Jocelyn K. Glei on Why Context is the Future of Content

 

Jocelyn_Glei_35743

Jocelyn K. Glei. Photo Credit: Jonny Marlow. Via: (jkglei.com)

 

The concept of content and context, and how they can shape the way we experience our reality have been circulating on my mind lately. A couple of days ago, I wrote an article about this topic, heavily inspired by the talk that Alan Webber gave at the CreativeMornings.

Webber’s theory is that content needs to be replaced by context because as he says, “Content, today, is a commodity. It’s really, a very low value offer. What do we value? What creates value? What creates value is context.”

Webber is not the only one who thinks that the concept of “content” is meaningless. Jocelyn K Glei, a writer and the host of Podcast “Hurry Slowly”, agrees wholeheartedly with what Webber says about the uselessness of “content,” especially in steering us towards the meaningful and away from the meaningless. Speaking as a writer who writes mainly and always compellingly about creativity, Jocelyn is aware that absorbing more content doesn’t make us more creative, and content only looks for what is viral, not what is important in the grand scheme of things. What we need, she argues, is more context, and context is the future of content.

Speaking with Paul Jun from Own Your Content, a project that calls creatives to express what they mean when they talk about content, Jocelyn explains what she means when she says that context is the future of content.

Here is the transcript of the interview:

Paul Jun: “What does the future of content look to you?”

Jocelyn Glei: “This is the part where I confess that I actively hate the word ‘content.’ 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.

But to set semantics aside and actually answer your question…The future of content, in my opinion, is all about creating context. We are bombarded with so much information from so many channels every single day, that people crave editorial that can actually help them make sense of everything. We get so much of our ‘content’ in these little bursts now–be it an email, a tweet, a blog post. But it’s always this little bite-sized, isolated bit of information. We rarely understand how it actually fits into our lives.

Given this, I think what’s needed are curators, editors, writers, filmmakers, etc who can really zoom out from that narrow perspective and take the long view. Who can do some of that sense-making for people so that they understand how this political development fits into the long arc of history, or how developing this particular habit will give their life meaning in the long run. The future of content is about creating a rich, well-thought-out context that makes it possible for people to really process and synthesize ideas in depth–not in this surface-y way we’re all accustomed to now.”

Jocelyn_Glei_35765

Jocelyn K. Glei. Photo Credit: Jonny Marlow. Via: (jkglei.com)

 

Read the full interview here: Own Your Content.

And if you haven’t subscribed to Jocelyn’s well-curated and compelling weekly newsletter, I beg you to hit the subscribe button and wait for her generous and passionate work to land into your inbox: Jkglei’s newsletter.

Or you can also follow her on Twitter: @jkglei

Alan Webber Loves Context: The Founder of Fast Company on the Value of Context in Our Content Overload World

 

edwin-andrade-153753-unsplash

Image by Edwin Andrade. Via: (Unsplash)

 

If you spend the majority of your waking hours on the internet, there’s a term that you will likely hear: content. Despite its wild popularity, I’m not fond of this term. It makes me uncomfortable because when we are talking about content, we are talking about something that is superficial, doesn’t last very long, and created for only the sake of gaining more viewers instead of enriching the viewers’ minds.

Contents are articles like these: Every College Student During Winter Break, as Told by ‘Elf’ or College Students Love Fast Food So Choose From These 16 Fast Food Restaurants to Decide Your Major. It can also be videos like these: Gold Digger Prank or Psycho Dad Chainsaws Xbox One. They are everywhere, residing on every corner of the Internet.

There’s a quote that I have leaned into from Maria Popova, one of my absolute favorite minds and wisdom curators:

“How we choose to pay attention, and relate to information and each other shapes who we become, shapes our creative destiny and, in turn, shapes our experience of the world and, in my mind, there’s nothing more important than that.”

If we only choose to pay attention to content, how could we expect ourselves to be smarter and even wiser? This is the question we must collectively ponder as an individual, family, community, and even nation.

Then what’s the alternative if content won’t help us to be smarter, wiser? Allan Webber, the founder of Fast Company, says that content should be replaced by context. We don’t need more content. What we need is the maximum amount of context. Through his speech “Why Context is More Important Than Content,” Webber is not only drawing the distinction between content and context, but also he talks that creating context is the responsibility for all of us, regardless of our job titles.

He begins the speech with a stark, and yet often overlooked distinction between content and context:

“Content, today, is a commodity. It’s really, a very low value offer. What do we value? What creates value? What creates value is context. Context asks why. Context seeks to explain what is going on in the world so that we can make sense of it. Context takes this commodity [content] and transforms it into meaning. So think about your own experience either as an employee or as a boss. Think about it in any organization you’ve been a part of. Somebody comes to you or you produce a power point and you put it up and it’s got a lot of data. And the data informs the boss or informs you of a bunch of numbers that you’re supposed to then do something about. That employee who brought you that data is a very low value employee. That is somebody who’s bringing you content but what you’re really paying for is context. So you ask that employee, why should I care about this? What does it mean? What’s the story behind the data? And that’s context. That explains what is important. What you’re willing to pay for as a boss or in the world of magazines are not the facts anymore, is not the data anymore. It’s what it all means, how to interpret it.”

fast company

The First Edition of Fast Company 1995. Via: (FastCompany.com)

 

Webber sees that many newspapers and magazines circulate their ideas superficially. They give us the news that many of us already have. In other words, as he said, “They’re fundamentally in the content business, they’re not in the context business.”

He explains:

“And if you track the demise of many magazines and many newspapers, they’re fundamentally in the content business, they’re not in the context business so they went out of business because people already have “the news.” The news is twenty-four seven. What’s not twenty-four seven is how do I make sense of the news. Why is it happening. What’s your point of view about why it’s happening. Help me understand how I as an individual can organize my mental frame work for the news that’s going on around me. The publications that are either surviving or adapting ask why, explain point of view, and then offer you a conversation with it about how you make sense and give it a feedback.”

rawpixel-661940-unsplash

Image by RawPixel. Via: (Unspalsh)

 

I like to think that a content creator is someone who collects the dots (data or information) and presents them as they are without too much transformation. This is what we usually receive from social media and any news organizations that we follow. A content creator makes our world awash with information. Sadly, much of his information is unnecessary. It can only muddle our understanding of the world.

On the other hand, a context creator is someone who takes the work of a content creator to the next level. A context creator doesn’t only collect the dots, but also she cross pollinates from one idea to another idea. Eventually, she will excavate meaning from this new connected idea as a way to help her readers to make sense of a new event. 

A context creator’s work is challenging, hard, but it’s the work of generosity. if the work is done properly, I believe, it will outlive the creator.

Creating context means creating stories, and we, humans, are storytelling creatures. Echoing Elizabeth Svoboda’s concept of the power of story that says, “Stories allow us to travel, time and again, outside the circumscribed spaces of what we believe and what we think possible. It is these journeys–sometimes tenuous, sometimes exhilarating–that inspire and steel us to navigate uncharted territories in real life,” Webber argues:

“Stories are how we learn. Stories are how we express our values. Stories are how we connect to each other. Stories are about people. They’re not about things. Stories are about actions that people take to make a difference. And because stories are how we connect with each other, they’re how we make meaning of our lives. They provide context. They provide connections. They provide community. In the business sense, if you wanna talk about business for a second, they’re [stories] how we create brands. Brands are stories that we tell, brands are promises that we make as business people.”

Webber takes this topic of content and context as something that lie beyond the world of business and magazine. He wholeheartedly believes that creating context is what most leaders must do. He says:

“What we really talking about when we describe context and making meaning isn’t just the work of business or a company or a magazine. What we really talking about is leadership. One of my other rule of thumbs in this book [Rules of Thumbs: How to Stay Productive and Inspired Even in the Most Turbulent Times] is that leadership is not just about making decisions. There’s a part of that that’s true. We expect people in position of responsibility to make decisions. But more important than making decisions is making meaning, is helping everybody make sense out of a complex world.”

After all, making context is also what every citizen must also do.

“As citizens, we are called upon to help each other to separate the signal from the noise to decide what’s really matter to us as a community, as a group of people who are trying to solve problems together and make better decisions together.”

The original video can be accessed here:

Websites that have been consistently producing context over content are: BrainPickings, On Being, Farnam Street, The Tim Ferriss Show, Design Matters, Wait But Why, Long Form, and BBC Food Programme.

Can We Demystify Creativity?

 

nypl.digitalcollections.0f977fa0-9cbd-0131-f2df-58d385a7b928.001.g

Fanny Elssler in dem Divertissement: “Des Malers Traumbild.”. 1843. Via: (NYPL Digital Collections)

 

Our world is brimming with many mysteries. One of which has continued to enchant us is the quest to unravel the source of creative inspiration. When we talk about creative inspiration, it’s hard not to bring up its famous myth. There are some people who still believe that creative inspiration comes from a “divine” invisible creature from an unknown place who will assist the artist to shape the form of his or her work.

In her engaging 2009 Ted Talk, the novelist Elizabeth Gilbert, believes that everything that we hear about this myth of creative inspiration, to the historical evidence, can be traced back to ancient Greece. She says that Socrates used to have a demon who would speak philosophical ideas to him. Socrates was not the only example of an historical figure who had a mystical encounter with creative inspiration. In his recent book titled The River of Consciousness (Amazon), Oliver Sacks explains that Mendeleev, the great Russian chemist, once remarked that he discovered his periodic table in a dream. Feeling inspired and a sense of urgency, he woke up immediately and wrote it down on an envelope. In Steven Johnson’s book, Where Good Ideas Come From (Amazon), he writes that when the French mathematician, Henri Poincare floundered about arithmetical questions for days, he decided to spend a few days at the seaside to relax. One day when he was out walking and thinking about something unrelated to math, the solution came to him. These are the stories of creative inspiration that have been perpetuating in our culture. We adore these stories because they suggest that the inception of any creative project is easy. We don’t do the work, creative inspiration will do it for us.

Is it true that inspiration alone will do the work for us? There’s another way to investigate the source of creative inspiration by observing the quantity of the work that an artist has produced. In his book Originals: How Nonconformists Move the World (Amazon), Adam Grant, an industrial psychologist and a professor of business at University of Pennsylvania, shatters the common myth of creativity that comes from a mystical and divine inspiration. Drawing inspiration from Dean Keith Simonton’s intensive research on creativity titledCreative Productivity: A Predictive and Explanatory model of Career Trajectories and Landmarks,” Grant argues that what Simonton finds is, when a creator produces a lot of outputs, his or her chance to create a masterpiece is more attainable. Grant continues to say that when someone is producing a lot of work, he or she is more likely to stumble upon some variations that can enrich their work and will bring their work closer to originality. Grant says, “Many people fail to achieve originality because they generate a few ideas and then obsess about refining them to perfection.” Then Grant describes the abundant creative output of Picasso and Maya Angelou. In his life, he says that Picasso has produced more than 1,800 paintings, 1,200 sculptures, 2,800 ceramics, 12,000 drawings, and many more tapestries, rugs, and prints. Then one of the greatest poets of our time, Maya Angelou, though she’s widely known for her poem “Still I Rise,” people often overlook her 165 other poems.

AMCNYIG_10313497881

Thomas Edison. 1906. © Museum of the City of New York. Via: (Artstor)

 

In his paper, observing Thomas Edison’s creative career, Dean Keith Simonton talks about Edison’s prodigious work output. “His 1,093 patents notwithstanding, the number of truly superlative creative achievements can probably be counted on the fingers of one hand.” He also argues that the diversity of the projects that Edison did had helped him to channel his energy whenever he faced a long series of trials followed by consecutive errors. This method, when he moved from one project to the other, according to Simonton, awakened his mind with some neglected solutions for his unfinished projects. Simonton goes on to say, “Those periods in which the most minor products appear tend to be the same periods in which the most major works appear.” Grant and Simonton seem to agree that quantity is a better stimulant than quality to invite inspiration.

26045011_1437853202

Ginevra King Pirie. Via: (FindaGrave)

 

There is another source of creative inspiration that we can try to investigate other than the quantity of artist’s work. Inspired by the book titledThe Lives of the Muses by Francine Prose, Maureen Corrigan for the Boston Globe wrote that there are people in the writers’ personal lives that have played an enormous role in supplying inspiration for their work. When Fitzgerald met Ginevra King on January 4, 1915 at a party over Christmas break in St. Paul Minnesota, the two instantly attracted to each other. King was only sixteen and Fitzgerald was nineteen. They started to correspond and their letters to each other were full of passion, flirtation. They stayed in touch only for two years. King eventually married a wealthy young businessman from Chicago and Fitzgerald married Zelda. Though King and Fitzgerald did not stay together, King was an enormous source of Fitzgerald’s fictional characters in his literary career. Corrigan argues that King is Judy Jones in his short story “Winter Dreams.” She is also Isabella Borges in Fitzgerald “This Side of Paradise” and Daisy Buchanan in his memorable work of fiction “The Great Gatsby.”

EH 6263P

Portrait of Agnes von Kurowsky in her American Red Cross nurse uniform, Milan, Italy.  1918. Via: (JFKLibrary)

 

Corrigan also mentions that one of Hemingway’s fictional characters was also inspired by someone that he had met. It was Agnes von Kurowsky, a nurse that helped Hemingway regain his sense of vitality after he was wounded during World War 1. Hemingway was madly in love with her and they had planned to marry, but by the time Kurowsky went to the U.S, she sent a letter to Hemingway that she had engaged to an Italian officer. Hemingway’s early love life was a hapless event in his life, but he turned Von Kurowsky into a fictional character in “A Farewell to Arms” as Catherine Barkley.

All of the examples I have presented above seem to suggest that the myth of creative inspiration that we always carry is just a myth. In fact, if we look deeper into Mendeleev’s life, though his idea of periodic table seems to appear out of the blue, his work ethic to solve this chemical mystery doesn’t enter our conversation whenever we talk about creative inspiration. For almost nine years, he was constantly pondering this subject, consciously and unconsciously. So did Poincare who refused to succumb to this myth and chose to work hard to solve the mathematical problems. Only when he disengaged himself from his work for days at the seaside and let his ideas simmer, while he was thinking of something else, the solution came to him.

Rex Jung, a prominent neuroscientist who studies creativity for more than a decade knows why the solution came to Poincare when he stopped working. In conversation with Krista Tippett, Jung argues that “eureka” moment usually comes after someone has consciously absorbed ideas and then let them simmer for a while in his or her mind to interact with other ideas. Jung says, “You have to have the raw materials in place to put together, but you also have to have the time to put them together.”

_Inspiration is just(1)

 

The creative inspirations that catapulted Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Edison, Mendeleev, and Poincare into public consciousness are missing our romantic idea of artistry that must come from magic. Their dogged determination was the path that granted them the creative inspiration. Even from a scientific perspective, Jung arrives to remind us that when we deliberately make a space for our ideas to simmer and interact to other ideas after countless hours of working, inspiration is more likely to come to us.

To believe that good ideas must come from a mystical place is to believe that work ethic is a useless ingredient to achieve mastery. This is a dangerous belief that needs to be clarified. Understanding a craft of writing, for instance, is not something that can be done in a night by magic. It takes years or even decades to be able to present language that can tell stories and evoke emotions to readers. There is no shortcut for the conquest of mastery because “Everything worthwhile takes a long time.