Content farms apply industrial logic to stocking the shelves of the Internet

It’s an Internet Age challenge, but it has spawned a business model right out of the early Industrial Era, when cash-starved, cottage-based artisans were recruited to turn out product at cut rates for hungry consumer markets.

Meet the so-called content farms. They’re the media’s newest and most prodigious over-achievers, the Sam’s Clubs of the online world—huge, cheap, tacky and popular. You’ve probably never heard of them, but if you spend time online you read their stuff all the time. A lot of it comes under the heading of “how to” or “10 hottest” or “tips for” or “best and worst,” the kind of superficially informative cud that neither you nor I nor anybody else can altogether resist chewing on.

They’re basically brokerages that handle words and pictures. They hire writers and videographers, many of them skilled, young and desperate, to churn out thinly-reported articles and films for stoop-labor pay. They re-calibrate their assignments continually to adjust to audience interest and advertiser preference. And they pour that inventory onto hundreds of online venues.

Yahoo’s Associated Content and AOL’s seed.com have built content farm operations alongside their more traditional news and comment. Industry biggie Demand Media, which doesn’t do news, produced about 5,700 articles and videos in the second quarter of the year, according to a Wall Street Journal profile; that content appeared on YouTube, on a network of websites Demand owns—such as eHow.com, Livestrong and Pluck—and on some 350 other websites including the San Francisco Chronicle’s and the National Football League’s.

Content farms strive for the ultimate in customer-driven content. They gather the best available data about search engine queries, reader online selections, and the prices advertisers are paying for keywords, to come up with shimmering, road-tested, market-tuned content.

“We are maniacally focused on giving users exactly what they want, where they want it,” Richard Rosenblatt, Demand’s founder and CEO, said in a 2009 interview. “We have algorithms that tell us what search visitors want. And algorithms that tell us what YouTube visitors prefer. And we’re working on new algorithms that tell us what social network users desire. And we’re pretty sure the needs of mobile users will be different than all of the above—so we’ll tune our approach for them too.”

Demand uses some 10,000 freelancers, and wages aren’t terrific. Wired magazine reported last year that writers were getting about $15 an article and film-makers $20 a clip; for copy editors it’s $3.50 per item.

Demand makes money when readers click on the ads that run alongside the postings. Each click brings from 15 to 60 cents, which the company says it shares with its authors. It told BusinessWeek that editors and reporters can earn better than $3,000 a month.

Still, that doesn’t buy much depth or imagination, and the content farms have taken some heat for cruddy content. AOL blogger Jeff Bercovici recently did a fine job cataloguing some of Demand’s more moronic articles, such as how to put on a Speedo, and how to calculate someone’s age if you know their date of birth.

In fairness, a lot of the content is tasty enough, but you do have to wonder about the hidden costs of industrializing the production of such spurious facsimiles of expertise and saturating the Internet with them. It’s one thing to pay somebody 15 bucks to write out instructions on how to tie a bow-tie. But when Demand covers “How to begin raising smart kids” in 277 words, you can’t help but cringe.

That’s because it reminds you how confining the whole enterprise really is: You’re not going to see “how to achieve social justice,” “saving the planet,” or “tips on end of life care.” Commoditizing knowledge in this way means pandering to a public gaze that’s lowered onto the immediate, the popular, the quick and the sellable.

Which makes the model a natural to extend from the distribution of loopy consumer tips to the news business. Enter Xinhua, China’s official news agency, which is embarking on a major global expansion to 6,000 journalists in 200 bureaus. That will make Xinhua a leading source of domestic news coverage for many of its host countries. Newsweek reports: “It might do for news what China’s state-run factories have done for tawdry baubles and cheap clothes: take something that has become a commodity and foist it onto the world far more cheaply than anyone else can.”

Low-cost, mass production, tailored to local taste: Sounds like content farming on a plantation scale.

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