Of all the reasons not to update your blog, post a Tweet, or take part in an online conversation, the most powerful may be the fear that you have nothing new or unique to offer. In a world where everyone’s a publisher, content is a commodity. Any information you have to share has most likely been published elsewhere, and more than once.
But so what? It doesn’t matter if your content is a commodity, as long as you’re not.
To see how content—by which I mean the basic facts and ideas of discourse—has become a commodity, you don’t have to look far. Earlier this week, for instance, Bob Scheier wrote about a company that has automated content production:
“StatSheet of Durham, N.C. has developed software that writes (or, rather, assembles) stories based on statistics from college football and basketball, NASCAR and other sports. Algorithms pick out key facts (the top scorer, in which quarter did the winning team pull ahead, etc.) and stitch them together using a choice of pre-defined phrases.
“If this sounds formulaic and bloodless, it is. Consider this story about a lopsided Ohio State win over North Carolina A&T: Ohio State has already started living up to monumental expectations with a good first game. On November 12th on their home court, the Buckeyes waxed the Aggies, 102-61. The game lacked a lot of drama, with Ohio State up 52-25 at halftime and never letting up.”
Though some might scorn this commoditizing approach to content, I don’t. There are some facts that need only a little algorithmic enhancement to succeed as basic narrative content. And there are plenty of human authors who would be challenged to come up with better copy. That’s what happens when you think the news itself matters more than your perspective on it.
But as Scheier goes on to say, the algorithmic approach leaves a lot of potential value unfulfilled: “It cannot check those facts for accuracy, put them in context, present them in an insightful or delightful way, or learn from them over time to deliver thought leadership.” In other words, it matters who puts the content together, and what personal insight they add to it. The greater value comes from the creators of the content, not the content itself.
I think about this every day when I read the Los Angeles Times. I can get my news content anywhere these days, but I still subscribe. Why? Largely because of columnists like Michael Hiltzik, Steve Lopez, Tim Rutten, David Lazarus, and James Rainey. Their value to me is not in the news or issues that they cover, but the way they cover them, their unique, personal perspectives. They rarely break news stories or raise new issues, but they help me understand them.
Whether you’re blogging or Twittering or commenting, whatever you choose to say has been said before, probably hundreds of times. But that’s OK. It’s not your content but who you are that creates your most meaningful bonds with your readers.
Realizing this about content doesn’t necessarily make it easier to produce. Now you have to know who you are. Is it really your viewpoint, or have you just taken it uncritically from someone else?
The real work in writing posts that people want to read, you may discover, is not finding unique content, but finding your unique perspective, and finding yourself.