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Malcontent

By Geoff Hart | STC Fellow

Of late, a new buzzword has been circulating around the technical communication community like a bee in search of flowers to pollinate: content. “What’s content?” you may be wondering. Content can be defined as information destined for written, visual, or spoken expression—indeed, for expression in any medium, since the ideal is to create information once and then communicate it in as many media as possible. I confess to being glad that someone finally applied jargon to the concept. It would have been sad if we technical communicators continued using content, as we’ve been doing since the dawn of our profession, without actually noticing what we were doing.

You’ve undoubtedly heard the hoary phrase that “change is the only constant.” To update that phrase, I’d venture to state that content has become the only constant—since the goal is to create something constant that you can then reuse ad nauseam. But content changes too fast to be constant, making this, at best, an uncomfortable neologism. Actually, I’m dismayed to think I may have just committed a meta-idiom, or perhaps an outright paradox, whose content simultaneously includes the concept of stability and the concept of change. Perhaps it’s best not to go there, and to let sleeping idioms lie.

As in any other young field—or perhaps any old field that’s been rechristened—there’s contention over the meaning of content. Predictably, a great many pundits have tried to stake out their territories in such a way as to create a market advantage by demonstrating the incompetence of their competitors. As a result, content is everywhere you look. Indeed, advocates of this new direction for technical communication are themselves full of it and eager to generate more.

Content, with emphasis on the first syllable, places perhaps too much emphasis on the con. But spoken with emphasis on the second syllable, it refers to a state of satisfaction, or a state of mind, as in the neologistic phrase contentis mentis—etymologically, a state of contentment over content. I’m good with that. It’s better than being written off as just another malcontent (non contentis mentis). After all, even Richard III knew that the “winter of our discontent” would eventually be made glorious summer by appropriate content.

What is the working technical communicator to do while others debate and fill the Web with alt-content? Keep calm and carry on with the business of communicating with our various audiences. It’s what we do, and what we’ll keep doing long after something else has replaced content as our obsession du jour.

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