What is Content?


A couple months back, Deane Barker wrote an article where he declared himself a Content Management Professional. This is a true statement by every definition of the term I have ever encountered. If that was all there was to it, this would be a boring post.

Deane then made the mistake of defining Content.

I can’t really fault Deane because I am going to make the same mistake in a few paragraphs. Everyone in the Content Profession eventually writes about the very nature of the work we are doing. Some do it to establish a reputation as a leader. Others do it in order to support a point.

I do it out of hope that by coming to some sort of agreement, we can better solve the Content problem.

Content as Edited Information

To Deane’s credit, he put out a concrete definition of Content that made me think that he had hit the nail on the head…at first.

Content is information created for human consumption which is subject to editorial processes.

While one may argue that “created for human consumption” is a tad grandiose and unnecessary, the editorial process component was intriguing. I was almost sold. Then he hit his examples and he lost me. Let’s talk about the invoice.

An invoice is Content. It is a collection of Data that is then presented in a Context that gives it both added meaning and complexity. The Data isn’t even simple as there are sinter-connection of entities (buyer and seller) and parent-child relationships (invoice and line items). Even the logo adds Context.

An invoice is Content. I could argue that it is consumed by humans (as CIO I consumed many invoices) and that it is edited (a short cycle, but they are still written by hand in places), those don’t define Content.

So what does?

Data versus Content

It has frequently been said that Data and Content are types of Information. While I think that is true, it is overly simplistic.

After all, what differentiates Data from Content?

Data is a single piece of Information that can clearly be labeled. The label and the value don’t need more clarification.

My first name is ‘Laurence’ and my last name is ‘Hart’. That is Data.

A thesis statement can be Data as well. If someone asks you for a thesis statement on a paper, you should be able to recite one. If they ask you what it means, that takes more effort.

Content is Information that requires Context in order to derive its full meaning and value.

That thesis statement becomes Content the minute understanding of the value is sought. In fact, when it is taken from the Context of the rest of the paper, it loses meaning.

Let’s take that invoice. If I told you that it had a hammer listed on it, that is just a piece of Data. If I also told you that there was 30 pieces of lumber, 2 boxes of nails, and a book on how to build decks, there is enough Context to derive additional meaning.

Forget “Unstructured”

Many will argue that Data is highly structured Information and that Content has less structure. My English teachers would disagree with you. Every sentence has a structure that can be charted. Every word has a place and a specific function. You can create a data model to fully break down everything I have ever written into a highly structured database with no more than one word per field.

It would be nearly worthless.

The words, by themselves, are not the valuable part of what I write. It is how they all work together in context. Even the images play a part in setting tone or in offering a second line of commentary.

Let’s look at more of Deane’s examples.

  • Log File: That could be Data. It is typically stored in a file as that is a more efficient. It is also something where the Context of the different lines provides Context. I would argue that a log file over a defined set of time can be construed as Content. What would be a normal line in the log becomes more valuable if there is an error two lines later.
  • Number 9: This is data. It represent 9 of whatever label is applied to it. In this blog post, it is part of the Content, but it is not Content unto itself any more that the word “applied” was in the previous sentence.

Being a Content Professional

My career has been about managing Information that requires Context to have meaning. This Content has come in many shapes and sizes. Sometimes I have managed the editorial process, other times I have just managed the final outcome. Regardless, I have always tried to make sure that the Information that people entrusted to my systems was provided to them as needed.

Deane’s career is not much different. While he has focused much more heavily in the world of the Web, he has spent his career making sure that people could create, find, and use Information in the proper Context. He has lived in a different Content world than I have, but the importance of making sure that all the correct Information is presented in the proper Context is the same.

One thought on “What is Content?

  1. In my opinion one can consider content in three fundamental contexts:
    1 Raw data
    2 Information i.e. Data in context
    3 Knowledge i.e. Information with experience

    So raw data is text or a numeric item that has no meaning in isolation e.g. 4
    If one labels the raw data in such a way that it adds value e.g. 4 parts per million alcohol then that becomes information
    If we take it to the next level where alcohol level exceeds 2 parts per million the one is considered drunk this is knowledge.

    This means that to manage content effectively data needs to be considered in context to make it purposeful. Other content then needs to be gathered and associated with the data in context to have it contribute to informed decision making.

    This is my view of putting content into context.

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