Here is why content without context is useless

By adding context to your content not only can you make it more impactful, but also profitable and maybe, make the world a better place to live in.

Here is why content without context is useless

Saturday June 08, 2019,

8 min Read

In my everyday life, I deal with a lot of content; be it as a consumer or a creator.

I would like to share a few insights about content with you today. Particularly, how content without context is useless, and trust me, by the end of it, I would have convinced you how broad the implication of this is.

What is content?

Any kind of information is content.

The objective of this information can be to inform, educate, inspire, motivate, surprise, persuade, convince or even instill fear in you.

But I cannot attain my objective if the context is not right. I can’t randomly tell you “Hey, did you know, French fries are not from France”. It doesn’t make sense. It might be an interesting trivia, but it is not attaining any objective that you get by sharing that information.

However, it would probably make more sense, if I said this say, while we are sitting across a table having french fries. It would make even more sense if we were in France, or even more if we had French fries in France.

This is what context is.

The more dimension you add to that information, the more sense it makes and the more impact it will have. Correct? But unfortunately, that’s not what is happening today.

A lot of content is being created but with very little context or worse completely misinterpret it. To understand what is happening today, we need to go back in time. Way back in time.

Why and how did spoken language come into existence? The early human had figured out to control fire, he knew how to make spears, they were hunting in packs, which berries to eat and which ones to avoid.

But he wanted to transmit this knowledge to his tribe and future generations so that they have a better chance of survival. He knew the impact it would have on the chances of survival of himself and the next generation if he shared this critical information.

He had to invent a system to transmit this information and thus the early human invented language.

And for thousands of years, all of this information, even though it was being transmitted was stored in a single place - their brains.

Unfortunately, the brain is not a great storage device. I would love to quote productivity guru David Allen that your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.

So they had to invent a storage and processing system that can be outside of your brains because of its mental limitations. Around 3000-3500 BC some genius Sumerians came up with a brilliant system. It was called writing.

Writing was a huge task and only a few people could read. These painstakingly handwritten books were treated like treasures and likely only accessible to the extreme elite. In fact, not surprisingly up until the 15th century, there were only 30,000 books in the whole of Europe.

This problem was solved by yet another genius called Johannes Gutenberg. He had invented the printing press. Information and ideas started spreading far and faster.

Then around the early 20th century, the radio and tv were invented and this literally took information to the masses.

But one thing was common among all this information creation.

The barrier to entry to create content was very high because creating and spreading information was very expensive. This inadvertently forced context into creating information. This made critical information get priority and more exposure.

More importantly, this information transmission was only one-sided. Content creators went to great lengths to understand the what, where, when, how and more importantly, the “why” of information being presented and shared.

All of this changed in the 90s with the advent of the Internet.

Now, everybody could create content. And more importantly it was not just two-sided, it was all sided. People were creating content of other content.

The barriers to entry to create content is at the lowest in the history of human civilisation. This year we will create more data than the previous 5,000 years of humanity.

People are creating so much data because not only creating has become easier, storing and very importantly retrieving this information has become easier.

Throughout history, everyone was trying to transmit very critical information because of all of these problems. But now the critical information which is definitely being put out there is being buried by a lot of raw non-contextual information

But why is this a problem? Like nobody got hurt by some girl posting her breakfast picture or some teenage boy posting a selfie with his shades.

The problem appears when people and organisations with large influence create content and spread it without context.

The problem appears when people consume this content without the context and completely misinterpret it and take decisions and actions based on this.

The problem appears when fake information influences people more than actual information.

Today, the problem is not with creating information. There is lots of raw information being created. The problem is with processing this information.

The people who are responsible for processing this raw information and spreading it to the masses in the right context are not doing so.

But why are they doing this?


But what’s wrong with attention, the girl who is putting that tik tok video is doing it for attention, so is the young guy taking a video on his new bike.

The difference is, these major organisations and influencers are renting your attention to other companies and organisations in the form of advertisement. So the more attention they get the more money they make by renting your attention out.

Now, this wasn’t much of a concern until the Internet came along. Since creating content became so much more easier there were a lot more people trying to get a slice of the attention pie. Now, attention became the most sought after commodity.

They figured that the only way to get more attention is by being louder, literally and figuratively. Another trick they figured out was they can sensationalise certain information to get more attention.

And this cuts across lines, social media handles, media houses, online publications, reality shows, sports, movies, music, literally everything.

Is there a solution? There is.

Instead of renting out attention what if you can convert that attention into a transaction?

But the moment I say it, something in your head says hey that sounds wrong. But why do we have that resistance towards commercialisation of information?

Logically, it would make sense to monetise your content directly with your consumers than rent out attention and monetise it through other brands. The biggest disadvantage of this is that you have to listen to the tunes of these brands. The way raw information is processed is influenced because it might be against the vested interests of these brands.

But when you convert that attention into a transaction, something spectacular happens. The relationship between the content creator and content consumer changes. Because of this, content creators develop empathy. And empathy creates context. Because he knows if he creates content that the consumer will not consume, he will not transact with me.

Now you are converting that raw information in a way your users can digest. This means that the quality of the processed information becomes better which in turn creates a deeper impact on people.

And this is happening today.

It's happening with Netflix, which is directly transacting with their users and creating content for them. The same thing is happening with Music with Spotify, they are not even creating they are curating, which basically means putting things into context. Crowdfunded movies are a rage these days, so are crowdfunded political campaigns. It is also happening in online education.

I feel this drives home the point that people just don’t need information, they need it in the right context. And when they do, they don’t mind transacting because they understand the impact it is going to have on them.

And you as an individual can do it. The best part is that you don’t even have to create content or information. You just have to put it in the right context and you, as an individual can convert that attention into a transaction.

And when I say convert attention into a transaction, its not just money. It's a transaction of value. Money is just one way to represent that value. 

You too can add value in this chaotic marketplace of values, even when you are not creating. Whenever you get raw information, say in the form of a WhatsApp forward, force context into it and you can do this easily by asking the what, where, when, how and most importantly the why behind that information.

So by adding context not only are you making content useful, you can make it profitable, you can create an impact and maybe, just maybe, make the world a slightly better place to live in.

Here is my TEDx talk on the same topic

This post was originally published on Sanjay Shenoy
Montage of TechSparks Mumbai Sponsors