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Recently, the ReadWriteWeb blog founder and editor-in-chief, Richard MacManus posted a short piece titled Top Trends 2010: Content Farms. This was a follow up done in late 2009 and expands a bit on the growth of these websites. These content farms literally farm out jobs to freelancers who contribute a great deal of content very quickly. Most of this is very “uninspired” as MacManus aptly puts it. How can it possibly be inspired? This is fast food content, deeply fried. Produce it quickly and copiously, get it out there and maximize it for the most page views and advertisement potential. This content drives web traffic and fills financial coffers for these players. This leads to the big looming question – What is this doing to quality content on the web and can it take a stand against the onslaught of mediocre media?
The rise of the ubiquity of cellular networks, broadband and the 24/7 information age are helping to feed the content farms. People just want to know. And know right now! The trouble is this is swamping the web with ho-hum content that has been tweaked to get high search engine rankings. One begins to wonder what affect this has on all the brains between the eyeballs that read this content. This goes hand in hand with the fast past paced, short attention span, “I need answers right now” culture that the web has spun into place. They can’t really be blamed. Can they?
Let’s look at some numbers from the biggest content farms quoted in the Top Trends article to put these into perspective. The biggest farm is Demand Media, churning out thousands of pieces of content per day… per day! They have filed for an IPO estimated at $1.5 billion for 2011. Again, that is billion, not million. Yahoo! recently acquired Associated Content and added 20 million web pages to its inventory – 20 and six zeros. These were put together largely by 380,000 contributors. That is the size of some nice middle sized cities in the United States. Associated content produces about 10,000 new pieces of content per week or roughly 60 per hour, or one article a minute. Another content farm, Answers.com, along with Demand Media, Yahoo! and AOL (who has its own farm called appropriately enough SEED) are now frequently in the top 20 websites in the world. All of this leading to the virtual cash register for advertising that drives these sites.
I think these farms are trouble because what they are growing is not our ability to really think, critically process information and to synthesize results or thoughts that are deeply considered. “So what? These are sites that are largely how-to, step 1-10 sites for doing very specific things,” you might ask. Yes, but the content and the rapid pace of production make for some rather lacking substance and if this sub-par information rises to the top of search engines, it begins to get soaked up by those at the business end of the keyboard. And none of it really helps you truly learn about these topics with any kind of depth or understanding. The trouble is much of what the likes of Demand Media do is to partner with established print publications or other websites to farm content out the them. So you may be reading their work and not even know it. You may feel full for a minute after reading, but like a side of fries, there is not much there to keep you full for long. The travel tips section of USA Today is a good example. Most of this is contributed by Demand Media freelancers.
But aren’t these content farms providing jobs? Yes, but again, they are fast food jobs for the digital age. A read of Daniel Roth’s Wired Magazine’s article about Demand Media will give you a good idea of what it is like to be a freelance producer for them, and it is not that pretty. To again put a fine point on the volume produced, Roth writes:
Demand will be publishing 1 million items a month (by this past 2010 summer), the equivalent of four English-language Wikipedias a year. Demand is already one of the largest suppliers of content to YouTube, where its 170,000 videos make up more than twice the content of CBS, the Associated Press, Al Jazeera English, Universal Music Group, CollegeHumor, and Soulja Boy combined. Demand also posts its material to its network of 45 B-list sites — ranging from eHow and Livestrong.com to the little-known doggy-photo site TheDailyPuppy.com — that manage to pull in more traffic than ESPN, NBC Universal, and Time Warner’s online properties (excluding AOL) put together. 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.
I personally know one person who worked at Demand Media’s Austin office and he ran away screaming he was so concerned about what he saw. The commodifying of content is happening and this is all the more reason we need to teach the curation and search skills for seeking quality content, now perhaps more than ever. I am all for user generated content and crowd sourcing, but let’s slow it all down a notch and pump up the quality. Content farms at the end of the day are about monetizing content otherwise why would the put out such ridiculous amounts of it?
There is some hope as the RWW articles point out. One, Google may tweak their algorithm to help filter out these content from these farms, not giving them such a priority in their PageRank formula. And two, some on the horizon technologies like semantics can eventually play a broader role in helping to filter out and target truly good content to users, helping the best writers, filmmakers and producers to connect with audiences online, bypassing the “farm” if you will.
Meanwhile, on our campuses and classrooms, the answer to combating content farms may be instilling students to think critically, learn how to find the best information and always question what they find. Then have them learn how to put this together into a larger whole to construct knowledge and how to curate and understand where to find the best content related to their fields. The teachers in our institutions have lots of knowledge, very specialized knowledge for their fields of study, providing gateways for further inquiry. The power they have is increasingly to provide a steady hand in leading students through the sea of information and finding what is truly valuable and relevant. When these students do graduate, hopefully, they are better equipped to make decisions and find the best content whether they want to know how to change a tire in five steps or how the world’s financial markets are interconnected. Content is king but it must be quality content put together by the likes of a fine chef and her team versus a short order cook churning out as many burgers as possible.
Food for thought.