Bad Words

Erin Kissane

Last week, a designer I know tweeted about his contempt for people who talk about consuming content. His point was that the conflation of many different kinds of interaction with many different kinds of content does a disservice to our users. It’s a good point, and brought up a gap in my professional vocabulary that often annoys me: For practical reasons, I often need a term that expands the idea contained in the verb to read to cover content read aloud by a screen reader or provided as an audio or video file.

Listing the appropriate verb for each media case gets old fast: “after they read or watch or listen to text or videos or audio files on their computers or other devices” is enough of a mouthful the first time through. Consume is a convenient umbrella term, but I won’t lie—it makes me flinch a little bit every time I use it.

Before I go further, a little background information. Back in the day, I had a blog about the evils of jargon and euphemism. It was probably read by about 25 people, but it gave me a place to publish brief, fiery sermons about the evils of using leverageto mean “use” and rightsizing to mean “layoffs.” Ten years later, my work has shifted from writing and editing content to developing editorial and publishing strategies for clients, but I still strike those terms from every document I touch, and words like solutioneering still give me the clammy sweats.

 Consume content falls right on the line between terms I can grit my teeth and use and terms that make me want to rinse my mouth with bleach. And it does seem a bit silly to use consume when nothing is actually being removed or destroyed in the process. If you read a paragraph of text, the text is still there when you’re done. YouTube videos don’t evaporate after watching. And over-general terms for user behaviors always have the potential to obscure the complexities of specific interactions and encounters.

The notion of consuming content comes from the language of economics, wherein some of us produce goods or services and other groups consume (buy, use) them. The jargon of consumer and consumption isn’t new—John Locke introduced the term in 1692, and “conspicuous consumption” was already a hot idea in 1899. When Emerson wrote in 1860 that “Every man is a consumer, and ought to be a producer,” he wasn’t speaking only of the making and buying of material things. In the old world of publishing, we could speak of the producer-consumer relationship in terms of texts: publishers published and readers read, and that was the end of it.

Now that magazines and even books may include not only text and illustrations, but video and audio features and enhancements, the language we use needs to accommodate our reality. 

The hivemind is hungry

So what are our options, besides consume? I turned the question out to the content strategy community on Twitter, and theensuing discussion was pretty fantastic.

Experience and absorb were the most frequently suggested alternatives, with assimilate and enjoy following closely after. Eating and drinking words were also enormously popular: you suggested devouringingestingimbibingquaffinggorging,digestinggrazingchowing, and slurping. Our field’s weird obsession with cake and bourbon is no longer a mystery.

As the results continued to come in, it became clear that some of us imagined alternatives to consume that included only the process of taking in information, whereas others considered consume a synonym for the larger process encompassing intake, understanding/ synthesis, and use. As the tweets settled, I made a Wordle image of the results, and then spent a little time breaking down the implications of the frontrunners.

This is what happens when you ask for synonyms at lunchtime.

  • Experience: This is probably the closest thing to a medium-neutral alternative to consume that covers the … experience … of reading, watching, and listening to content. I’ll admit, though, that I find it too vague to use in my own work.
  • Absorb: We already talk about absorbing information—and when we do, I think we’re implying both intake and the beginnings of understanding or synthesis. And if we are, that means we’re assuming that the content is working, in a sense. If a site user reads a paragraph of educational text, but doesn’t understand it, can he be said to have absorbed it? Maybe.
  • Assimilate: Same connotations as absorb, with extra Borg-flavored deliciousness.
  • Enjoy: I really like this one, but it’s heavily dependent on context. We might expect our audiences to enjoy a feature film or an essay, but a lot of the content we handle simply isn’t meant for enjoyment. In the last few years, I’ve worked on content projects for a museum that focuses on the Holocaust, for a children’s hospital, for a human resources site that eases the process of managing employee benefits, and for a physicians’ association. “Enjoy” is obviously out in those circumstances.

My favorite suggestion of the day was the simplest: use. I like use because it highlights the difference between using a website (or mobile app or …) and using the content contained on that site (or app or …). If I visit a medical reference site, watch a video, and make a healthcare decision based on what I’ve learned, I’m using that content. If I skim a page of copy about a product that I then choose not to buy, I’m using that content as well. When I watch a YouTube compilation of Maru’s finestbox-jumps, I’m using YouTube, but am I using the content itself? Maybe not. Either way, I think use is a good concept to have around as we discuss the ways in which our users encounter and interact with the many kinds of content we publish.

At the end of the afternoon, I was left with a big stack of semi-synonyms, a heightened sense of the small but important differences implied in the words we choose to talk about user behavior, and a growing certainty that the topic isn’t remotely settled. I’m a fierce advocate of clarity and precision, but even I have to admit that precision of language is a virtue only when it improves our communication. Talking around important ideas helps no one, and there’s a fine line between righteously rejecting empty neologisms and being unhelpfully fastidious about our language.

So is consume content one of those clunky but necessary terms we genuinely need to express an important idea, or just a way of avoiding the precision and specificity of thought required to make responsible design and strategy decisions? I think it depends on how we use it. When it stands in for careful consideration of specific use cases, we’d do better to replace it; when it lets us speak about a new class of uses as a class, it’s both useful and appropriate.

The kids are all right

Earlier this week, I saw five smart, articulate presenters introduce new-school publishing tools, projects, and ideas to an audience of readers and creators at General Assembly in NYC. Three of the five presenters talked about consuming content without a flicker of embarrassment, and they did so as a way of collecting our multifaceted reading/watching/listening/browsing/using experiences under a single term that serves as the content-specific equivalent ofusing a website (or tool or app). Inherent in their work was a serious consideration of the many specific interactions between human and content that make up the user experience.

There’s always a risk that our focus on high-level systems and categories will obscure the attention to the specific, often messy details that make our work genuinely useful to real human beings. But if we’re going to make big, ambitious things, both registers—the abstract and the super-concrete—are essential. As long as our language reflects the full scope of our work, I think we’re going to be fine.