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.