Discontented, or the Pursuit of Content in a Format Age

September 6, 2010

Essay by Mimi Zeiger, writer and founder of the architecture zine and blog loud paper.


Mas issue information discontented 01

© Mimi Zeiger.

It’s been said and said again and again to the point of cliché that we live in the Information Age. The love children of Marshall McLuhan and Steve Jobs, we float in amniotic soup of digital signifiers and suckle identity updates like mothers’ milk. We consume the information; we are the information.

Indeed, this morning I woke up and gobbled up thirteen somewhat important emails, ignored several dozen tweets and Facebook wall posts, and thought about searching for pictures of Chelsea Clinton’s wedding, all before brewing my morning coffee. (Heck, I couldn’t even make it through the above paragraph without checking my iPhone for dispatches from the outer reaches of the World Wide Web.) Then there is the print media. Considered dead by some, but lurching on in a pile stacked high on my kitchen table. A brief inventory reveals six battered and bruised New Yorkers, a few ignored Harpers (they are just so depressing), a Vegetarian Times, and a slim, unread copy of Fortune–“The Future of Reading” issue. (Architecture and design magazines languish in another forlorn stack.) As for my laptop, the desktop is full of PDFs and Word docs that stare out from the screen like shelter puppies with pleading eyes. Read me, read me, they cry. And it’s best not to talk about my bookmarks toolbar. A sure case of digital disposophobia, I expect the folks from TLC’s Hoarding: Buried Alive to come a’knocking any second.

I’m awash in information. And I am not alone.

But what is all this information fed to me in any number of formats? What kind of content is provided and, really, does it matter? Early in The Shallows, a book that takes a “This is your brain on drugs” approach to the Internet, author Nicholas Carr riffs on a McLuhan classic: “The medium is the message.”

Carr writes, “McLuhan understood that whenever a new medium comes along people naturally get caught up in the information—the “content”—it carries. They care about the news in the newspaper, the music on the radio, the shows on the TV, the words spoken by the person on the far end of the phone line. The technology of the medium, however astonishing it may be, disappears behind whatever flows through it—facts, entertainment, instruction, conversation. When people start debating (as they always do) whether the medium’s effects are good or bad, it’s the content they wrestle over.”1

I beg to differ. As successive technological developments (iPhones, iPads, Kindles, etc.) and the economic recession couple together to cripple print publishing (wave goodbye to books, newspapers, and magazines), the discussion is all about the medium. Forget the medium is the message; the message is the medium is the medium. Format has come to dominate the debate, not content. Or, as Bryan Boyer suggests in his essay, The Mediators, “The format is the message.”

And then Boyer sketches out how formatting (from both architecture to publishing) only just hints at the content it’s supposed to contain without every revealing any depth behind the façade:

“Every building, every publication, every bit of output from the architect is formatted for realization and tailored to an audience. Architects no longer enjoy the simple pleasure of designing buildings, they design a library in Caracas for the city government, or a stadium in Belarus for an international magnate. They write books for post-critical academics, pamphlets for North American students, and websites for the image-hungry public to name just a few examples. The work of the architect has never been more tied to all the specificities of client, market, place, and politics nor have the concerns of these groups ever been more enmeshed. Each format has its own set of catalytic constraints, biases, and conventions that the architect must work with.”2

What’s become clear in the past two years, as I’ve been involved in panel discussions, meetings, lectures, the Leagues and Legions forum board (a think tank on architecture and publishing), exhibitions and Google chats about the state of publishing and architecture (some of which I’ve even organized) is that the medium, even when it a product of networked culture and not a printed object, is a fetish. It is something to be worried and mulled about conceptually. Older, recognizable formats—the newspaper, the blog post, the zine—become stand-ins for broads idea about content—news, opinions, music reviews—but also for what that medium once represented—a citywide discourse, a citizen journalist, an alternative publishing network.

Content is even less interesting on the retail side of book publishing, per a recent piece by Timothy Carmody on entitled “Why Metadata Matters for the Future of E-Books.” Carmody quotes publisher and distributor Don Hill. “[Hill] added that the major e-book retailers were unlikely to do much to push for enhanced titles, or create them: ‘I could see Apple getting involved as a way to expand hardware sales in the education or business market, though they’ve shown no inclination to create content so far.’”3

With mainstream magazines (design and otherwise), content remains illusive not only because of the medium’s trend-tracking periodic nature, but also because of the economic model that privileges advertising over editorial. The number of ad sales per issue determines by percentage the number of editorial pages. With advertising revenue down 26 percent in 2009, you find thinner and thinner magazines.4 So, even while we are away in information, there is less of it coming from traditional sectors.

Not beholden to ad sales and distribution, independent publications, often whimsically funded on grants or labors of love, tend to push beyond generic content. What is revealed can be surprising and not easily categorized. At Publishing Futures: Content, Context, and Emerging Formats, a panel discussion held at University of Illinois at Chicago’s School of Architecture last spring, Marc Fischer took the conversation, which until that point had circled the issues of format and content, in a new direction. Fischer, a member of the artist collective Temporary Services that publishes under the imprint Half Letter Press, described the group’s long-standing collaboration with incarcerated artist Angelo. Several small, perfect bound publications came out of the partnership, including the 2003 Prisoners’ Inventions, which documents in drawings and text the intricate ways inmates adapt to their celled lives. Fischer explained how the collaboration gave voice to a population otherwise invisible and mute, if not muzzled. The simple format, 100 pages filled with illustrations, offered depth and insight, not surface speculations.

Recently, I’ve found that the most satisfying way to content—to narrative stories, rich reporting, and interviews, to be more specific—is to actually read. I read on my iPhone on the subway, shuttling around underground, I stare into my small screen. I use the app Instapaper to save digital content in a flourish-free format that can be read offline.5 Let me repeat, offline. Paired with Longform, a website that offers selection of texts curated by Aaron Lammer and Max Linsky.

(Let’s pause for a moment on the term “curator.” In a Web 2.0 context, “curating” has trumped “editing,” and what had been a title reserved for the gallery or museum now finds itself on the masthead, or what was left of it. The difference between the two roles at this point is marginal, with the exception of format. Both duties at their broadest involve selecting content and bringing it together under in service of an idea, theme, or discourse. Where “curatorial” was traditionally reserved for the art objects and “editorial” for texts, the digital liberation of content from the page or object means that just about everything is content, hence our overload of information. It also means everyone is a curator and a publisher (not editor, per se). Every individual has the daily role of choosing what variety of text and image to consume, and which bits to broadcast to an ever increasing network of Facebook friends and Twitter followers.) Which, in turn, frees the publication from the act of publishing. Forget paper or websites, publishing is a happening, an act, and event to generate content in itself.)

Returning to Longform, a site that curates so you don’t have to, the curators write, “We post articles, past and present, that we think are too long and too interesting to be read on a web browser.”6 Interestingness and misalignment with given formats (length) are the benchmarks. I read with abandon the stories that hide in Vanity Fair, the New Yorker, Wired, or in other shadowy parts of the web. Diamond thieves captivate me, as do the natural history of the octopus, recovering blogger’s laments, and the mystery of those who fell from the World Trade Towers on 9/11. Applied to architecture and design publishing, the Longform model is tantalizing. In a flooded world of information, this combo of tools privileges the text over the tool, (even as it is dependent on the iPhone and iPad), the content over format, the message over the medium.

1 Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing To Our Brains (New York: Norton, 2010), 2.
2 Bryan Boyer, The Mediators, January, 2009,
3 Timothy Carmody, “Why Metadata Matters for the Future of E-Books,”, August, 2010.
4 Josh Quittner, “The Future of Reading,” Fortune, March 8, 2010, pg. 63. (Okay, I broke down and read it.)