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14 Apr

Content is not king.

I’m sure you have heard of the phrase “Content is King.” being thrown around in any business whose core proposition is media (text or otherwise). The earliest recorded inscription of this phrase was found in a 1974 edition of Magazine Editing and Production:

Some two decades later, Bill Gates, then at the height of his career, proclaimed the same thing. In a prophetic note on the future of the Internet and its impact on business, he wrote:

“Content is where I expect much of the real money will be made on the Internet, just as it was in broadcasting.”

Bill believed that content would be the one true moat that would differentiate media companies from each other. Distribution tactics and advances in dissemination technologies can only go so far when it comes to providing a lasting and sustained competitive advantage in the crimson waters of the vast ocean that is the media business.

Right around the same time, Sumner Redstone, media-mogul extraordinaire (and one of the inspirations for Logan Roy from Succession) espoused a similar message. “Content is King” was one of his favorite quips as he went on to devour several media outlets and merge them into the behemoth that is CBS Viacom.

If you ever enjoyed watching Spongebob as a kid, Sumner is one of the people you have to thank.

However, all of this is rehashing a rather painfully obvious truism: if what you are producing isn’t deemed to be of “good quality”, as defined by the target audience, it’s doomed to fail commercially, even if it actually is world-class.

Still, find the explanation wanting? Let’s take the phenomenon of the cult classic to illustrate this.

We are cult(ists)

History is rife with examples of authors, filmmakers, musicians, and other creatives whose works were received with great derision at the time of their release.

Jules Verne, one of the most widely translated authors and a prolific sci-fi writer was hardly recognized for his work during the time when he was active. The Davids of contemporary Hollywood (Fincher and Lynch) had an extremely tough time retaining their auteurist styles in the early years of their careers. Heck, Fight Club was critically panned at the time of its release. Today, it’s a common refuge for angsty teenagers and red-pilled men.

Sergei Rachmaninoff, one of the most accomplished pianists of his generation was savagely criticized for his first-ever symphony, so much so that it took him another three years to muster the confidence to return to composing again.

I’m citing all of these examples to show you that it’s not the content that matters, it’s the context in which it’s presented.

Context-Carving is a full-time job

I’ve been in the ‘business of education’ (pardon the oxymoron) for quite a while now and I’ve come to the conclusion that content, in and of itself is incapable of moving the needle for many people.

This isn’t because they are incompetent, or lack the faculties that are required to develop competence. It is because they are dealing with constructs and concepts that are fundamentally cerebral and ethereal, i.e. outside of certain narrow environments, they don’t really exist.

We aim to give learners a solid foundation from which they can build their careers in the start-up ecosystem. For better or for worse, most Indian startups today are digitally enabled, if not completely internet-native. There’s a strong internet-driven component to them that professionals will have to get used to.

Attempting to dissect the ebbs and flows of something like the internet, businesses built on the internet, and English — its dominant language — through a 6-month program is farfetched. The most we can do is reset the expectations/faulty notions that some learners might have developed so that they can unlearn and relearn what they need to without feeling overwhelmed with the deluge of content that exists out there.

Doin’ it Right

Information, in and of itself, is fundamentally sterile. Even the most illuminating texts are no more than a collection of words whose contextual predicament is akin to that of a stillborn.

Unless it makes itself apparent to the reader in the right context (and at the right juncture), it will continue to be no more than an exercise in intellectual masturbation. Society has limited room for people who can indulge in such frivolous luxuries.

We’ve talked about the perils of ‘single-serve’ advice before, wherein the activity of curating an expansive list of ideas, insights, and recommendations rarely has its purported effects.

This isn’t because these ideas are bad, but because they fail to elicit a deeper level of thinking on behalf of their intended recipients. In the absence of a concrete, structural explanation that is uniquely suited to the context of the person receiving advice, said advice “goes in one ear and out the other.” In other cases, it is implemented blindly with scant regard to its relevance to the matter at hand (with disastrous consequences at times).

Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet, except for extreme initiative and immersion on part of the person who is absorbing the material. Given the normalization of entertainment and novelty in almost every endeavor, it is becoming increasingly rare for individuals to patiently work their way through anything, especially in the face of little to no (immediate) progress.

In Simulacra and Simulation, Jean Baudrillard predicted the excesses of the information age and distilled our present quandaries to one simple phrase:

“We live in a world where there is more and more information and less and less meaning.”

We have to define the meaning, we need to carve the context for ourselves. Content can only do so much. It can show us the door, ultimately it is we who will have to walk through it.

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