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Will Demand Media and Other Content Farms Ever Create Good Content?

I loved this tweet by NPR senior strategist Andy Carvin on journalism versus newspapers. One is a specific type of content, he reminds us, the other is a distribution platform.

Andy Carvin Tweet on Newspapers v Journalism

In the early days of Internet newspapers and magazines, which banged out new content more frequently than their print counterparts, web publishers were criticized for their lack of quality, spelling and fact checking.

Right around the time web publishing had attained mainstream credibility, blogs emerged as the new enemies of quality journalism. How could people writing without pay create anything good? But somehow quality publications emerged from the blogosphere, including the Huffington Post, with its small staff of editors and its thousands of unpaid contributors.

Evidence of the Huffington Post’s legitimacy among journalists is a recent post at the Daily Beast by Newsweek’s Dan Lyons. Its new model of journalism — some created by paid staffers, some for free by independent bloggers, and some aggregated from other sources such as AP — is in danger of destruction by the “AOL Way,” an approach advocated by AOL CEO Tim Armstrong to create more search-engine friendly content. Much like the technique used at content farms such as Demand Media and Yahoo’s Associated Content.

“It’s all about making stories based on traffic potential and profit potential. It’s all about numbers — and volume. It’s a depressing, sickening, embarrassing document. AOL’s hacks are expected to write five to 10 articles a day — which put me in mind of the scene in Ben-Hur where the slaves are put to work rowing a Roman warship, and their Roman master tells them, ‘We keep you alive to serve this ship. So row well, and live.’”

Before I go on, let me first admit that Demand Media and Associated Content are certainly producing a lot of crap. Earlier today I was searching to find caffeine levels in Mighty Leaf brand breakfast tea (is there any?! I’m falling asleep as I type this), and on the first page of Google’s results was an “article” from Associated Content.

Associated Content on Might Leaf Tea

It’s really atrocious. Someone or some machine seems to be inserting phrases such as “your search for excellent quality teas” and “great online source for tea drinkers” in nearly every sentence. And there’s almost nothing useful between the search-bait clauses.

Yet I still hold out hope for the content farmers. In its extreme form, where somebody or something is generating and inserting nonsense phrases in sentences written, presumably, by a human being, these content-farming platforms are spewing out spam. If Google can’t figure out how to sift out this dreck, it will (as has been widely reported) lose its share of our attention and the ad dollars chasing that attention.

But what’s to say that content farms can’t operate like quality-agnostic platforms — like Blogger, WordPress and Twitter? Or “platforms” that are less defined by their underlying technology than by their ability to delivery content to audiences, such as the Huffington Post or print newspapers of old? If you turn off the god-awful search-bait phrase creator, isn’t content farming just a new way of assigning stories? We’re certainly in trouble as a civilization if this becomes the only way! And you’ll still have lots of junk — just like you do across the blogosphere, Twitter or those beloved newspapers from the golden age of print journalism — but there’s also an opportunity for a passionate tea drinker to publish a useful paragraph comparing breakfast blends from Mighty Tea and Peet’s, or a community organizer to get news out to neighbors without the costs associated with publishing a neighborhood paper.

Who knows? When I first created a Twitter account, I dismissed it as a chat room for my narcissistic friends. Now it’s helping to power revolutions.

Related: As Google Declares War on Content Farms, What’s Demand Media To Do?