There are four c-words that have become very problematic: content, culture, community, and creator.
Building “a community that provides content to creators to champion the culture” is nice alliteration, but it’s not an idea. It’s word salad.
As language becomes diluted, we are even more hard-pressed to use it clearly. Yet trying to push against a culture that readily accepts everything as “content” or “community” is like a kid charging headlong into the ocean — there’s a good chance they will end up right where they started, just a little more beat up.
When you can’t use the empty c-words, you’ll generate real language to make your ideas specific and clear. When you can avoid calling your work “content,” you give yourself a fighting chance to build something significant.
I have a specific beef with the word content as it directly affects my work and my industry; it’s an unfortunate oil spill that has spread across the entire ecosystem. When someone views me as a “content creator,” they’ve already diminished my work and reduced my pay. They’ve locked me into a specific output and function.
The conflation between art and content has been an abysmal failure — and a lesson in language — that seems irreversible. My way of staying sane is by simply calling myself a writer. If someone asks what I write about, I send them my portfolio, and that always opens up a much bigger conversation beyond content.
Sadly, most of us have been trained to view anything in a box as content:
- A journalistic photograph that’s shocking people to pay attention? Content.
- Whatever you’re watching on YouTube? Content.
- What did Netflix just release? New content.
- How will we attract new customers? Human content.
- Why do you love Peloton? The bike and their content (this is actually a true definition of content; it’s on a screen, produced by the brand, and in sync with the product).
You don’t go to The Met or the Guggenheim to look at content. As Susan Sontag said: “Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art… Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all.”
What we say influences what we make and put out into the world. Imagine yourself at the end of your life, looking back at all you’ve done. Did you live a full and beautiful life producing … content?
My friend Jocelyn K. Glei said the best bit about the problematic word “content” in an interview we did together in 2018 (emphasis mine):
“Content is a word that was invented by people who want to create boxes that they can sell ads around, and they had to come up with a name for what goes in the box, and that word was “content.”
In other words, if you’re using the word “content” that means you really don’t have a vision for what you’re making. Because creating good content requires specificity: It requires a point of view and strong writing and the right package to frame it, to catch someone’s attention, and to inspire trust.
This is no easy task.”
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“Community” is another word that’s slowly being diluted. It’s an attractive word. It sounds good to our ears and looks good on a page. At the heart of community is an assumption of belonging and shared values.
These days, almost any group of people is called a community. But that’s inaccurate.
I ascribe to the principles laid out by my friends at People & Co. They’ve built all kinds of communities — for writers, cooks, activists, runners, and with global brands — and the one element present in various communities is the shared activity:
“In other words, kindred spirits operating in silos aren’t a community (yet!). What makes a successful shared activity is three things: it’s purposeful, it’s participatory, and it’s repeatable.”
When a community self-organizes, it’s even better — individuals in the group are clear about the practices and intentions and raise their hands to lead. They are given the power to lead. They can host a gathering anywhere, any time. A book club is a prime example of community.
SXSW is not a community, it’s a conference. There aren’t mini SXSW events. It’s a one-time event and then it’s gone. My guess about why tech companies love the word community — or even the word “human” in any of their strategies or marketing — is because it’s an industry that built a reputation on hacking or manipulating human nature.
Calling the folks who download your app a community sounds a lot better than calling them users. It’s a buzzword and buzzwords make you seem like you’re in the — oh god — “culture.”
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Culture can be defined as “people like us do things like this.”
But there are various cultures all colliding and cross-pollinating these days.
There is (an) American culture of individuality and hard work.
There is sneakerhead culture.
There’s hip-hop culture.
There are workplace cultures.
There is cancel culture.
“It should be called ‘a culture’ or ‘this culture’, because there is no universal culture, no ‘us’ that defines all of us.” — Seth Godin
Yet the undertone in using the word culture sounds all-encompassing (like the words content or community).
Startups and founders are emboldened by the idea that, “We’re here to change the culture of X.” X = anything. Sparkling drinks, investing, remote work, healthcare, etc.
Like the word community, culture is a flag to raise as a rallying cry. Attempts to change a culture is a grand mission indeed, one that can immediately inspire employees and investors. But with so many statements of self-delusion and grandiosity, there is rarely a bridge between accountability and impact.
This isn’t to say that you should completely avoid using the word. Rather than claiming the value of changing or contributing to culture, use it as a moving target. Keep yourself honest.
As the everyday consumer gets smarter — and more familiar with industry language — people will smell bullshit. If you claim to build a culture but there’s nothing actually there, it’s damaging to your reputation. You’re suddenly the emperor who has no clothes, and you will lose the trust and permission to do it again.
And if you make claims in participating in a culture — e.g., sustainability in fashion, using less plastic, hiring BIPOC students, or supporting local farms — you better have proof. Because real culture change cannot be left in a bin of buzzwords.
We rarely change our behaviors for the better through our own will; change is easier because a group of people that we belong to and identify with are practicing new behaviors that signal the future we want to live in. We then emulate those same behaviors. Language that was used in television 10 years ago would be, well, canceled today. That’s a change in culture. Through time and consistency, it becomes the new standard.
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Let’s talk about the last c-word that makes me cringe: “creator,” or calling people “creatives.” Oof. There is nothing so depraved as labeling someone a creative when the reality is every human being is creative or has the innate capacity to be creative.
Shorthand, generalizations are useful for creating immediate impressions and getting on a familiar page. But they don’t build a connection.
An exercise in empathy helps me realize this: Many people are uncomfortable with identifying as artists. It feels … grandiose. Stuffy. Old world. The mental associations with the word “artist,” it seems, belong to figures like Warhol, Beyonce, Patti Smith, and Kehinde Wiley.
But creator feels neutral. Less intimidating and more broad, enabling safety in ambiguity and fluidity of identity. A creator can be anything. If you’re a creator of YouTube videos, memes, or illustrations, this title may feel more fitting than artist.
Can you imagine tech claiming to support and invest in the “artist” economy? Doesn’t ring. People would run in the other direction. A large population already identified as creators in early 2011, then tech started building products around this group of people — Patreon, OnlyFans, Substack, Creator Programs, etc. — hence, an economy.
My challenge is to define what it is you really want to say. Try: Photographer. Writer. Art director. Filmmaker. Videographer. 3D animator. Illustrator. Architect. Motion designer. Textile designer. By bringing clarity, you also ascribe worth to the work you do.
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I admit: Managing semantics can feel pedantic and futile.
I’ll throw in the towel for “creator".
The only time I’m ruthless about definitions is when a client project is signed and ready to kick off. I remember one experience, when the CMO believed brand and marketing were the same thing. (Psst: They are absolutely not the same thing.) This mismatch in definitions caused chaos among the teams. When you are adamant about clear language, it asserts your expertise and also builds trust with the client. It gives your project a real, fighting chance.
Lazy language is a sign that you don’t really know what you’re making or who you’re making it for. It means you really don’t have a point of view (yet! That’s okay —you can develop one). But the moment you succumb to using all of the c-words, slow down.
These c-words are a safe place to hide, and what all new projects need — companies, books, products, etc. — is courage to name what they are and what they want to become. Don’t set yourself up for failure by using fluffy words like content and community. Working around this language will make your ideas stronger and give them a fighting chance to resonate in the world.
In my attempt to develop and define my own work and worth, I’ve begun to ask myself the following questions before I begin any project:
What is it for?
It’s the simplest question. In my experience, people don’t ask this question (of themselves or of others) early enough. What is this project for? Is it to create something evergreen? Is it to play the long game of building an audience? Is it to generate outrage? Joy? Confusion? What is this meeting for? Brainstorming? To give each other feedback? To make a decision? Answer this clearly, and you’ve made a good start.
Who are you trying to change?
Be specific. What is their worldview? Who do they want to become? Where do you fit in that journey? Why are you the person to change them? Will they believe you? Do they trust you? How can you get them to trust you? This is why it’s important to talk to people, customers, or the potential audience. Get a pulse on the story they’re telling themselves. When building Ideas for COLLINS, I had to get a sense of an existing audience, the needs of that audience, how they saw us, and why we were uniquely suited to serve them. If we created something that they weren’t asking for, no one would care.
What does the change look like?
Imagine the behavior: Is the reader sharing your article with a friend, saying, “You have to read this”? Are they sharing it on their Instagram stories because it gives them something to signal? Are they seeing the world differently because of your insights? Are they donating blood, signing up for a course, or picking up litter in their neighborhood? Another way to think about it: Start with success and work backward.
What is the idea?
Avoid putting a frame around an idea. Framing an idea is like immediately saying, “It’s a podcast!” Nope. You just framed it into a very specific output, with a very clear production process. An idea is something like, “Getting grandmothers who don’t know each other to cook family recipes together.” Then you choose the medium that best delivers these recipes and stories. It might not be a podcast — it might be a magazine; a documentary; a YouTube channel; a weekly Clubhouse room; a series of essays; a book; an in-person gathering; a three-day workshop; a course at a local school. Framing an idea too soon narrows the vision for the project. Think as wide and as big as possible before you frame it, then figure out which medium best serves the idea.
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People are going to use these words and there’s no stopping them. It’s futile to try to extinguish a wildfire with a bottle of water.
But in specific contexts, it’s helpful to double-down on clear language. It’s where you can gain leverage by enrolling others into exciting possibilities for what the work can become. It shows your attentiveness to language, the lifeblood of any endeavor.
“It’s just semantics.”
Really? Is it just a typeface? Just a color? Just a style of photography? Just a layout? Just a symbol? It all matters; the ones that don’t treat it as such don’t care enough about the work. Work with people who really fucking care. That will level you up.
The words we use — and the ones we stop using — point us in a specific direction. They can lead you to new places that are unoccupied, allowing you to bring new ideas to life.