Context is the new content

Kenneth Goldsmith wrote a great post in the LA Review of Books, It’s a Mistake to Mistake Content for Content, which brilliantly explores how context is the new content. He uses some great examples to make his point, his own crusty MP3 collection, photography, Twitter and here Instagram:

The more people who use an apparatus, the more feedback the company receives about its camera, the smarter it becomes, drawing more users to its base, thereby increasing the manufacturer’s bottom line. For this reason, Instagram keeps adding new filter sets and features in order to retain and broaden its user base. To Instagram, the content of the photos people are taking is beside the point; the real point is that they keep taking them in order to fortify the apparatus.

It's really interesting to think about the sheer volume of content available to us, alongside the variety of ways we can now consume that content. Goldsmith's point that the apparatuses surrounding the artifact are more engaging than the artifact itself warrants exploring, especially with a great example around photography.

Anyone with a smartphone in their pocket is carrying a high quality stills and video camera to capture any moment whenever they want. I always used to mock the tourists who would use videocamera's (remember them?) to relentlessly capture their holiday destination from their point of view. I would say to myself that they would never revisit that material, basing it on my own laziness to fire up old videocameras to watch similar material. I remember an old friend of the family would boast how he had 'tens of hours' of DV material of the Moors. I remember just being utterly confused by it. Does that have any value at all, to even him now? Granted, content is in the eye of beholder, so perhaps it could be the perfect artefact for someone, somewhere, sometime, but I can't help feel that his fixation with his new JVC DV camera was the driving force in that marathon session of capturing those landscapes.

When visiting art galleries, you will see within minutes of arriving at an exhibit, people just nonchalantly walk up to a painting, take a photo on their phone and walk off. They almost don't want to look at it with their eyes. They want to look at it through the camera's eyes, capture it and somehow gain a sense of ownership of that painting. The work of narcissism around the relentless desire to share your highlights on social networks is at work here too no doubt.

I find it fascinating to see how people do this at 'moments' in their lives. Go to an awesome concert and only feel really gratified until you've collated 10GB's of photos and video of that gig, that after the obligatory upload to Facebook and showing your mates for a week, it remains buried - maybe until an app which gives you a 'flashback' of your photos from 12 months ago reminds you that it even happened.

I'm guilty of this though myself (to an extent!) and I think anyone who has a smartphone finds themselves falling into this habit. As Goldsmith cannily observes, Management (acquisition, distribution, archiving, filing, redundancy) is the cultural artifact’s new content.

It does feel we spend more time 'working' with our content than actually enjoying it doesn't it?