Four recent incidents have made me aware again of one of those itches it seems impossible to scratch, the valuation of “content” as a product rather than as the culmination of a process. Scholarship, today, becomes simply the thing for sale.
The first of these was the resignation of Jonah Lehrer from The New Yorker. The second was the recall of David Barton’s book on Thomas Jefferson. The third was Fareed Zakaria’s admission of plagiarism. The last one, which is helping me come to an understanding of the first three, was an email from someone at a company called Social Monsters saying “I’d love to put together a unique high quality article for your site.”
The writer goes on to say, “We are about great content and your site interested me specifically because your audience matches up with the same audience we are looking to communicate to.” The About page of Social Monsters says, “our outreach team of vertical specific content advocates intimately interact with our editorial and creative teams to ensure that the right content is offered to the right publisher at the right time. ” Aside from language usage that makes the composition teacher in me cringe, the email and a quick look at the site made me think beyond the specifics of the three other incidents to one underlying cause, the commodification of “content.”
In all four cases, product replaced both process and thought. Lehrer felt he knew what Bob Dylan must have been thinking, but could find no quotes to prove it, so made quotes up, leading to the recall of his book and his resignation. Lehrer must have been much more interested in getting his “product” out there than in the process of learning, of exploring through research and writing. Barton, like Lehrer, seems to have known his “outcome” going in. Instead of exploring his topic, he was using it to make a point he had already determined. It wasn’t history he was interested in but a product that could further his personal ambitions and preoccupations. I suspect that Zakaria, like many of our contemporary pundits, relies on a staff for much of the research “he” does and, perhaps, even for part of the writing. Most likely, production of his columns is not a personal endeavor, though his name is on them, but his work is product created by a team that he heads.
Is it any wonder that companies like Social Monsters see an opening, a way of making “content” into “product,” when the importance of the process of research and writing has been superseded by “product” with no necessary connection to that process?
Is it any wonder, by extension, that so many students, today, see no point in doing their own research and see nothing wrong with buying a paper to turn in under their names?