Verbal Energy

Are we consumers or connoisseurs?

We may be voracious readers, but is 'consume' the right word for what we do to 'media'?

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Advertisers know how to flatter us. This pitch just came in from the publisher of one of my favorite magazines:

"You're the type," it began, "who's always first in line for a movie or play on opening night. Your iPod is filled with underground music, political podcasts, and clips of your favorite moments in sports." Well, not quite, but hey, I'm flattered that they think of me that way.

Here's where they lost me, though: "You are a cultural junkie who consumes media constantly."

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Come again? ("Dear, next time we go to the museum, let's consume some 19th-century lithographs.")

If "consumes media constantly" means "plays continually with mobile devices," it probably is a useful phrase for people in the technology business to use about other people, in their capacity as buyers of such devices.

But would those whom the publisher is looking to sign up describe themselves as "consuming media constantly"? They might say, "I always have the radio on at work," or "I always listen to audiobooks while I work out," or even, "The train got stuck in the tunnel on my way in today and I got to watch a whole movie on my iPod." But would any of them say, "I was consuming media all day today"?

Here's another example of "media consumers" used pejoratively: Tom Shales of The Washington Post going after PBS for having displaced thoughtful veteran journalist Bill Moyers in favor of a new "multiple platform" program meant to be a "source of current-affairs coverage for today's media consumers."

Mr. Shales asks, "Now why didn't Moyers even think about addressing us as 'media consumers'? And was he perhaps guilty of committing the 21st-century sin of performing on only one 'platform' at a time, when he could have been multitasking on multimedia?"

The terminology of "media consumption" gets us dangerously close to sensitive issues of "content." Our friends at Wikipedia define a content management system as "a collection of procedures used to manage work flow in a collaborative environment."

As publishers expand into the Web, they are turning to new content management systems to make bodies of articles (content) available in multiple formats. A fashion magazine and a foreign-policy journal could both have content management systems that look remarkably similar. The system doesn't care what it's managing, any more than a sheet of paper cares whether it holds a letter or a grocery list.

But insofar as "content" is the term that has been recruited to describe the intellectual output of our best thinkers as rendered infinitely sliceable and diceable by new technology and, more important, new business models of publishing, it sets people off.

That's what the publishers of Harper's Magazine were getting at a while back when they started advertising their monthly as "100% Content Free." It's not clear, however, how successful this has been.

A writer at Penn's Language Log commented: "All these years I've been using and understanding 'content' to mean substance, the matter being dealt with, information and details about topics that matter.... And I've been reading Harper's because I thought it contained the very things it now denies."

Publishers who really knew how to woo us might reach for another vocabulary altogether. Why not call their targets "connoisseurs" instead? Flattery, ladies and gentlemen, will get you everywhere.

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