Content Marketing is Good Charlotte
This morning, I realized that I spend a lot of time being embarrassed. This isn’t because I’m especially insecure, or even that I care that much about other people’s opinions of me.
(I am currently wearing a Top Gun t-shirt and orange basketball shorts, sitting alone in a restaurant. Just concede this point.)
No, the reason I am embarrassed so much is that I spend most of my time doing two things that, in their most commonly understood form, I have absolutely no respect for. I play in a punk band, and I work in content marketing.
God, just writing that hurts.
Let’s start with the first one. There are two kinds of bands the average friend, co-worker, or acquaintance thinks of when I tell them I play in a punk band. The first is basically The Casualties, where people have mohawks and operate largely based on an increasingly antiquated form of shock value, where the idea that certain people are physiologically repulsed by the sound of your music is a feature, not a bug. In a weird way, I respect this kind of band, because while I’ve never really been in one, for many years my band was so bad, we were sort of in this group by default. It’s not that The Casualties and their ilk are necessarily bad (what they do is actually really hard), it’s just that being extremely bad is another way to accomplish what The Casualties seem to be trying to accomplish. If you’re 17, this can be fun and rewarding, to a degree.
The second kind of punk band people think of is much, much worse — it’s the productized version of Blink-182, which was basically the final evolution of commercialized punk rock, and was mass produced in the early 2000s to such an extent that it permanently damaged the genre. It didn’t kill it, or ruin it, but it’s unmistakably damaged even to this day. Have you ever seen the film Idiocracy? It takes place in a post-apocolyptic future of stupidness, and it looks like this :
If Operation Ivy is Sears, or some other classic department store, then Blink-182 is CostCo, and the fat guy in this clip is your typical pop-punk band today. Yeah, in theory he’s emulating CostCo, but it’s been so long since that meant anything, he’s really just going through the motions, sort of hoping that by standing there and saying CostCo-related things that he’s successfully honoring his influences. “Welcome to CostCo” is basically “Defend Pop Punk“.
Anyways, in the movie, the main character (played by Luke Wilson) is the most average man in the world — he’s then frozen for five hundred years or whatever, and wakes up as the SMARTEST man in the world, not because he’s any smarter, but because everyone is now incredibly stupid.
This is basically what I feel like as someone in a punk band in 2014. I went from being the most average punk rock person in the world, to the MOST punk rock person (in my mind at least), simply because I was frozen in time, and now everyone is stupid, or so far removed from the original concept that they no longer qualify (again, in my mind). They’re either like the guy from CostCo, and don’t really know what they’re doing or why, or they’re like the film’s President Camacho, and they’re just sort of aggressive and angry about nothing because it gives them purpose, even though they have no actual values that differ from the status quo. The whole point of the characters in Idiocracy is that they have absolutely no self-awareness, and that’s basically the legacy of the genre I grew up with (and despite this, still enjoy) — complete and total self-delusion. It’s sadly, heavily ironic.
There’s a classic hipster-ish trope that popularity ultimately ruins good art forms. I don’t think that’s inherently true — I only think it’s functionally true because by definition, popularity involves lots of people, and most people are idiots. (Many hipsters are probably aware of this, I’m just explaining it for the ones who aren’t.)
For instance, personally, I believe there was no real damage done to punk rock from Green Day and Offspring selling 30 million records. Those bands didn’t really change all that much as a result; as established people and organizations, they pretty much operated the way they always did, albeit at a grander scale. As they got older, yes, they became more out of touch, but that’s normal for all of us. The bands that didn’t get famous were probably bummed they didn’t make a ton of money, but the rising tide raised their boat a bit, and they too went on doing what they knew how to do. The problem was that it was the successful bands who influenced the next generation — which wasn’t Blink-182 (who had been around for years and toured with Pennywise and all that), but the terrible, soulless pop-punk bands of 2000 through today, who didn’t emulate the ROOTS of those bands, but their eventual destinations as giant, corporate, mainstream entertainment icons. Green Day without Green Day’s history is not really Green Day — it’s a bunch of entitled idiots with eyeliner running around worrying about whether enough teenagers like what they’re doing.
The exact same problem is happening to the other thing I do every day, which is to communicate with people honestly about technology and work on the internet. Like punk music, this has been given a lot of different names by people who want to make money from it; “blogging”, “community engagement”, “social networking”, and the current leader, “content marketing”.
Originally, the idea was wildly different. Instead of forcing customers to read depersonalized documents and official sounding press releases, you would talk to them like human beings, revealing the fact that even though you were a business or organization, that business/organization simply consisted of a bunch of individual people like you. When people had a question about whatever you were talking about, they could just ASK it, and you, the author, might even answer.
It was brilliant! People loved getting real information from the people that impacted them every day, even if that information was only tangentially related to the product or service those people provided. And like the punk bands of 1994, the whole thing was awesome and successful because the people providing this information were actual useful interesting humans. My background isn’t in marketing at all — it’s in documentation and support, and nobody writes documentation to gain a lot of views. They write it to solve problems for customers, so those customers learn something they want to learn, and therefore don’t have to call support. The explosion in informal blogging as an explanatory medium simply allowed me to take the content in something like a 300 page reference manual, and make it easier to process for regular human beings like myself, who connect with honesty and humor and self-awareness. As it turns out, this kind of thing also tends to drive traffic, which can (in theory) drive sales.
Then, like anything else, once this technique exploded (“WE NEED A BLOG!”), lots of ambitious, significantly less-interesting people started pouring out of the woodwork, looking to emulate not the original core idea (that useful information, delivered informally and honestly, was something potentially valuable), but the successful, mainstream result of that idea (PAGEVIEWS OMG).
But of course, just like catchy, mainstream punk, we’re now out of the gold rush period and fully into the “over saturated, desperately throwing crap at the wall to see what sticks, okay sure let’s make another Simple Plan record” phase of online content, where I feel less like a useful writer and more like an A&R guy watching Sum41 play in a high school auditorium, thinking “yeah, this might work, call Jerry Finn.”
It doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, I’m pretty sure it CAN’T be this way for much longer; magic tricks like turning everything into a list, or adding “… AND YOU WON’T BELIEVE WHAT HAPPENED NEXT” are clever, but they aren’t inherently valuable, so they’re easy to copy. And once everyone is doing it, they stop working, and the race to the bottom just accelerates that much faster, not unlike how we ended up with this.
I think about this every day, when I write, look at stats, and try to figure out how to do my job better. But people don’t know that, and I don’t expect them to. To them, I’m a grown man who works for Buzzfeed and plays in A New Found Glory, which is why — even though I love what I actually do — I probably come across as completely and totally self-loathing. It’s not just that you very likely misunderstand what I do and what I value that hurts. It’s that it’s totally reasonable for you to do so.
I feel like we’ll right these ships eventually. But it may take a while.