9 Creative Leaders on Owning Your Content, Platform, and the Future of Your Work

At the beginning of 2018, we teamed up with our global partner WordPress.com to create an interview series with prolific creatives who have been owning their content and platforms for over a decade. The series was created as a resource to inspire creatives to take agency over how and where they share their work.

We’re honored to have gained rich and personal insights from our interviewees on a topic that needs perspective and forward momentum to shape the future. My hope is that you dig through each interview and each participant’s work and platform to understand the decade-plus-long journey of their art, and realize that you have the power to design and forge your career intentionally and with your whole heart.

Our participants answered the following questions, plus many others: What were the clear benefits of housing your work on a personal site? How do you effectively spread your work to other platforms? Where does the word content even derive from? And what does the future of this landscape look like?

This is a summary of the wisdom we gleaned on what it means to own your content, your platform, and the future of your work.

The Origins of Content

Ten years ago, content was the buzzword. The pipelines of the internet were laid out and people were eager to fill them with stuff.

This essay on the brief history of blogging states that “in 1999, according to a list compiled by Jesse James Garrett, there were 23 blogs on the internet. By the middle of 2006, there were 50 million blogs according to Technorati‘s State of the Blogosphere report.”

Screen Shot 2018-05-01 at 12.28.26 PM.png
via Google Trends for “content marketing”

The stuff that filled these pipelines was content.

In the mid-2000s, it felt like a marvelous privilege to have infinite access to all of these blogs and online marketplaces — it was a time of unprecedented flow of information and thought. But today, the signal to noise ratio is overwhelming. It’s too much “content” for the sake of selling and too little thoughtfulness.

Maria Popova, founder of Brain Pickings, describes what this content has done to the internet:

“We are flooded with mediocre ‘content’ produced for the sole purpose of transmitting ads — this type of ‘content,’ which is now predominant online, is the reason for the epidemic of clickbait, the carrier for the highly contagious impoverishment of thought and feeling we are undergoing as a civilization.”

She also asserts who has largely been in charge of this type of lowest-common-denominator information:

“…it was foisted upon us by a commercially driven media industry that treats human beings as mindless eyeballs counted in statistics like views and likes, as currency to be traded against advertising revenue. Somehow people have been sold on the idea that the relationship between ads and ‘content’ is a symbiotic one, but it is a parasitic one.”

Anita Sarkeesian, founder of Feminist Frequency, shared a similar sentiment: “It feels like our creative, artistic, and intellectual work is just filler for ads without merit of its own.”

However, a common sentiment our interviewees expressed was the importance of storytelling, transparency, knowing your audience, and creating context.

Jocelyn K. Glei, writer and podcaster of Hurry Slowly, delves into what it is that must be done to redeem what content has become: “…creating good content requires specificity: it requires a point of view and strong writing and the right package to frame it, to catch someone’s attention, and to inspire trust. This is no easy task.”

Maria Popova shares an gem of an insight from Susan Sontag:

“More than half a century ago, long before the web, Susan Sontag wrote beautifully about the trouble with treating art and cultural material as content: ‘Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art … Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all.’”

This is why our next point focuses on context: the indispensable skill most needed for our future.

The Future of Content Is Context

Jocelyn Glei believes that good content is all about creating context, because we’re inundated with so much information. We get content “in these little bursts now—be it an email, a tweet, a blog post”:

“Given this, I think what’s needed are curators, editors, writers, filmmakers, etc., who can really zoom out from that narrow perspective and take the long view. Who can do some of that sense-making for people so that they understand how this political development fits into the long arc of history, or how developing this particular habit will give their life more meaning in the long run. The future of content is about creating a rich, well-thought-out context that makes it possible for people to really process and synthesize ideas in depth — not in this surface-y way we’re all accustomed to now.”

Alan Webber, founder of Fast Company, described the difference between content and context in his CreativeMornings/SantaFe talk, “Content is a commodity. Content is the digital equivalent of pig iron. Context seeks to explain what is going on in the world so that we can make sense of it. Context takes this commodity and transforms it into meaning.”

If context is going to be the yin to the yang of content, then what, exactly, are those skills?

Kathryn Finney, founder of digitalundivided, believes there’s power in AI to help form this context, and she also shares where there’s untapped opportunity:

“I see content becoming more personalized and predictive for the audience through AI. I’m just blown away by how much we can potentially do with this technology in engaging its targeted audience.

“In addition, people have grown savvy when it comes to seeing through fluffy advertorials and search-optimized pieces. I see bigger demand for more authentic, well-researched, and high quality content that can build the readers’ recognition and trust in your publication (super important for this ‘fake news’ era).”

When content is supercharged by context, it’s a concoction for change.

When stories are told in a way that empathizes with the person’s journey and provides them with a sense of meaning, community, or insight to inspire a decision that takes them from here to there, then the work is impactful, not just noise.

This ability to contextualize content is a skill of the future, a practice rooted in empathy, connection, and storytelling.

The future simply cannot withstand more stuff, nor will it enrich us. We need help making sense of the mess and turning it into meaning — to be a lighthouse on a stormy night, bringing people back to land and out of the chaos.

Kat Holmes spoke to this in her interview:

“I hope we gain a much better understanding of how people work. How our bodies and minds work together to learn, communicate, and process information. This should certainly include giving people multiple ways to interact with content. What we can hear or feel is reinforced by what we can see or taste. But I think content developers are going to play a key role in building more respectful ways to put human beings in the lead of any interaction with technology. Content can be designed to complement a person’s goals, not just to compete for their attention.”

Now that we’ve heard about the origins of content and the skills that will enrich the future of it, let’s shift gears and tap into some themes that revolve around this kind of work.

Licensing and Protecting Your Work

We’ve all heard stories about (or experienced for ourselves) someone taking an artist’s work without permission and generating a profit. Or someone steals your words without permission; copies a meme you made and removes your signature, and then it hits mainstream popularity.

It’s a terrible feeling, and like most things, it’s not as black and white as we’d like it to be. But there are simple, effective, streamlined ways to protect your work and also generously share with the creative community at large.

Ryan Merkley, CEO of CreativeCommons, shares the benefits of licensing your work through their platform

“I think all creators should first understand the rights they have, and then consider what they might gain by choosing to share. If they want to share, we offer simple tools that are the free, global, inter-operable standard. CC licenses are built on top of copyright — that means they rely on copyright law for enforcement and international recognition.

“If creators want to protect their work from being used in ways they don’t want, they are no more or less safe using CC licenses. Our tools stand up to legal challenges and international use.”

We asked Heather Meeker, an intellectual property lawyer, about the basics of protecting your work. Her interview provides a crash course on this topic, covering everything from copyrights and patents and trademarks to “moral rights.” Check out her interview for lots more details and see how you can implement the best protections for your work: “If you understand the four types of IP and what each one does, you will be much better equipped to protect your work — not to mention understanding the legal environment for creative work.”

Longtime blogger Luvvie Ajayi shared her personal beliefs at the end of our conversation:

“I think people should trademark their work. That’s a big piece of it. Art is trademark-able, which basically puts the extra stamp on it that, ‘This is mine, my intellectual property, this is something that I control.’ That’s big for me, and I know that a lot of people are like, ‘I’m just doin’ the work.’ But you also have to protect the work. Even as you give it away, it’s still needs to be protected.”

There are ultimately no right or wrong answers to this. Ryan Merkley provides a framework rooted not in fear, but love:

“For me, ownership is about choice, not restriction. . . . We get hung up on the control of our work, and too often forget what’s possible when it gets unleashed. I often encourage creators to think about what they want to enable, not what they want to restrict — translation, adaptation, remix, collections, and other serendipitous asynchronous collaborations are what make the web delightful, and excite us.

“But to do that, we have to be willing to let go a bit. We are quick to forget that everything we make is a derivative of something else. Sometimes it’s a reaction, but often it’s a remix. We can fight it, or embrace it, but art and knowledge, like love, are not finite. They are infinite, if we’re willing to open ourselves to the idea that someone else having and using my work doesn’t deny me the ability to also enjoy it.”

Collaboration and Communication

There is nothing more fun, exhilarating, challenging, and rewarding than bringing an idea to life with a friend and watching it unfold to create the change you seek.

Creative professionals know that the process of collaboration is fundamentally rooted in communication — the catalyst for feedback, ideas, and the pulse of the project.

This isn’t always easy. When worldviews collide or real constraints impact a project, you have to learn how to work together and not against each other. It’s not about the person, it’s about the project.

Grace Bonney, founder of Design*Sponge, shares some meaningful lessons learned throughout her work:

“The most important lesson is to always have a clear and defined contract that includes an out clause. Even the most wonderful beginnings sometimes have messy ends, so I think it’s best to spend the time up front defining how things will end (who will be credited, what the kill fee is, etc.) when things change or don’t go as planned.

“I used to go into every collaboration with the assumption that it would all goes as planned because we all wanted that. But things change, and good contracts mean for good relationships in the long run. So now I won’t enter into anything if there isn’t a clear document outlining what we’re all expecting, what everyone’s roles are, and how we’ll handle things if they don’t go as planned.”

Anita Sarkeesian shares her personal framework for working with the right people and projects that are aligned with her values:

“I enter into every partnership with other people and organizations on a case-by-case basis. I look at the work they’ve done and try to determine if we have similar goals, a similar mission, a shared worldview. We don’t have to agree on everything or have the exact same strategies and tactics in our activism, but we should be fighting for the same ultimate goal.”

Within the collaboration aspect of creating work is the urgent and important matter of inclusivity. Gone are the days of siloed, homogeneous methods of building products, writing researched essays, or building community.

Kat Holmes mentioned in her interview [emphasis mine]:

“I don’t think we’re at a common understanding, yet. Inclusion means a lot of things to a lot of people. We need better language to describe different kinds of inclusion. We need specific methods for building and measuring it. There is a lot of work to do to make inclusion a repeatable practice, not just a nice idea.

Success is when inclusive design is the default way to design any aspect of society. In 10 years, the urgency for inclusiveness in tech will be higher than ever. My hope is we’re prepared to meet those challenges with practical methods.”

The Future of Work

This notion that we can build a body of work rooted in our art and our being and share it online to impact people and open doors is pure magic.

We must not squander this. The era of “fake news,” misuse of data, and organizations using artists’ work without permission is, I think, a natural growing pain that comes with something as accessible and free as the internet. To be surprised that this happened is naive and to do nothing about it is a waste of the true gift the internet can be to us all.

We can do better. We can create a culture of giving credit, transparency, inclusivity, and intentionality in what we make and how it changes people. The rules of the last 20 years were made up, and so, too, can the rules of the future be rooted in moral and sound principles.


This interview was produced in partnership with WordPress.com & CreativeMornings.

Morning people get 15% off their WordPress.com site at wordpress.com/creativemornings.

Interview by Paul Jun. Illustrations by Jeffrey Phillips. ‘Own Your Content’ illustration by Annica Lydenberg.

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