The Furor Over Content Farms
I’m glad to see I’m not alone — the agitation over content farms (my term was vapidmedia) is increasing among digital-media thinkers. Here’s a rundown of recent takes on the issue, what it means, and what — if anything — should or can be done about it. To reiterate my point of view: I don’t think Demand and other vapidmedia mills deliberately try to produce low-quality content, but I think their business models virtually ensure that they will do so. Nor is my primary objection that they turn content creators into Chinese factory workers. I don’t like that, but if the market wills it, so be it. Rather, my primary objection is that vapidmedia clutters up search with low-quality content designed to game Google’s algorithms, making better-quality information harder to find.
To review, the article that kicked the issue into high gear is Dan Roth’s Wired magazine profile of Demand Media. A related piece is Farhad Manjoo’s takedown of Associated Content, from Slate. (Richard McManus of ReadWriteWeb has also penned two good investigations of Demand Media.)
Here’s the fusillade I wrote about Demand Media after reading those two articles.
What’s new: Over the weekend TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington waded into the fray, warning that “I think there’s a much bigger problem lurking on the horizon than a bunch of blogs and aggregators disrupting old media business models that needed disrupting anyway. The rise of fast food content is upon us, and it’s going to get ugly. … These models create a race to the bottom situation, where anyone who spends time and effort on their content is pushed out of business.” Arrington’s conclusion is dour: Content creators need to “figure out an even more disruptive way to win, or die. Or just give up on making money doing what you do.”
New York City venture capitalist and blogger Fred Wilson is hopeful — as I was, albeit somewhat tentatively — that the antidote to vapidmedia is the rise of social search. Social search, he says, will help us decide what’s quality content and what isn’t, where search engines can’t: “It’s a lot harder to spam yourself into a social graph.” This fits with my own thinking that social search stands to eclipse the power of Google in relatively short order — Google’s empire is built on a clever recreation of social approval, hierarchy and relevance, but the Web has matured to the point where we can use those social tools instead of industrial substitutes for them. (This is also why, as I wrote, the drama starring Rupert Murdoch, Google, Bing and vengeance-minded publishers will make for great theater but not particularly matter before long.)
Jeff Jarvis spoke with Demand’s Steven Kydd about the company. Jarvis also sees social search as a way to prevent content farms from degrading search results, though he praises Demand’s algorithms as useful to discovering questions the public wants answered. His take is interesting, though I think he gives Demand too much credit by urging us “not to miss Demand’s key insight: that the public should assign the creators, including journalists.” I agree that Demand’s algorithms are smart and could be useful in spotlighting questions the public wants answered, but Demand isn’t part of any war of journalism ideology, and I think it does more public harm than good.
Coming nearly full-circle, ReadWriteWeb’s McManus looks at some ways Google can combat the content farms — and notes it’s quite likely that Google is already working to put some of these tactics in place. Here’s hoping.
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