How is "great content" found?

Dead Sea Scrolls photo

In a provocative assessment of Google’s Google+ strategy of launching a “recommended users” list (a topic of its own), Robert Scoble shared an assumption behind his conclusions:

If you have great content you will get found by one of the folks on this list.

It’s an interesting claim. I've heard this kind of thing for years, and always wondered: Is it true? My intuition always said it's not. So last night I questioned Robert's statement in a tweet, and he replied:

@lauras it's pretty rare that good content doesn't get shared with others.

How do we know that it's "rare" that good content doesn't get shared? We know only about the good content we've already found. We have no idea how much good content has not been found. So how can we lay any odds as to how common or rare it is for good content to be found?

And "found" ... by whom?

I thought I'd lay out some thoughts on this and see what people think.

What does it take?

  1. The content must be "good".

    We all know that there's a ton of bad content that gets much more attention than good content. But for good content to get found, the question assumes good content. What makes content "good"? That's a question that is addressed piecemeal in the following points.

  2. The content must be on a viable platform, in a viable format.

    The content must exist in a form that can be consumed if it is found. A book in Braille is not going to influence many. Your handwritten novel may be fabulous, but the single copy's being on yellow pads, with all the words scribbled in your poor penmanship ill serves your great novel.

  3. The content must be findable.

    If people can't get to it, you can't share it. For online content, it must be in a format to be indexed by search engines. For movie content, it must have distribution. Your painting that's viewable only from your livingroom is not findable by others except your house guests. (If only you had a gallery showing!)

    A Confederacy of Dunces was eventually published posthumously and found by a delighted readership and a satisfied Pulitzer committee, but what if John Kennedy Toole's mother didn't champion his manuscript after his suicide and convince a publisher to publish it? How many John Kennedy Tooles have passed through the world, leaving behind great manuscripts that never will be read?

  4. The content must be accessible.

    How many provocative news articles languish behind a paywall, never to be accessed by the people who could most infuentially share it? How much great content in China is never found because it's censored? An Internet without Net Neutrality could render much content completely inaccessible due to preferential content mainstreaming deals by access providers.

  5. The content must be understandable.

    It must use a common language. It must use existing cultural references. We can love the music of Beethoven because he touches us in musical language still used today, but we are lost hearing Javanese gamelan, and modern avant-garde composers might speak in musical references too modern or obscure for us to grasp. How much ancient Greek poetry can be enjoyed when Greek is no longer taught in university?

  6. The content must have some audience.

    Here's the trick. Somebody must start the sharing chain. Likely it takes a lot of somebodies to achieve some sort of sharing critical mass. How many of the most interesting people you know don't have a popular blog, don't have a jillion Twitter followers, aren't in oodles of Google+ circles? I can't count them all on the fingers of both hands. There are simply too many to count.

    My own blog has a small audience, but perhaps is on the radar of just enough people where good content fitting all the criteria listed here could break out and be "found". But if I tweet about my post, I can perhaps reach a slightly larger audience (via a fraction of my Twitter followers). On the other hand, if my post is Drupal-related and appears on Planet Drupal, my audience is suddenly and automatically increased by an order of magnitude, meaning so many more people can see and pass along my content if they deem it to be "good".

    How many content creators have that kind of audience available, who in turn can share that content with yet other people? Yes, there are some popular thinkers out there really putting out good content. But let's face it, most of the popular stuff is pretty crappy.

    Which leads us to:

  7. The content must stand out in the noise.

    And there's a lot of noise these days. In the above-referenced Google+ joint, Scoble states: "Most people can only follow 250 people. In fact, the average user follows far less than that." That's because of noise. How much great content passed right before your eyes on Twitter, flitting by before your attention was drawn? I probably see 1% of all the stuff that crosses my Twitter feed, and that's on a good day, and even then I actually read only a fraction of that. Most of what we see is noise. But I love the serendipity that comes from following too many people.

    But if everyone is following only 250 people or fewer, how interconnected are we, really? Does your headline grab attention? Does your post have a striking image? Does your so-well-crafted jewelry look too much like discount store junk for anyone to notice its fine qualities? Has your essay topic been played so much that your most-insightful points aren't enough to gain anyone's attention?

    This last leads us to:

  8. The content must be timely.

    This doesn't apply only to the insightful post on the latest political event can't be posted weeks after everyone has forgotten about the event. It also means that your content must fit the concept of what's "good" in that era. Vincent Van Gogh died a pauper; we can say his paintings were "found", but did he ever know it? Much of our filtering mechanisms are conscribed by popular culture – popular media culture, popular political culture, popular academic culture, you name it. The most-shared good content will fit within those contemporary frames – not "ahead of its time", not out of fashion, not when the event is forgotten, not when the moment has passed. Many a bon mot would have been more bon had they not been "esprit d'escalier".

  9. The implied author must have an appropriate identity.

    Your public image of you (as opposed to the "real" you – c.f., Wayne C. Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction) is how many will decide whether you're worth paying attention to. If they've decided yes, your content gets higher consideration. If they've decided no, your content is dismissed out of hand. If they don't know, well, then it depends on your perceived identity and how it "fits" into the context of things – or how it "fits in", period. Scoble points out that "Most content on social networks is developed by only 5% and most of the audience listens to the top 5% of that." The most popular bloggers link to each other, because they perceive each other as credible enough to read.

    What about those not already in the echo chamber? They must have an identity that appeals. Despite all the public touting of how we live in an age of "tribes", we tend to vastly underestimate the value of having an identity appropriate and acceptable enough to influence others. And yet what is social networking but a way of forming tribes to filter out the noise? If you don't "fit in" the tribal filter, you're part of the noise as far as others are concerned.

    Sometimes that's just by circumstance. Sometimes it's by preconceived stereotypes. For years, women have known that (many) guys don't link. In the tech world, a start-up with venture capital backing is taken much more seriously than a start-up with no backing; not only the venture capital PR muscle, but the very fact of having gotten venture backing at all helps start-ups stand out from the noise and be perceived as worth paying attention to. Joe Coder comes up with a fabulous new app and nobody pays attention, unless the app gets some sales traction; Pete Programmer with Acme Ventures backing gets buzz before the app is even approved by Apple.

    I would argue that perhaps the biggest impact Acquia had on the success of Drupal came from nothing more than the fact that Acquia got venture backing, which put it and Drupal on the radar of tech bloggers and journalists, who then put Drupal on the radar of many who've since adopted Drupal for their projects. And yet some of the most profound and influential content about Drupal has happened outside of that paradigm. But those content creators didn't have the right identity to be found. (This is nothing against Acquia as a company. Acquia does much more than raise the visibility of Drupal, don't get me wrong. But seeing the rather sudden "discovery" of Drupal once Acquia announced funding was really hard for the rest of us to miss. [Disclosure: My business does business with Acquia. Many Acquians are my friends.]

    In another example, in Google+, you must have the right kind of identity to even participate. If you have the "wrong" identity, how likely is it your "good" content will be found?

  10. The content must last (long enough).

    Paintings rot. Books dry up and blow away. Great movies of the 1930s and 1940s disintegrated or burned in vaults. The fire of Alexandria took away how much greatness from even the possibility of our discovering it? This challenge will never leave us, even in the digital age. How ironic that an essay noting the ephemeral nature of digital content can be found only via the Wayback Machine!

In a perfect world, there are fields of dreams

The success of good content (no matter how you define "good") depends upon each of these links. If one breaks, odds are that content will languish in obscurity. If everything lines up perfectly, then all you need to is build it and they will come. For those of us on the Internet, we have it pretty good – better than ever in history, perhaps. Content creators weren't so lucky thousands of years ago. Even a couple of decades ago.

And content creators aren't so lucky in media that doesn't happen entirely online. In Hollywood, for example, one of the old saws preached by the successful is, "If you write a great script, it will get made." They justify this by the fact that good scripts are extremely rare in their world – so rare that bad scripts have to be produced into movies because there are not enough good scripts to feed the production/distribution machine. (This perspective also validates their own sense of self-worth: If they "made it" in Hollywood, it's because they did good work, right?) Yes, the good scripts that actually get their attention have some chance of getting made. But do those good scripts tell stories that studio executives think people will pay to see? Do they have good roles to draw marketable stars? Do the stories tell a political message the executives are comfortable with?

And what about all those scripts that never get read by the Hollywood decisionmakers – the people who not only can say 'no' (of which there are many) but can also say 'yes' (of which there are very few)? One of the most common entry-level positions in Hollywood is that of "reader". The reader reads undiscovered scripts that are submitted (to the agency, to the production company, to the studio) and writes "coverage" that becomes the actual measure for assessment by others. Culling is done by the reader directly, and by others who don't read the script but only read the reader's coverage of the script. There are who-knows-how-many great scripts that never get past this stage.

How much good art that exists in your community do you know about? How many good white papers have been posted by authors you're not predisposed to find credible? How many good novels have a cover you find unappealing and never pick up?

If you're a content creator, so much of your success is out of your hands. You need some degree of luck or providence. Seneca wrote, "Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity." Corollary: Luck cannot happen if you are not prepared. But you cannot make luck happen. All you can do is be prepared, and be persistent at that preparation, and not blink if the opportunity comes.

That is how great content is found.

What do you think?

[Photo by "Ken & Nyetta (Creative Commons)]


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