Hey, Demand Media! Get Off My Lawn!
I don’t know how I missed this Daniel Roth article in the October Wired about Demand Media the first time around, but it showed up in my Twitter queue this morning, and came on the heels of my reading and thinking about Farhad Manjoo’s evisceration of Associated Content in Slate. (I was kinder about Associated Content back in my Wall Street Journal days, but then I was mostly interested in them as a different way to build a brand.) From there, I read Sage Ross’s very good take (channeling Jay Rosen) on Demand Media vs. Wikimedia.
And then I tried and failed to calm myself down.
Journalists, the Web is not how our profession ends. The Web is a wonderful vehicle for storytelling, explaining, doing civic good and empowering readers who want to dig for information. If you want to know how our profession ends, look at Demand Media, starting with Roth’s poignant portrait of an experienced video journalist shooting noisy, out-of-focus footage for $20 a pop. This is the journalist as Chinese factory worker — except for a lot of rural Chinese the factory is a step up. You know the old joke about the sign that reads Good, Fast, Cheap — Pick Two? Demand Media took that and turned it into an irony-free business plan. The joke, unfortunately, is on the rest of us.
I’d encountered material from Demand before, along with stuff from other vapidmedia factories such as Associated Content and eHow. But I’d written it off as the usual Internet stupidity breaking the waterline thanks to an unfortunate alignment of search-engine tumblers. I hadn’t grasped that the visibility of this stuff — indeed, the sole reason for its existence — was the product of a Google-dependent strategy, or processed that its bland stupidity was a direct consequence of a pitiless, bottom-line business model. Wired’s Roth describes the consequences aptly: “To appreciate the impact Demand is poised to have on the Web, imagine a classroom where one kid raises his hand after every question and screams out the answer. He may not be smart or even right, but he makes it difficult to hear anybody else.”
Now that I’ve spluttered and raged, an attempt at perspective. It’s good to understand what information people are searching for, and by all accounts Demand Media has done a terrific job at that. Journalists have spent far too long uninterested in questions like that, maintaining and sometimes even cultivating an air of artistic disconnect from readers and the business side of their publications. It’s an understatement to say that hasn’t served them well in trying to adapt to the seismic changes in our industry. Smart algorithms like Demand’s are a way to bridge that disconnect, and a potential source of story ideas to boot. (Check out the interesting exchange about people donating cars in Dallas.)
Nor am I saying that you’ve got to be a member of the journalistic priesthood to impart useful information or tell good stories. I’m sure there’s some good, even great stuff produced by Demand Media and Associated Content, just as I rejoice that millions of people now produce commentaries, explainers and, yes, new stories without journalistic backgrounds or affiliations.
But Demand Media isn’t just an algorithm, and the confines of business models like Demand’s work against the production of good stuff. I’ll choose to believe Demand CEO Richard Rosenblatt that he wants to improve quality, but if he’s true to what’s made his company successful, he’ll have a lot of trouble doing that. Similarly, this article by Demand’s Steven Kydd, touting that The Future = Art + Science + Scale, has some valuable lessons for publishers, and it sounds reasonable enough. But the Demand equation sure feels more like The Present = Science + Scale – Art than what Kydd came up with. (See the sign up above.)
A couple of weeks back I had an interesting conversation with a first-class digital-media experimenter in which we talked about how systems are constructed, and how the starting points you choose will allow users to do interesting, unexpected things with those systems, or prevent that. Twitter is an obvious example — it’s slightly out of control, which has allowed its users to turn it into a hotbed of innovation. Demand’s system strikes me as so rigidly controlled that it’s a poor fit for any kind of innovation. Which would be fine if Demand weren’t the kid waving his hand in class with an obvious, not particularly edifying answer to everything.
Granted, it’s very early — too worried, probably, for me to get as worked up as I have. As Manjoo notes, vapidmedia is basically an exploitation of a weakness in search engines, which suggests its success could be temporary — the vapidmedia business model is perilously close to that of spam blogs, which Google battles all the time. As Manjoo notes, “once Google and co. wise up to [Associated Content]’s schemes, its business model is toast.” Still, I worry that’s wishful thinking. In class, the pushy kid with his hand up all the time would get pulled aside by the teacher and told to wait his turn. But there is no search-engine teacher. Google is hard on the crooked, but much as I dislike Demand Media and its peers, they aren’t crooked — and Google’s democratic, Hero Engineer mentality doesn’t lend itself to punishing the merely dumb.
A more hopeful sign, for me, lies in another Web truism: The cream rises, and over time talent wins out. As social search eclipses industrial search, the cream should rise faster. Right?
Well, maybe. Like a lot of current journalism debates, that becomes a referendum on one’s faith in people. Do you think people can produce accountability journalism without the framework of big journalistic institutions? Well, having thought about that a lot … I don’t know. Do you think if people move to the fore in finding information and sharing it we’ll get better information? I don’t know that one either.
This gets back to something said by Sage Ross about Wikimedia vs. Demand Media, which he describes rather poetically as “media driven by love versus media driven by money.” That’s a bit too simplistic for me, but I’d like to agree with his overall point. Now that I’ve calmed down some, I’d like to conclude that this too will pass, that people will make algorithms a complement to their own choices, that the cream will rise, the vapidmedia factories will be shuttered, and we’ll all be the better for it. I’d like to have faith, in other words. But media driven by love isn’t always so edifying, either. Have you been to Yahoo Answers lately?
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