Virginia Heffernan on digital and pop culture.
Imagine a sci-fi universe in which every letter, word and sentence is a commodity. Companies make money off chunks of language. Bosses drive writers to make more words faster and for less pay. Readers then pay for exposure to these cheaply made words in the precious currency of their attention.
You can get a glimpse of that world on the Web right now. Just take a sunny summer tour of a content farm like Associated Content or Answerbag. You can find these content farms in some quarters of the CNN and AOL sites, too.
Content farms, which have flourished on the Web in the past 18 months, are massive news sites that use headlines, keywords and other tricks to lure Web-users into looking at ads. These sites confound and embarrass Google by gaming its ranking system. As a business proposition, they once seemed exciting. Last year, The Economist admiringly described Associated Content and Demand Media as cleverly cynical operations that “aim to produce content at a price so low that even meager advertising revenue can support it.”
As a verbal artifact, farmed content exhibits neither style nor substance. You may faintly recognize news in some of these articles, especially gossip — but the prose is so odd as to seem extraterrestrial. “Another passenger of the vehicle has also been announced to be dead,” declares a typical sentence on Associated Content. “Like many fans of the popular ‘Jackass’ franchise, Dunn’s life and pranks meant a great amount to me.”
The insultingly vacuous and frankly bizarre prose of the content farms — it seems ripped from Wikipedia and translated from the Romanian — cheapens all online information. A few months ago, tired of coming across creepy, commodified content where I expected ordinary language, I resolved to turn to mobile apps for e-books, social media, ecommerce and news, and use the open Web only sparingly. I had grown confused by the weird articles I often stumbled on.
These prose-widgets are not hammered out by robots, surprisingly. But they are written by writers who work like robots. As recent accounts of life in these words-are-money mills make clear, some content-farm writers have deadlines as frequently as every 25 minutes. Others are expected to turn around reported pieces, containing interviews with several experts, in an hour. Some compose, edit, format and publish 10 articles in a single shift. Many with decades of experience in journalism work 70-hour weeks for salaries of $40,000 with no vacation time. The content farms have taken journalism hackwork to a whole new level.
So who produces all this bulk jive? Business Insider, the business-news site, has provided a forum to a half dozen low-paid content farmers, especially several who work at AOL’s enormous Seed and Patch ventures. They describe exhausting and sometimes exploitative writing conditions. Oliver Miller, a journalist with an MFA in fiction from Sarah Lawrence who once believed he’d write the Great American Novel, told me AOL paid him about $28,000 for writing 300,000 words about television, all based on fragments of shows he’d never seen, filed in half-hour intervals, on a graveyard shift that ran from 11 p.m. to 7 or 8 in the morning.
Mr. Miller’s job, as he made clear in an article last week in The Faster Times, an online newspaper, was to cram together words that someone’s research had suggested might be in demand on Google, position these strings as titles and headlines, embellish them with other inoffensive words and make the whole confection vaguely resemble an article. AOL would put “Rick Fox mustache” in a headline, betting that some number of people would put “Rick Fox mustache” into Google, and retrieve Mr. Miller’s article. Readers coming to AOL, expecting information, might discover a subliterate wasteland. But before bouncing out, they might watch a video clip with ads on it. Their visits would also register as page views, which AOL could then sell to advertisers.
So that’s how you really commodify writing: you pay little or nothing to writers, and make readers pay a lot — in the form of their “eyeballs.” But readers get zero back, no useful content. That’s the logic of the content farm. An eyeball for nothing.
“Do you guys even CARE what I write? Does it make any difference if it’s good or bad?” Mr. Miller asked his boss, one night, by instant message.
Mr. Miller says the reply was brief: “Not really.”
Mr. Miller’s experience is consistent with other recent stories by content farm workers. It also jibes with the master plan laid out in “The AOL Way,” a company document leaked to the press not long ago. That document reduces the art of journalism to a process that begins with using metrics to “identify high-demand topics” and ends with the review of this “hi-vol, lo-cost” textual content — those are articles, folks — for such important literary virtues as Google rank and social-media traction.
But an astonishing thing has happened. After months of inaction and seeming paralysis, the forces of good — or the Forces That Claim to Disdain Evil, anyway — fought back. With its near-missionary calling “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” Google had evidently been humiliated by the content-farm system.
Like an earnest teacher who’d been outsmarted by a clique of relentlessly cheating students, it had lost credibility.
You can’t mess with Google forever. In February, the corporation concocted what it concocts best: an algorithm. The algorithm, called Panda, affects some 12 percent of searches, and it has — slowly and imperfectly — been improving things. Just a short time ago, the Web seemed ungovernable; bad content was driving out good. But Google asserted itself, and credit is due: Panda represents good cyber-governance. It has allowed Google to send untrustworthy, repetitive and unsatisfying content to the back of the class. No more A’s for cheaters.
At the same time, the goal, according to Amit Singhal and Matt Cutts, who worked on Panda, is to “provide better rankings for high-quality sites — sites with original content and information such as research, in-depth reports, thoughtful analysis and so on.”
For big media companies, the Panda formula is now as precious and coveted as any pink diamond or nuclear microchip in a Hollywood thriller. Content farmers will need to beat it if they want to keep up business as usual. And many media companies — old and new — are betting on ad revenue, and ad revenue comes with eyeballs, and eyeballs come from being in Google’s good graces. The secret code that puts a site on top of Google’s search results, or casts it to the bottom, is invaluable.
On Tuesday, Google officially rolled out Panda 2.2. Put “Whitey Bulger” into Google, and where you might once have found dozens of content farms, today you get links to useful articles from sites ranging from The Boston Globe, The Los Angeles Times, the F.B.I. and even Mashable, doing original analysis of how federal agents used social media to find Bulger.
Last month, Demand Media, once the most notorious of the content farms, announced plans to improve quality by publishing more feature articles by hired writers, and fewer by “users” — code for unpaid freelancers. Amazing. Demand Media is stepping up its game.
To see how this might play out for readers, I visited eHow, a former content-farm division of Demand Media, and found an article by a library-science graduate student named Alison Sperry. It was called “How to Write a Poem Like Walt Whitman,” and if it wasn’t E. B. White, it wasn’t precisely robot prose, either.
“Think about an event or experience you are passionate about or brings about a lot of emotion,” Ms. Sperry advised. “Your best writing will come from events, experiences and knowledge you are passionate about.” You don’t say.