When nearly everyone in the US was being asked to shelter in place at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, in April 2020, Florida’s governor Ron DeSantis held a press conference to address what he perceived to be a serious problem: the lack of new content. “People have been starved for content,” he said. “We haven’t had a lot of new content since the beginning of March … we need to support content, especially sports.” On this basis, DeSantis declared that alongside medical personnel and employees working at pharmacies and grocery stores, employees of professional sports and media production companies could return to work.
To rationalize his positioning of content as an essential service, DeSantis appealed to both history and psychology. First, he observed, “We’ve never had a period like this in modern American history where you’ve had such little new content, particularly in the sporting realm. I mean, people are watching, we’re watching, like, reruns from the early 2000s, watching Tom Brady do the Super Bowl then.” Second, he speculated, content might ease the pain of people who are “chomping at the bit,” and even have a positive psychological impact: “To be able to have some light at the end of the tunnel … see that things may get back on a better course—I think from just a psychological perspective I think is a good thing.” DeSantis’s press conference garnered considerable attention, but his claims provoked many questions.
DeSantis didn’t define “modern American history,” but even if he were referencing a relatively short period—let’s say, 2010 to 2020—his statement about the unprecedented lack of content in the midst of the COVID-19 lockdown was certainly false. From all accounts, we’re producing so much more content now than just a few years ago, even a significant disruption would be unlikely to leave us with less new content than at any other time.
During the COVID-19 lockdown, content production didn’t decrease—quite the opposite. As billions of people around the world found themselves stranded at home, the production of content surged alongside the demand for it. On the one hand, established sites from Facebook to YouTube saw significant spikes in traffic as the lockdown was imposed. Several newer and less well-known content providers and platforms also experienced growth during this period, as people who normally do their work in person (e.g., yoga instructors, history professors, professional musicians, and so on) searched for viable ways to produce and share content online.
However, DeSantis didn’t simply claim that we were witnessing an unprecedented decline in content. He also claimed that creating content should be viewed as an essential service—something vital to Floridians’ health and wellness—for psychological reasons. At least some Florida residents and businesses appeared to agree. Even the World Wrestling Federation (WWF), which records its Monday Night Raw programs from a studio in Orlando, echoed the governor’s suggestion. As one WWF spokesperson declared, “WWF and its Superstars bring families together and deliver a sense of hope, determination and perseverance.” Still, many onlookers were left wondering why content, including the type of content produced by the WWF, was being considered essential during a pandemic. After all, no evidence suggests that new content necessarily promotes hope or resilience. In fact, at least some evidence suggests that excessive screen time, which generally includes consumption of new content, may have detrimental effects.
As someone who happened to be finishing writing a book about content at the time of DeSantis’s press conference, I was also left with a few additional questions. How could DeSantis claim that we’d never before had a period of modern history with so little content when the concept of content is itself relatively recent? What turn of events had led an elected government official to view content production as essential—something to be prioritized alongside access to food or health services? And how could something so ambiguously defined and misunderstood be positioned as vital to our ability to carry on in the face of adversity?
DeSantis’s press conference may have been one of the more absurd episodes to unfold on the political stage during the COVID-19 crisis, but for the purposes of my book, Content, it is by no means insignificant. The governor was certainly wrong to conclude that “we’ve never had a period like this in modern American history” and likely wrong to argue a positive correlation between new content and psychological well-being. Even so, he may have gotten one thing right: there at least appears to be a constant demand for new content.
We no longer live in a world where newspapers arrive on our doorstep once a day. Many people now expect news updates all day long. Likewise, television isn’t something we tune in to on certain days of the week at certain times to watch certain episodes. Many people expect to have constant access to new content on streaming platforms like Netflix and Hulu. The same holds true for the content we produce ourselves. Imagine how disconcerted we would be to wake up and log on to Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram and find not a single new update. After all, notwithstanding a truly apocalyptic event, when would that ever happen on social media? Like it or not, content has become an integral part of our lives. Many people even expect new content 24/7 and 365 days of the year.
But what exactly is content? Who produces it? Why and how did it come to be viewed as “essential”? And how will content continue to structure our economy, culture, politics, and everyday lives in the future?
Content isn’t necessarily data, even if the two terms are frequently used interchangeably. Some argue that this is because content is contextualized information and data is not. Others argue that while content conveys a message (in words or images or sound), data does not. Yet, there are many examples of content (for example, the Instagram egg: a stock photo that was posted on Instagram with no purpose other than to become the most widely circulated image on the platform) that convey no obvious message at all.
Given such vexing problems, attempts to define content seem to lead to only the most imperfect operational definitions—for example, “all the stuff that circulates online”—but this too isn’t quite right. Does a classic film streamed online rather than projected in a movie theater become content simply because of the context? It seems that content isn’t just context specific but also subject to the eye of the beholder. A film studies scholar would likely not refer to French New Wave filmmaker Agnès Varda’s vast trove of films as content, but I suspect many executives at Netflix and Amazon Prime would.
Put simply, while a lot of content is produced simply to circulate (e.g., an article written for a website built solely to generate revenue from advertisements), the content industry is also adept at appropriating existing texts, images, moving images, and recordings. This is also what makes content potentially dangerous. Many classifications we have long taken for granted—for example, those used to understand genres and formats—are quickly coming undone. Perhaps most troubling, however, is the extent to which the all-encompassing concept of content is also dismantling the even more critical boundary between fact and fiction, information and disinformation, and what is true and fake. To appreciate the far-reaching impacts of this shift, one need only consider how the rise of content has already affected journalism, and by extension, the media sphere that supports any functioning democracy.
As print journalism has gone into decline (between 2004 and 2018, the US lost over 1,800 daily and weekly newspapers), online news venues have flourished. Although many are digital versions of existing printed publications, this doesn’t mean they simply mirror their printed counterparts.
What exactly is content? How will content continue to structure our economy, culture, politics, and everyday lives in the future?
Between 2010 and 2016, for example, the number of stories, graphics, interactives, and blog posts published in the New York Times spiked 35 percent. The reason is simple: online publications are expected to publish much more content. Turning out more content, typically with fewer resources and staff, however, isn’t easy. So even reputable newspapers now publish more opinion pieces, and while some are written by professional journalists, many are not. Hard news—that is, serious, fact-based reporting on politics, foreign affairs, and so on—still exists, but it is no longer the default, even in the best publications. As Victor Pickard observes in Democracy without Journalism?, the value of the current US media system (and, one might argue, the current media system around the world) is now “largely determined by ratings, clicks, and profitability.” Said differently, for reputable news venues to survive, they need to function like clickbait sites: to be able to generate a high number of views, clicks, and by extension, advertising-based revenue. But this isn’t the only way content is affecting journalism and, in turn, politics.
As became apparent during the 2016 US Presidential election, online posts that appear to be news but are only partially or not at all true have also become a great way to generate revenue. This explains why at least some of the fake news produced during the 2016 election was circulated by individual entrepreneurs, including an enterprising group of Macedonian teenagers who barely spoke any English and weren’t even interested in the election’s outcome.
In short, since the rise of the content industry, established journalistic institutions have struggled to survive and been forced to produce news that functions like content. At the same time, material that holds the appearance of news but often contains no newsworthy information has offered a way for online entrepreneurs to generate income (in a sense, propaganda is now also highly profitable). Unsurprisingly, the content industry’s role in blurring the line between fact and fiction and information and disinformation is also influencing democracy.
If everyone were highly media literate, the current situation might not be a crisis. But sadly, this isn’t the case. According to a 2018 Pew Research Study, most adult readers in the US struggle to consistently separate opinion from fact. This finding doesn’t offer much hope that the general public, which now accesses much of its news via social media feeds, is necessarily able to easily distinguish between reputable fact-based articles and disinformation. If there is any doubt that this is already having consequences for democracy, consider what Governor Ron DeSantis is up to now.
Two years after DeSantis held the press conference to declare content and content producers essential, he held another notable press conference. This time, however, it was to celebrate his new “Don’t say gay” bill, which bans using the word “gay” in Florida schools. The ban owes much to the rise of the content industry.
There is nothing new about the belief that talking about gays leads to an uptick in the conversion of innocent children to the homosexual lifestyle (such vitriol has been around for many years). Still, the success of DeSantis’s recently passed law may have less to do with homophobic legacies than it does with the recent increase in disinformation. In early March 2022, DeSantis press secretary Christina Pushaw posted a statement on her Twitter account that appeared to directly echo a theory also being widely circulated on QAnon forums and other right-wing sites. “If you’re against the Anti-Grooming Bill,” she wrote, “you’re probably a groomer or at least you don’t denounce the grooming of 4-8 year old children. Silence is complicity.” The claim that anyone who fails to support DeSantis’s “Don’t say gay” law essentially is a pedophile may sound like a fringe declaration (and it is), but in an age of content, such claims are by no means destined to remain on the margins of the web.
In a nation where a shockingly high number of adults struggle to separate opinion from fact and anyone can easily recirculate even the most absurd content on multiple digital media channels 24/7, the wall between fact and fiction has become dangerously porous. And this is the real problem with content and the content industry. Most of what is classified as content is unproblematic. Unfortunately, when everything holds the potential to be lumped together and classified that way, the tendency to accept disinformation and misinformation as news, fact, and truth is also dangerously amplified.
This essay has been excerpted and adapted from Content, MIT Press, 2022.