Journalistic End Times, Pre-chewed Food for Thought
The new rules of content are simple:
- The content must be SEO-friendly.
- The content must be available for every topic imaginable.
- The content must be cheap to produce.
- The content must generate ad buys.
Yahoo’s purchase of Associated Content last week, for a whopping $90 million, highlights the growing race for ad dollars going on among the Internet’s biggest players. The best way to get those ad buys is to offer companies highly-targeted content that will attract a niche audience. The best way to get the most esoteric content in the shortest amount of time is to prioritize quick and dirty efficiency over expression.
The result is something akin to an online industrial revolution, with content sweatshops churning out cheap, choppy, but sufficient bullet point lists and how-to videos. Like most physical factories, the emphasis is on making money, not producing quality work.
Sure, the content has to hold up, but it’s far from thoughtful exploration. The fact that I’ve been working on this post for about four hours (I wrote the end first) would make me worth less than $4 an hour to Demand Media.
Demand Media advertises itself as the leader in social media, claiming:
“Every day Demand Media makes it possible for people to create and publish valuable content, for millions of Internet users to engage around passionate communities, and for thousands of websites to grow with social media features their audiences want.”
The idea of “social media” has been through more mad libs than I can count, but there are still surprises to be had by the liberties taken at its expense. Media is media, but affixing the word “social” implies that there is some emotion, some modicum of unprovoked human expression involved.
Or it seems it should be that way. Phrases like “the death of journalism” have been thrown around for years, but if you were looking for the smoking gun, here it is.
The goals of companies like Associated Content and Demand Media are light years different than those of the Star Tribune or Los Angeles Times. Both need money to survive, but while content factories produce useful content solely to sell ads, we have to believe that most writers at these newspapers still want to tell a story.
But it takes too long, and it’s too inefficient. Major newspapers across the country now rely on this Sam’s Club model to fill the empty space by writers they could no longer afford to keep on staff. In turn, many of these writers now find themselves absorbed into the very system that is working hard to replace their brethren, churning out 30-minute articles and videos on how to draw horses or steep green tea.
We want content, we want it now and we want it pre-digested.
In 2009 Wired covered Demand Media in depth, dubbing it “The Answer Factory,” and the nickname is scary accurate.
Content Sweatshops, Algorithm-based Ideation
Companies like Demand Media employ a huge number of freelancers, producing content in bulk for pennies per piece. These are the “how-to’s” you find on sites like eHow, and each one pays about $15 if you’re a writer – $20 if you’re a videographer. You get paid even less to proofread.
The process is more machine than human, a journalistic terminator of sorts – intent on subjugating search results through esoteric optimization and algorithm-based imperialism, while struggling to portray a human facade.
Contributors operate more like factory workers than content creators, fitting blocks of information into prescribed patterns without much creative flexibility, racing towards mindless efficiency. It’s not a commentary on the creators themselves, but the system they’ve been left to create within.
With Demand Media, it’s all about the idea-generating algorithm. Computers analyze user searches, ad buys and competitor content to find holes in the material that’s online – ranging from semi-general (kayaking) to very specific (origami frogs) – and spit out keywords.
Another algorithm then determines what context these keywords might be queried within and regurgitates a meatier, but jumbled lump of search-optimized phrases terms. Finally, a human editor picks this up and, for 15 cents, turns the mess into something resembling a title.
Then it’s creation, editing, plagiarism-checking and posting. Someone, somewhere, will now be able to find a tailored article detailing the fine art of constructing a pirate hat out of construction paper. Perhaps they will also click on an ad for a trailer of the upcoming Pirates of the Caribbean while they’re at it.
And it’s not just about content that people will want to read – it’s about content that advertisers will want to pay to have their ads placed on. Most of the money generated by these companies comes from PPC-based ad buys. To get make more money, you’ve got to have more ads – to get those ads, you have to have content to attach it to.
So the machine continues to turn. In the near future Demand Media hope to produce one million pieces of content a month. Sooner or later, traditional journalism will seem like John Henry racing the steam engine.
Mass Production Gone Mainstream
Demand Media isn’t alone in this quest for content, either. AOL’s Seed system, introduced last year, operates in a similar fashion, and Yahoo’s recent purchase of Associated Content highlights the search engine’s desire to join the fray.
In light of Yahoo’s recent partnership with Bing, the move makes sense. With Bing handling search and Yahoo taking over the ad network, it’s no wonder Yahoo is looking for ways to produce more advertising revenue. For $90 million, Yahoo now has a stable of 350,000 contributors shelling out content based on algorithms designed to maximize ad buys.
Even Google has dipped a toe, using video content from Demand Media to pursue more ad buys on YouTube. Google also powers ads on sites like eHow, so while they’re not yet in the content game they seem more than content to dine at its table.
For those of us who still like our answers with inflection, there are places to go, but how far are you willing to dig. Are you prepared to siphon two-three pages of Google search results to find something worthwhile?