Content is a Republic

By | 2015/03/11

I’d thought the Content is King debate was over, but I saw it rearing its jester’s head once again recently. Argh!

“Content is King” is a phrase that seems to have come out of content marketing to express the simple idea that content is now the most important form of marketing. Which is actually a rather weird and restricted meaning of the word content, since it was meant to contrast with traditional advertising which is, after all, content.

What I think those who coined the term were really trying to say is that in marketing content that informs now performs better than content that attempts to persuade. This is a direct result of content being easier to get on the Web, which means that readers can get the information they want while avoiding any overt attempt to persuade them.

A simple enough idea — though its implications are profound — but boy did it produce much hand wringing, debate, and attempted palace coups. Content isn’t king — the customer, or context, or revenue, or whatever else — is king.

Thinking in terms of Kings, of course, betrays a fundamentally hierarchical world view. The debate about what is King is a debate about what is at the top of the hierarchy. And that debate fundamentally misses the point. As long as you could maintain a hierarchy, the marketer was king: they governed the content channel and controlled what the prospective customer was allowed to learn and how they were allowed to learn it.

What has happened, with the advent of the web, is the death of hierarchy. No one controls and directs content on the Web. It is a boundless landscape without fences. There is no king. Content is a republic. That is the point.

It is because content is a republic that you can no longer force readers to consume your persuasive material. The republican reader simply ignores what you try to force upon them; they can find the information they want on the Web.

The only way to reach them, then, is by providing the content that they want to read, rather than trying to force on them the content you want them to read. Democratic content, in other words, not autocratic content.

Calling content “king” is a dangerous misnomer. Kings are autocrats, and if you imagine content as king, you can easily fall into the trap of creating autocratic content — which your republican readership will cheerfully ignore.

But making something else king is not the cure. There is no autocrat any more. Not even the consumer is king. The consumer is a democrat. One dollar, one vote. The rise of the long tail has profoundly changed our access to music, books, and other forms of culture, greatly broadening what is available and allowing every taste to be satisfied. Never before has individual taste been more fully catered to.

Content is a republic. All politics is local, and the same goes for content. Local, grassroots, bottom-up, pork-barrel content is how you are going to get out the vote.



Category: Content Strategy Tags: , ,

About Mark Baker

I am an aspiring novelist and former technical writer and content strategist. On the technical side, I am the author of Every Page is Page One: Topic-based Writing for Technical Communication and the Web and Structured Writing: Rhetoric and Process. I blog at and tweet as @mbakeranalecta.

10 thoughts on “Content is a Republic

  1. avi

    I tend to think about content as a free market. A lot of us are creating content hoping to get something (from pleasure, via self improvement to an humble attempt to make a living) and the market has a sole say as to who get their hopes fulfilled.

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      Thanks for the comment, Avi.

      Indeed, the free market is a good analogy.

      For tech comm, the metaphor is particularly apt. We use to enjoy a virtually closed market: the only place people could get the product information they wanted was from us. Today that market is wide open and people do not have to come to us for content. We have to compete for their attention.

      But really this is true for almost every communication discipline. No one gets to ride the coattails of another commodity the way much of communication got to do in the past. Content has to compete on its own merits in an open market.

  2. Larry Kunz

    Your metaphor is dead on, Mark — although some days it feels like the world of content is pure anarchy.

    Ray Gallon (Humanist Nerd) recently debunked the idea of the Internet as an information superhighway, saying that it’s a field or a matrix. There are no origins and no destinations — instead, connections can be made between any point and any number of other points. That strikes me as very much in line with your metaphor of the republic, and very much reflective of reality.

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      Thanks for the comment, Larry, and for the pointer to Ray’s column. I have never liked the idea of the Web as an information superhighway. It suggest that the function of the web is to deliver things, which is all wrong. The web is not (except incidentally) a delivery mechanism, but a meeting place, a colloquium.

      Perhaps it is fair to call the internet an information superhighway, since the internet really is just about the delivery of bits. But just as highways create towns, the highways that is the internet creates the universal city that is the Web.

      And I agree that that is very much want makes content a republic.

  3. John Garison

    I see it more as a sea of content, and we are all afloat on it. There are places where the water is clear and clean, some deep, some shallow, and other places where it’s muddied and non-potable.

    Just as Every Page is Page One, Every Page Contains Content. The problem is that not all content is created equal, and we have a hard time sometimes discerning good from bad. I think I’m going to go back and re-read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and get more clarity on what Phaedrus has to say about Quality.

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      Thanks for the comment, John.

      Perhaps one of the clearest signs that content is a republic is that it is the task of the very content consumer to decide for themselves what is good content and what is bad content. Royal content was good content by definition, because the king said it was. With republican content, the reader has to judge for themselves.

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