Monday 16th April 2012by Jennifer 8. Lee
I was on a panel at SXSW 2012 called “Content and Code != Commodities,” which tried to explain and bridge the cultural gap between technologists and media-ist. Below is some of the thinking that inspired the panel and a modified version of the deck presentation on Slideshare. (There are some reports about our panel, including this entry at IBM’s website)
Here’s the problem: coders see content as “stuff” and code as “art” (“Go find some writers off of Craiglist.” Or “We’ll do user-generated content! Yay.” While creators (writers, artists) see code as “stuff” and content as “art.” (“Oh, just hire some developers to build a website.”)
This is a hazardous attitude, because you end up seeing the other side as a commodity, and interchangeable. When they really are not. You can’t attract talented folks if you view what they do as a commodity. The Internet is littered with the detritus of projects which failed in part because of that (some of which I have witnessed first-hand.)
Hanging out in Silicon Valley, I began to develop a deeper understanding of technology’s view of content. It’s about low-touch and scale, where scale comes from quantity. Tech companies love measuring content. You’ll note that YouTube’s first press stat is about hours of video uploaded every minute and Twitter has this metric of Tweets per second. People in technology love measuring content because it’s something they can grasp. It’s objective. It’s quantifiable.
This sign below is from a technology company trying to become more media-centric, trying to educate the programmer-types about the importance of content. They do it partly through emphasizing the large numbers.
Then below, the sign has an explanation as to what content is: “Content includes things like published articles, professional videos and photos. It doesn’t include home movies or party pics.” It’s telling that they have to point out the difference between professionally produced creative content and user-generated material, for fear that people see it as interchangeable.
In Silicon Valley, when you talk about a project, they always ask, “How are you going to scale that?”
On the other hand, the creators’ view of content (the media industry) is that it’s high-touch, about craft, and scale comes from quality—having a hit (Hunger Games, Harry Potter, Mad Men). Getting that hit is idiosyncratic. It’s about that 1 percent (really the 1 percent of the 1 percent).
Essentially every meaningful media vertical is about high-touch: television, reporting, art, magazines, movies, publishing, music. The creative process is very relationship-based, trust-based, and yes, often seemingly inefficient, as a result. My technology friends are always incredulous when I explain to them the process by which books are sold and come to market. Even with the explosion of self-publishing, much of the book industry is still driven by literary agents connecting writers with editors, often involving a lot of lunches and knowing to an intimate degree what editors like which projects. And no, this doesn’t scale very well. That’s why media companies have poor valuations compared to tech companies.
So it’s been really fascinating watching tech companies shift to a more media (high touch) mindset. The best example is YouTube investing $100 million (or so) in premium content via partner channels. Talking to my Hollywood and creator friends who are interacting with them, the culture gap is palpable. Another example is Quora. It has a mindset of a tech and product company, when I think it should really see itself more with a media bent (the stuff that matters is the top 1 percent — or the top 1 percent of the top 1 percent — and motivating them).
This gap in attitude between technology and creators really hit me when I was at a YCombinator demo day a while back. One startup told the audience they aimed to be the “Demand Media of ebooks.” Sitting in the audience as a writer, I was absolutely horrified. The last thing in the world I would want to do, as a writer, is to work for a company that saw my craft as a low-class assembly line process. But my VC friend, who was also in the audience (incidentally whom I knew from my college paper), explained to me that that pitch was directed at investors. Demand Media had just gone public. So they understood it as an exit. It was a very direct appeal.
I remember sitting there and thinking, “Oh wow, these are not my people.”
To be sure, since then, the startup has changed its attitude towards the creation of content to value talent more. Simultaneously, Google’s adjustment in its ranking algorithms has appropriately chastised Demand Media for its low-quality content. Hah.)
Of course, journalismy folks are guilty too of seeing the programming primarily as a technician’s job. One of the more interesting examples was this posting from Ezra Klein on Wonk Blog looking for politics-obsessed programmers.
It sounds really exciting, but then you click through and you get this dry job description. The responsibilities include participating “in system testing efforts to ensure proper operation of systems and freedom from defects” and collaborating “with IT staff and clients to establish Service Level and Operating Level Agreements that set measurable IT serve and system performance expectations.” Not terribly motivating.
But recently, with my work with Hacks/Hackers, a worldwide group that tries to bring technologists and journalists together, I came to realize creators and developers are more alike than they realize. In fact, they have the same overarching motivation.
Both groups want to work with smart people on interesting problems that have impact.
In other words, both sides are motivated by their craft and a desire to feel that an audience is experiencing their work, whether though prose or programming. This is my tiny content version of unified field theory. Of course, you have to wrangle with what the definitions of what an “interesting problem” is (crowd-sourced investigative reporting? real-time distribution of millions of units of content? innovative user experiences?) and what “having impact” is (Congressional hearings! Hundreds of millions of users! Having a huge audience). This observation is a version of Paul Graham’s lovely essay about hackers have more in common with painters than they do with computer science academics.
And both sides want to work with people they respect.
So that is the challenge you have to pose to the other side to motivate them and get them to join you in whatever project you want. So here are some thoughts we had on our panel on how to do that:
• Where you sit in the organization — geographically and on the org chart — says a lot. If you respect content or technology, it should be reflected in the geography of the newsroom (or whatever) and who reports to whom.
• State things in terms of problems that need to be solved, rather than solutions that you are ordering the other side to do. (I was recently chastised for this when I wanted a WordPress installation and the tech folks forced me to distill down what problem I was trying to solve).
Speak in a language that the other side understands.
• In talking to developers/engineers/programmers/coders/hackers (whatever you want to call them), appreciate the art in coding/programming Someone once told me that Sanjay Ghemawat, Google Fellow behind many things that make Google great, wrote “code that was like poetry.” I thought that was a beautiful expression. His code was elegant, minimalist, but got the point across and really pushed boundaries.
• When speaking to creative types, the part of scale to emphasize is about audience, not about the process of creating content. We don’t go into media because our primary motivation is to get rich. Seriously, there are much more reliable ways to make money in this world. We go into writing (or music or movie-making) because we have something we want to say to the world. And as much as technology can help us say what we want to say to the world, that’s awesome. (YouTube, Twitter, Tumblr). I am always suspicious of technology types who suddenly decide they want to go into content (I get asked to have coffee all the time to talk about business models, ideas). I always push to ask them what their motivation is, to see if they “get” us. If they don’t love content, they are going to have trouble down the line — whether in recruiting or audience.
• “Content” is a terrible word. In addition, one of the worst terms to emerge in the last decade or so is “content management system” (CMS). As the Washington Post ombudsman wrote: “It reduces the heart and soul of journalism — stories, photos, graphics, the news — into generic ‘content,’ something akin to the unidentifiable filling in a Twinkie. Ick.” WordPress, you’ll notice, does not call itself a CMS. It calls itself a semantic personal publishing platform with a focus on aesthetics, web standards, and usability. At the startup I work with, Upworthy, the “content folks” are called “Editorial,” which is much more dignified.
• Acknowledge contribution through bylines and credits. Really, the only high quality place that can get away with not giving bylines these days is The Economist.
And the last point, a general piece of advice for both sides, is to ask “What problem am I solving for the user?”
Anyway, here is a distilled and modified version of the slide deck (if it loads. I’ve had problems getting it to load as an embed). If it doesn’t load, click through to here: Content and Coding are Not Commodities. SXSW 2012 Presentation