Is Calling It “Content” Offensive?

colored pencils create art and content

I’ve been working on the web since 1995, and I’ve been calling the text, images, and media on web pages “content” since around that same time. I consider myself a writer and web designer. And in both of those roles I have worked as a content provider. I created graphics for the Netcom personal web page customers to use. I wrote documentation that went online. Later on in my career I’ve created videos and podcasts for web pages as well as all of the many documents I’ve written for About.com and other websites. Also, as a web designer and CMS builder, I have worked with other content providers to get their words, images, and media on websites.

So it surprised me when I read in an article recently that calling web page writing, images, and media “content” was somehow offensive. And calling the photographers, writers, artists, etc. who created that content “content creators” was somehow trivializing their efforts.

What are we supposed to call it? Sure, I am happy to refer to an individual as a writer or photographer or graphic artist. But when I’m referring to the portions of the web page outside of the design, layout, typography and so on, “content” is the most general term. And when referring to the people who build that content, “content creators” seems most accurate. After all, I don’t consider myself a graphic artist even if I have created graphics for web pages. I’m also not a photographer, even though I’ve posted photos that I’ve taken. But if I were to get photos from Ansel Adams, I wouldn’t call him a writer, even if he wrote descriptive text about his photos.

Being a Creative is Hard

You spend hours, days, weeks, or even months on a project and then your customers come and look at it for just a few seconds before pronouncing it “good” (or “bad”). You will get lots of positive comments and feedback but when you ask for even a fraction of the amount you spent to create your content, your customers look at you incredulously and seem to feel that you’re being unreasonable that you want to feed your children and pay your mortgage.

It’s especially difficult online, as many online companies pay little or nothing for the content, whatever form it takes. And there are always more and more novice writers, photographers, and artists who are happy to give their work away for the chance at “exposure.”

But this has always been the case. And while I don’t recommend working for free, lots of people will want you to.

Does the Name of Your Creativity Really Matter?

The fact is that whether you like it or not, “content” is the term that companies and website owners use to describe the elements of their pages that go beyond the design. It is not intended to offend anyone or belittle their efforts. It is just a generic term.

And in the web industry, this term is here to stay. There was  a time back around 2000-2005 when some companies were calling content “digital assets.” And they called the management tools “digital asset management” or DAM. But DAMs lost out to CMS (content management systems) and the items they were managing became “content.”

The trick is to keep enjoying creating whatever you create regardless of what it’s called. And hopefully you get paid for your content in more than just exposure.

What Do You Call Yourself or the People Who Create Content for Your Sites?

Is calling them “content creators” offensive to you? Let me know in the comments what you think. Personally, I call myself a writer and web designer as I mentioned, but I don’t mind being referred to as a content creator or creative when it comes up.

22 thoughts on “Is Calling It “Content” Offensive?

  1. Offensive? If you called some one an aardvark, that might be questionable. Calling someone a ‘content creator’ is innocuous. Taking offense could place the sensitive objector in a whole other category with pejorative meaning. Is it kind to call them ‘content creators’? Is it true? Is it helpful? I think yes to each question. No foul.

    1. Dave, if you want to call me an aardvark I’d be okay with that. 🙂 I do think that the term content creator is innocuous, at least in the fashion I use it. I think that some corporations use it, as I mentioned in my reply to Charlie, as a way to de-humanize the people who are doing the creative work so that they don’t feel too bad when they dump them for the next cheap or free creator.

  2. To some degree, it’s a matter of semantics. I think I may have read the same article you did about why calling it “content” diminishes our role as creators or artists or whatever we creative types call ourselves. As an author, I agree. I don’t want my books to be called “content,” because in my mind they’re not. As a web writer, I disagree, and some of that is simply because “content” is the word used to describe what we put into content management systems. In and of itself, the word is not meant to diminish what we write; it’s meant to identify how what we write fits as an element into the Web.

    I really believe it’s a matter of how it’s used. Some people call what we create “content” and us “content creators” as a way to deliberately diminish or trivialize what we do. In that sense, they’re speaking of our writing or art as something that merely fills space, so it doesn’t matter who makes it. It’s an attempt to justify using people who are not as highly qualified or willing to work for free. After all, if that content is there simply to fill space, does it really matter who makes it?

    1. Yes, yes YES! Any company that uses the term “content” as a deliberate way to marginalize the effort made by their writers, photographers, and artists is definitely using it in an offensive way.

      Unfortunately, I think the term “expert” is also gaining that stigma. More companies are referring to their writers as “experts” in an almost tongue-in-cheek fashion. And that is offensive as well.

  3. Speaking as someone with a background fairly similar to your own…

    “Content” is about as innocuous a description as I can imagine… a catch-all term that can describe any sort of media. But “content creator” has a number of connotations that are pretty troubling depending on context.

    When I hear “content creator” I think “hack who posts articles for free on HuffPo or steals people’s online photos to gather into clickbait articles on Buzzfeed.” As such, it’s fairly offense to refer to, say, a network of vetted subject-matter experts as “content creators.” It’s an accurate descriptor, but it’s also a lowest common denominator.

    1. Good point. I think that many larger content websites tend to want to generalize the people who create the content that they then sell into something less “expert” less “professional.” That way they can dump them at a drop of the hat. After all, there are always more where that cog came from.

    2. You make a great point in separating out the word “content” from “content creator.” Until you mentioned it, I hadn’t realized that the phrase “content creator” is what rankles me. I’m okay being a writer whose work is called content, but I’m not okay being called a “content creator.”

        1. Well, yes and no. Unfortunately, more than one organization I’ve contracted with is looking for “content creators.” Note the past tense, as in “do not cuttingly contract with.” 🙂

  4. To me, the term content has no negative connotations. However, the term “content creator” does, and smacks of “user generated content” or “community created content”. Not that user generated content is necessarily poor, but I think the impression it gives is “unvetted”.

  5. Content, when meaning everything as a whole, without being specific to one asset, is fine. Content creator is a new designation to me. If someone is talking about a group of individuals that have a part in creating the assets, then he should use “content creators”. However, when talking about one member of that group, it is best to use the proper title (designer, artist, etc.)

    1. That would be ideal. I think that what happens, especially in large companies, is that the managers get in the habit of calling the group “content creators” and then generalize even when talking to individual writers, designers, etc.

  6. I disagree with those who don’t object at all to the term content. As someone who came into writing for the web as a writer – not as a technology expert, or a food expert or any one of a number of other areas in which people use their own expertise on the internet – I think it’s belittling. It trivializes the expertise required to translate one’s professional expertise into words by suggesting that writing is not also a professional expertise. I know there is nothing I can do about it but as someone who:
    — has worked as a writer and journalist since we used manual typewriters to make newspapers
    — has two professional degrees in writing
    — and has seen the bad grammar and misspellings that pass for “content creation” on many websites
    I can’t help thinking that calling any writing online “content” trivializes it and by extention trivializes those of us who create it.
    So, yes, I’m offended but I consider it all part of the revenge of the nerds I’m afraid.

    1. True, and I understand you, but then what would you call the entire group of stuff posted on websites? I mean the writing, photography, art, etc. If calling all that content is offensive, then what should it be called?

      1. What we always called it in the days of journalism. The generalized term for all the stuff that was not advertising was simply called “editorial” – it was a general term that applied to opinion, fact, features, sports, recipes, how-tos, the lot. It was different from “the editorial” or “an editorial” which were ways to distinguish opinion pieces – the voice of the publication or of a contributor. And what are now referred to as content creators were, as you see, contributors. I think these older terms respect the individual who actually contributes the material rather than turning everything into a commodity.

        1. Editorial. Interesting. I wonder if we could bring that back? I’ve been called a contributor before, but editorial always brings to mind “opinion” to me. I see your distinction, but that’s the connotation I get anyway.

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