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The Agony and the Ecstasy is one of my all-time favorite films. Based on actual events, it’s a lavish period drama about the relationship between Michelangelo Buonarroti (played by Charlton Heston) and Pope Julius II (played by Rex Harrison). Although Michelangelo considers himself a sculptor first and foremost, Julius forces him to paint the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel. This conflict highlights a dilemma that has bedeviled creators for centuries. Since they often needed the support of powerful patrons in order to create, the wishes of their patron often took precedence over their own. Thankfully, the digital age has tipped the scales in favor of creators. It’s now easier than ever for creators to produce work that aligns with their distinctive vision, but it also adds new challenges. Content creation in the 21st century requires a solid understanding of digital literacy. This article is the first installment of a two-part series looking at content creation.
What is digital literacy?
Digital literacy has three dimensions: Cognitive, Technical, and Social-Emotional. It can also be broken down into skills such as Finding, Understanding, Evaluating, Creating, and Communicating. This post will focus on the fourth of these skills: Creating.
The evolution of digital content creation
Technological advancement has ushered in new types of content. Widespread Internet access offered new platforms for creativity. Services like GeoCities allowed anyone to create a website for free, though the creator needed to have some technical understanding in order to get the best results, which is probably why so many of those early GeoCities sites were a nightmarish amalgamation of dissonant colors, fonts, and MIDI files. Eventually, new platforms emerged to provide a more standardized experience–think things like LiveJournal or Blogger. This in turn gave rise to blogging as a distinct form of online content. What was once a niche sector of the media is now a global force, and leading bloggers can now have as much (or more) influence than traditional media outlets. For a look at how technological development has shaped the web, check out this article.
More platforms emerged over time to fill different niches. Sites like MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter created a whole new genre: social media. Instead of focusing on long-form content like LiveJournal and its peers, these sites encouraged people to express themselves in shorter bursts and allowed them to incorporate media such as photos or sounds. But while this allows new forms of creativity, it can also make the act of creation more intimidating. It’s not enough to have a blog and call it a day. You need to consider other channels, each with its own distinctive approach to content creation. Moreover, these approaches are always in flux as companies tweak algorithms and court advertisers (for a look at how these types of changes can impact creators, check out this journal article).
Crafting meaningful digital content
If you want to reach the widest audience possible, it’s important to create content across different channels. But you need to do this intelligently. What works on Instagram isn’t necessarily going to work on X (formerly known as Twitter). In addition to understanding each platform, you also need to understand their user base. Don’t feel compelled to jump on a platform just because it’s popular. For example, if you’re primarily producing content for academics, it’s probably a waste of time to make content for TikTok unless you’re deliberately trying to court a more popular audience.
It’s also wise to make sure that every piece of content you create has a purpose. You want to make sure you’re providing value to your readers, whether that means teaching them something new or selling them something that can solve a specific problem in their life. You’ll also want to ensure you’re writing for people and not machines. Revenue River has some good advice on content strategy.
Creating content in practice
To give you some idea of what this kind of content creation strategy looks like in practice, let’s consider our trusty journalist who covers video games. Their editor has tasked them with covering Starfield. Long-form content is the heart of their coverage, so they write an in-depth review as well as some articles that focus on specific questions that players may have (e.g., “Which skills are best?” or “Should I save [insert name of non-player character]?”). This is posted to their publication’s website. Of course, not everyone enjoys reading long-form content, so the journalist also creates video versions of these articles, which are uploaded to the publication’s YouTube channel. They can’t forget social media, however, so they create posts for X incorporating notable quotes from their long-form content. At the same time, they also take part in the wider conversation about Starfield, which helps draw readers into their coverage. They may even supplement this by streaming themselves playing the game on Twitch.
Technical proficiency in content creation
Naturally, you’ll also want to make sure that the content you’re producing for various channels and platforms is optimized for each one. As a general rule, you can’t go wrong with visual aids. At one time, this usually involved paying someone to create custom images or using stock photos. But the rise of easily accessible generative AI has made it easier than ever for creators to illustrate their work with arresting and unique images. Alternatively, you might mine your long-form content for material that can be used in an infographic, which is a great way to translate text-based content into more visual channels such as Instagram. This post by Kelly Lyons over at the Semrush Blog has some great advice for crafting a varied content-creation strategy.
The advent of the digital age has unlocked a plethora of opportunities for content creators. The Michelangelos of today don’t have to allow powerful patrons to force them into making content they aren’t passionate about. They can follow their passion wherever it may lead them. But added opportunities bring added challenges. Creators are free to choose from many different platforms, but that doesn’t mean they can be one-trick ponies. Even if they focus on one particular platform, they’ll need to adopt a diversified approach to reach the widest possible audience. Whatever they decide to use, creators should strive to produce content that’s purposeful and tailored to meet the needs of each platform’s users.
The next post in the series will look at the social and ethical dimensions of content creation. Stay tuned!