Content strategists are known for caring deeply about words. So it’s no surprise that when opinions on language start flying across the internet, we’re quick to take sides. It’s been happening a lot lately—most recently, for me, when a certain well-loved rabble-rouser tweeted loud about the terminology many of us use regularly:
In case you’re wondering when your soul left your body, it’s when you said “consume content.”
Imperfection is all right.
There’s nothing satisfying about saying we “consume content,” true. But the same is true for engage with, absorb, use, ravage, caress, suckle on, or whatever else others have suggested a thousand times before. Each option is unsatisfactory, limiting, or gross in its own special way.
Take “experience”—the most common response Erin Kissane got when she asked for a reasonable synonym on Twitter. That’s not only no less vague than consuming content, it also implies some sort of life-altering event is taking place: Once you experience content, you’ll never be quite the same, man. A bit lofty, if you ask me.
If you mean “read,” say so. If you mean “watch,” write that. Where precision is possible, we are fools not to embrace it. But if you need to convey something like, “use in some not-quite-pinpointable-way that could exist anywhere in the continuum between passive perusal and active enjoyment,” well, that just don’t roll off the tongue.
Thankfully, we have more at our disposal than an oft-imperfect language. We have context. Our audience’s expectations and vernacular, the time and place we use the words, and the way we explain them all play a role in conveying meaning.
Without context, “consuming content” sounds unpleasant and even gastrointestinally questionable. But in context, it may do just fine.
This is why I find it unsettling that content strategists and other web professionals—folks who really oughtta be up on that whole context thing—are drawing so many lines in the sand when it comes to language and word choice. We’re getting so fixated on calling out weaselwords and scoffing whenever someone says “leverage” that we’re failing to focus on what really matters: whether there’s any substance behind them. Whether the words are doing their job.
What are we unsucking?
Jargon is problematic because it tends to obfuscate meaning, shunning clarity in favor of easy one-liners. It’s often found in sneaky, salesy places—in content that weasels and lies, that disguises its shallowness with heavy-handed metaphors.
That’s why there’s nothing more satisfying than a romp through the fertile fields of Unsuck It, Mule Design’s pet project to define bad business jargon, skewer it relentlessly, and suggest a more meaningful alternative:
There’s a marketing team skull session tomorrow on the fallout from having Mel Gibson as the celebrity spokesperson for the new product line.
Anyone who uses phrases like that with neither irony nor a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach is an unequivocal douche, true. And for this, I’ve long loved the site. But now we’re also calling out any word that’s overused or potentially ambiguous as needing to be unsucked.
Take, for example, the sample sentence for “holistic”:
To get the best ROI marketers must move towards incorporating a holistic approach to include assists across the marketing funnel.
Here, the word is not the problem. That atrociously BS-laden sentence wrapped around it is.
The word “holistic” is a fine word, originating with J.C. Smuts* in the 1920s in the book Holism and Evolution to refer to whole objects as more than the sum of their parts. It’s now used in all kinds of fields, such as medicine, where it means that humans are treated not just for specific ailments, but as complete entities—whole beings.
The same concept works for content strategy: we can look at the content we create as a single body, and the goals of each piece of content as part of a single overarching goal. There’s nothing sneaky, necessarily, about this label. It’s just that there are many more people talking about a “holistic content strategy” than actually working on one.
On ownership and appropriation
Our language troubles don’t end with jargon. Just as holism has been appropriated by many industries for many purposes, our field is replete with words that have been appropriated from other disciplines and times and repurposed for today’s work.
Curation. Narrative. Architecture. Storytelling. I’ve heard complaints about web folk taking up these terms for some time now, like the one shown at right from my whipsmart friend Nicole Jones.
Thing is, I don’t buy that appropriating terms like these is a weasely act. Done right, it helps us create shared understanding when defining emerging technologies, practices, and media. Moreover, it’s a totally normal way that language evolves. Think: horsepower, webpage, tablet.
Appropriation may be normal, but it’s not necessarily neutral. As anyone with a couple undergraduate credits in multicultural studies can tell you, appropriation becomes problematic when one group uses it to co-opt, disempower, or delegitimizate another. Think: the entire concept of blackface.
This has always worried me. After all, I don’t want to exploit or parody the complex work of museum curators and fiction writers. I simply want to use a shared vocabulary to explain what I do and why it’s important to colleagues, friends, and clients.
So where does the difference lie?
Hate the weasel, not the words
When words are used to enhance meaning, enable critical discussion, help clients understand important concepts, or otherwise push the boundaries of our profession forward, they are not weaselwords. And I don’t think the occasional “content consumption” or “holistic” tossed in prevents anyone from doing so.
Let’s all stop placing blame on the words and place it directly where it belongs: on the weasels who use them carelessly and nefariously. Who appropriate language not to add clarity, but to take it away. Who arm their content with buzzwords and bon mots to obfuscate its meaning—or, perhaps worse, to cover up the fact that it has none.
Telling people on the internet that they’re doing it wrong is easy. But when we stop labeling words as right or wrong and start scratching a bit deeper, we’ll weed out something much more important than a buzzword. We’ll expose the people who aren’t adding to our collective understanding of the work we do and why we do it.
Perhaps even more important, when caring, thoughtful people are chastised for simply uttering a word that’s over- or misused, we’re giving those words away to people who don’t deserve them. We’re letting the weasels win.
Love words. Use them well. Fight like hell for clear language and meaningful communication. But if someone’s holistic approach to content strategy doesn’t happen to leverage the word choice you approve of, maybe it’s time to chill out for a moment. Maybe, like language, it’s more complicated than that.
*Lest we be too kind to Smuts, it’s important to note that he also dabbled in pre-apartheid South African racial segregation movements.