Let’s Not Talk about Content or Its Consumption

Shawn Blanc brings up something that’s been bothering me for the past few years: consuming content.

We say “consuming content” as a way to sum up the act of reading, listening, viewing, and other ways of taking in various forms of media and entertainment. We keep using that phrase. I do not think it means what we think it means.

Consume (verb): eat, drink, or ingest (food or drink); buy; use up.

Content (noun): everything that is included in a collection and that is held or included in something.

I don’t like either of those words when applied to art. They are both lazy and unspecific words that are used as a sort of shorthand for “the stuff people do on computers and iPads” and it generally implies that we’re not exactly sure what that is yet.


As Shawn points out, to consume something is to use it up. When we read a book or look at a work of art or read a post on the Web, we are not rendering it unfit for other’s enjoyment, we are not using it up. Talking about consumers w.r.t. art, literature, or journalism is an appropriation from the field of economics. We talk about consuming goods in an economic transaction because when we buy things we use up some or most of their value. Once used, they are worth less from an economic standpoint than they were when new. Even so, the term is useful only in talking about purchasing in the abstract: global consumption of electronic goods, or consumer price indexes. In the specific, however, we watch a television, drive a car, or use a computer, we don’t consume them.

It’s telling that this vague term is only applied to content or sometimes as a verb without an object, as in people are using their iPads for consumption. Although even here the word content is implied. Again, vague and uncertain. Are they reading or watching a movie? Playing a game or browsing the Web? Are they writing? Be specific. If you can’t be more specific than that, maybe you need to think harder about what it is you’re trying to say.


To aggregate specific art forms under the term “content” assumes that art is fungible, that words and images can, like water, be poured from one container to the next without any fundamental alteration of their nature. This is untrue, as anyone who has posted a magazine article to the web or collected blog posts into an anthology will tell you. The same goes for a images: the jpeg on the Web or the CMYK reproduction in a magazine are related but different instances of a physical object (like the drawing or painting they are based on). The same is true if the image is created electronically from the start: an infographic or webcomic created entirely on a computer is very different when viewed on screen as opposed to in print. They are perceived differently by the viewer, created differently by the artist, and are composed of different materials. Is the content the platonic ideal of the image? What about text? An author writes a blog post which she expands into a magazine article, then into a book. Which is the content? Is it the original idea that informs all three? Or are they all separate instances of content? If so, better to refer to the idea, post, article, or book. Because it makes a difference. Each of these iterations of the author’s idea have different characteristics, different presentations, and different expectations from the reader. Some are physical, some electronic. If you treat them all the same, as content, it implies you are not aware of these differences or that you don’t understand them.

I draw and paint on paper using pen, ink, and watercolor. I then scan and publish my work on this web site. People then visit and read this graphic novel, or if you prefer, webcomic. Occasionally, I write a blog post like this one. There is art and there is commentary, but there is no content and there are certainly no consumers.

A comic page

One thought on “Let’s Not Talk about Content or Its Consumption

  1. Good post, Don. Art has been so horribly in our public schools for so long that I honestly don’t blame people for getting sucked into this mentality. Underfunded and under supported teachers aren’t at fault here, either. Until the entire system changes for decades, we’re stuck with this (as well as other inaccurate thought).

    Producers of the news and entertainment media, however, could certainly help by not going out of their way to be stupid. Even there, getting ratings with as little effort as possible often leads to bad reporting — which gets converted to “fact” in undereducated people.

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