Dull content is bad enough... growing numb to a daily stream of fluff is even worse: Whenever we limit the horizon of our expectations, the world gets smaller.
The real danger of dull content is its tendency to insinuate itself so seamlessly into our everyday routines. Dullness dulls the senses: It becomes a state of mind. You can feel the effects of this dullness in the need to punctuate even the most simple declarations in exclamation points!!!!! There's a real, living person behind these words!! I swear!
Surrounded by dullness, we risk habituating ourselves to a mind-numbing daily round. Even when we tune it out, dull content can lower expectations. Without realizing it, we grow accustomed to the empty formality of websites that simply reiterate a constant stream of undifferentiated information: A state of constant dull.
Dadaism Then and Now
Not surprisingly, the problem of dullness is not new. Back in 1917, a group of artists, who called themselves Dadaists (German for "hobbyhorse," a designation taken randomly from a dictionary), felt the world was also getting dull, too routine. They thought modern life had reduced daily experience to littler more than quotidian round of bland, dull commodities. Everything in our lives had simply become too familiar: Furniture, streets, pots and pans, typewriters, paper, soap—everything!
One option for dealing with dullness is to escape it. Perhaps read a romantic book. Or maybe watch the latest Star Wars flick (great movie, by the way!). Or perhaps follow the example of T-that guy in Fight Club and escape the dullness of daily routines by joining an underground club where a bunch of other very bored guys all beat up on each other. I don't recommend this option.
The Dadaists however, did not want to escape the world. For them, escapism only made people less aware of how dull and routine life could become. In other words, distractions that enabled people to escape from the dullness of everyday life led to a kind of mindless denial that, ultimately, only made matters worse. Instead, the Dadaists wanted to both entertain and challenge audiences: They wanted to bring thoughtful attention to all the dull details of everyday life by making these details seem somehow new and surprising.
One of them, Marcel Duchamp, decided to bring attention to a particularly dull and in fact unappealing object of everyday life—a urinal. To make the urinal newly unfamiliar, he turned it upside down, gave it a title, and put it in a very fancy art show. Once a urinal, the object was now a work of art famously entitled, "Fountain."
Certainly, turning a urinal into art seems pretty crass, somewhat absurd, silly--and yes, actually pretty stupid. But stupidity was the point. Duchamp wanted to playfully highlight what he saw as the underlying absurdity of everyday things. He wanted to expose a kind of cosmic joke lying just beneath the mundane appearance of all that dullness and routine. He was also having some fun, telling a joke. If you find the world dull, Duchamp's advice is to play around with it's meanings.
Duchamp's "Fountain" also lampoons the snobbish pretenses of "high-art" by celebrating the common praticality of objects designed for everyday use. The "Fountain" implies that the difference between "art" and everyday objects comes down to an arbitrary cultural distinction: "Art" is found in museums, not bathrooms. Want to make art? Just turn an object upside down, give it a new name, and put it in an art show. Voila--art! In other words, the work suggests the populist notion that anything can be art; the difference is a matter of cultural prejudices that tend to privilege a certain class-based notion of what counts as "sophisticated."
The idea resonated. Today, Duchamp’s "Fountain" is among the world’s most famous and influential works of art—even though nobody knows where it is. That’s right, the original "Fountain" is lost. But you can find photos on the internet. I know because I just looked for one and put in this blog. Plus, some museums even have replicas of the original urinal!
Certainly, people in 1917 would have found the internet very exciting. But, after a while, even a vast, global system of interconnected computer networks can begin to get a bit dull—as we well know.
Later, in the 1960s, the "Mad Men" era of outbound advertising and cheesey ads brought on a whole new brand of dull: A constant barrage of fluff ads designed to get grab attention, but which ultimately dulled our senses. (Well, not all of it was dull--there was obviously a lot of creative advertising out there. Still, in terms of numbers, it was mostly pretty dull.)
Decades after Duchamp's "Fountain" shocked audiences into reflection on the dullness of everyday life, the artist Andy Warhol decided to draw new attention to the inanity of of mass advertising. What Duchamp did for urinals, Warhold did for Campbell's soup cans. Warhol's goal was to highlight the latent absurdity of an era inundated with empty imagery.
Of course, Warhol's subtly sarcastic reproductions of advertising images proved wildly popular--and, ironically, great for advertising. Like Duchamp's "Fountain," Warhol's work also presented a populist critique of the "high-art" pretense to sophistication. At the same time, Warhol's work also embraces that pretense. Advertisers began to realize that populist/sophisticated irony sells. Companies like Absolut Vodka rushed to have Warhol design their self-consciously anti-advertisement advertisements. Campbell's even released a special line of limited-edition Andy Warhol cans. Absolut Vodka did the same.
Today, artists in the tradition of figures like Duchamp and Warhol have decided to take on the dull ironies of the internet. Their goal is to de-familiarize the familiar elements of online experience. They aim to do to the internet what Duchamp did to urinals, and Warhol to soup cans.
Constant Dullaart: The Internet's New Dadaist
Consider the work of Constant Dullaart. Like his name, his art seeks to play with and thereby expose our immersion in a state of constant dullard-art—ness. Or maybe it's dull-art-ness? Byond boring, "dull" also suggests a kind of vapidly stupid emptiness. In other words, you can read his name in a few different ways: Boring, stupid art that comments on the dullardries of online experience. However you read his name, its playfulness is the point: "Constant Dullaart"--both the artist and his name--plays on meanings; the name plays on the “constantly dull” in order to undo it, renew it, make it exciting, or, better yet, interesting.
Often, Dullaart transforms overly familiar, banal images or tiresome website interfaces just enough to highlight some of their inherent ‘strangeness.’ For instance, he has a collection of links to domain names on sale that no one would buy. Linked together by their shared status of semi-existence, they form the rubbish dump of the internet. In his Delicious account, Dullaart labels the poetic domain names, like www.baddomainname.com and www.hopeless.org as “ready mades.”
His fascination goes further to dwell on the design of the ‘default settings’ of these sites. His ‘ready mades’ are, therefore, a reflection on the omnipresence of boring content like stock photography and insipid typefaces.
With his practice Dullaart follows in the footsteps of previous net artists who have elevated the interface design or unfrequented corners of the Web into art. Dullaart’s sites work as low-key parody; they expose the mundane in a playful, visual way that compels viewers to consider the underlying weirdness of otherwise routine details of online experience. Dullaart engages with contemporary internet culture indiscriminately. While being playful, his works also celebrate a certain coarseness that is practiced on the networks and inverted to be thrown back at the audience.
The lesson for content strategy:
If you struggle with dull content, just make it a little strange; don’t be afraid to experiment with possibilities. Emrace irony. A populist, ironic poke at "high" culture never hurts. Whatever you do, make sure you're having a good time. Audiences will pick up on that energy. Content should be informative, but it should also be fun. Sure, this kind of playfulness involves some risk. Not everyone fell in love with Duchamp’s "Fountain." Today, of course, he’s considered a genius who transformed how people thought about art and it's potential impact on our sense of the world. Few things are more powerful than the courage to be creative.
Now, before we end, I suspect some of you may be thinking, "That's great, but my company produces technical B2B products that provide highly functional value, but not necessarily exciting blog content." The lesson of artists like Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol and Constant Dullard is that even the most utilitarian of products--like a urinal or soup can--can be made to seem new and interesting.
And just in case this all seems too abstract, I ask you to consider the example of Big Ass Fans. The company makes fans--big ones--for industrial applications. They also produce a wide range of other Big solutions. The apparently vulgar name is actually a complex play on meanings. Vulgar as it may seem, the logo--an image of a donkey--"excuses" the name by playing on it's officially and thus legitimately "non-vulgar" dictionary definition. The name also suggests a kind of embarrassing disposition for being foolishly stupid (again, see the dictionary). Only in this case, the name works out to be quite the opposite: A brilliant bit of marketing. And, inpsired by the term customers used to refer to the fans, the name is inheremtly populist.
Slightly crass? Yes.
Hugely successful? Yes.
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