When I worked at Encyclopaedia Britannica, I read a great Harper's article titled "Virtual Grub Street: The Sorrows of a Multimedia Hack" (available online, but to subscribers), about writing for an unnamed multimedia encyclopedia (cough Encarta cough). It was the first article I'd come across that challenged the conventional wisdom that in the online world, content is king: it painted a world in which content was a commodity, and its production was subject to the same kinds of deskilling and alienation that the factory had brought to manufacturing. (I lter used it in an article on the future of the encyclopedia.)
Today I came across two articles that are worthy successors to Roberts: this piece by Nicholas Spangler, and Jessanne Collins' essay "My Summer on the Content Farm." Both are about freelancing for Demand Media. As Spangler explains, the company
doesn’t do news, which is expensive to produce and perishable. It does “commercial content.” If you’ve watched a how-to video on YouTube or read an instructional article on the web, you’ve probably consumed Demand content.... Demand and its competitors... rely on algorithms and search data to determine what content consumers are seeking, what content advertisers are willing to pay for, and what content can be profitably produced. There are no news meetings. There are no newsrooms. The editorial workforce is freelance, compensated by the piece, at a rate that varies but is never far from skimpy.
Spangler's description of the experience of writing for them is great. There are plenty of accusations about the work being poorly-paid, the system being tuned to produce consciously mediocre work, etc., but that's not hard to believe, nor is it it especially unusual. What really jumped out at me was this:
Most days there were around 270,000 story topics to choose from, typically paying between $3 and $15. In their span and dullness and fascinating particulars, they reflected a more granular portrait of twenty-first-century American interests than the trending search topics on Google or Yahoo ever will. We are not deep in wonder. We are bankrupt and considering divorce in Oklahoma. We want to know how to make money with candy stands at miniature-golf courses. We want do-it-yourself plans for an electric unicycle and for dog wheelchairs. We are curious about Hungarian customs regulations and how to use a spinal-cord monitor during scoliosis surgery. Also, please, we would like instructions on How to Set Up a Pony Ride with No Ponies.
This last one fascinated me. I wondered if many people had run into this problem, or if it were just one person somewhere, some not-very-good dad trying to make it all up to the kids with one great party, already cutting corners.
The pony story, in its weirdness, suggests that there is a point where traditional news organizations, which target to a greater or lesser extent a mass audience with advertising to match, will always fail: that failure to meet the needs of someone, somewhere, is built into their business model.
This reminded me, in turn, of the classic Wikipedia-versus-Britannica debate: is it better to have a billion articles about everything, or to have a much smaller number of articles about Things That Actually Matter? Demand has clearly given itself over to the former, and while neither author has a happy experience in this world, both see a future in which it could swamp conventional journalism.