or more likely, anything north of "data".

Since we're dealing at least partly in intellectual property, what does it look like from that angle? Intellectual property (another term I claim I'm not crazy about) is "property that results from original creative thought." Content might or might not be someone's property, so take that out and you're left with content as what "results from original creative thought." Or broadening just a bit, something that someone created.

This is probably close to what I'm feeling for. It emphasizes that someone found reason to make the "content" available and, come to think of it, it's pretty much a restatement of what I said above: "all the various things we put up on the web or otherwise try to get to an audience." So at least I seem to agree with myself. It also jibes reasonably well with the classic notion of the web as a collection of resources.

To be clear, I would count something computer-generated -- say a compilation of statistics on something else -- as content. The computer generated the exact data, but someone decided to make that data available.

So far, so good, but under that definition is anything not content? This comes back, I think, to Ackoff's distinction between data and information. To take an example, it's possible to measure how many people from, say, Idaho, have accessed this site last week. That's data, but (to my knowledge) no one has actually pulled it together and presented it to the world as information. Now, if I tell you that, according to the statistics available to me, no one from Idaho has accessed this site directly this week, then it becomes information and, by my attempted definition, content.

(Except, where would I get that information? Google can supply it to me, but only if I ask. Is it "content" before then? Does it become "content" when I ask for it? Or only when I present it to the world? Well, I don't know what content is, but I know it when I see it ...)

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