Algorithmize This!

There has been some heated debate as of late within new media circles as to the future of content. The opening salvo was an article in Wired Magazine called “The Answer Factory” about a company called Demand Media, which has created a virtual content factory that pumps out about 4,000 videoclips and articles each day. The clips and articles are sourced from low-paid freelancers using a sophisticated algorithm that matches search terms against the ad market for those terms to determine the most trendy, profitable content to create. You have almost certainly read content created by Demand Media, as it tops search engines with sickening consistency.

Uber-blogger Michael Arrington entered the fray with a post on TechCrunch called “The End of Hand Crafted Content.” Arrington announced that “hand crafted content is dead. Long live fast food content,” the “cheap, disposable content on a mass scale, force fed to us by portals and search engines.” Companies now ranging from AOL (which owns GameDaily and Joystiq) to CBS Interactive (which owns GameSpot) are creating fast food content using a combination of algorithms and cheap freelancers.

In response to the rise of crowd-sourced fast food content, internet luminary Jaron Lanier (creator of the term “virtual reality”) has written a new book called “You Are Not a Gadget,” a manifesto against the sort of “digital Maoism” that glorifies free information and collective work over the creativity of individuals. Lanier’s book, itself an example of hand-crafted content, is already controversial, because what he decries are the very success stories of crowd sourcing and demand-based media that are so popular right now.

As publisher of The Escapist, this is more than a rhetorical debate to me. It’s a debate about the future of the content publishing business – the future of my business. The questions that are raised are: What sort of content do people want? How do they find it? Does quality of content matter to them? And how much is that content worth?

Here’s how Demand Media, AOL, CBS, and others following the “fast food” strategy would answer these questions: They would tell you that people want content that’s relevant to their existing wants and needs; that audiences find this content by searching for it on search engines or browsing it on portals; that the quality of the content – in the sense of beautifully written, extensively researched, well-filmed, or carefully edited – matters much less than the immediate relevance to what they are looking for. And that this content is worth very little, being monetizable largely only by low-CPM display ads or search marketing.

It is easy to see an underlying truth in these assertions. Most websites get anywhere from 30% to 70% of their traffic from search engines and portals, which constitute the largest websites on the planet (save the two social networks). It’s extremely hard to argue that quality of content is more important than immediate relevance when one sees the popularity of, say, Twitter, or – both offer many great things, but Pulitzer quality is not one of them. We see it on The Escapist every day, when a quick news post that mentions Modern Warfare 2 will get a hundredfold more traffic than a beautifully written piece of prose about a game you’ve never heard of. The result of such trends is a usage pattern that is like waves in a great ocean – users slamming into a beach and then vanishing in a moment, carried away by the surf, leaving almost no evidence of their passing. The users who find a site by way of typing “megan fox pics” or “new makeup tricks” into Google are not interested in a deep engagement with the website they are visiting; and the website can hope to find value in the visit only through the incidental clickthrough of a direct response ad. This makes the content not worth very much – meaning it has to be made cheap and fast.

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The old saying is that “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” It used to be that content companies succeeded by delivering treasure. Nowadays, they succeed by delivering trash to the people who will treasure it. But something important is lost in this process of catering to the trash collector in each of us – creativity itself, in the sense of creating something new and unexpected and worth noticing. The fountainhead of creativity is the work of an individual with an idea, not of algorithms or committees or popular votes.

From the vantage point of January 2010, an algorithm can tell us that Zero Punctuation is the most popular show on The Escapist. But no algorithm could have told us in August 2007 that ZP would be the most popular show on The Escapist. The idea of a show featuring the breathless tirades of a British expatriate simply didn’t exist, and no one was searching for it. And you, our audience, couldn’t tell us you’d want something like ZP. ZP wasn’t the result of an algorithm: It was the result of inspiration. This is what hand-crafted content can achieve: Freshness, glittering novelty that you’ve never seen before, new ideas presented that you’ve never heard before.

In comparison, fast food content is parasitic. It cannot create anything new. It can regurgitate the formula for what people are already interested in, but it cannot create new things for people to become interested in. Fast food content is what Morgoth of Middle Earth would make if he was a producer – “The Shadow can only mock; it cannot make: not real new things of its own.” Fast food content can teach you how to play Lord of the Rings Online, but Lord of the Rings itself could never have been created with fast food content methods.

Or take the example of contemporary gossip and news websites like PopSugar, which rely on a steady stream of new pop stars and ‘it girls’ to talk about. A wonderful business, until you ask: Where do new pop stars come from? It used to be that brilliant musicians would be noticed by talented A&R (artist & repertoire) agents and brought to mass attention by inspired marketing. But that era has ended, as labels have cut most of their A&R staff and taken a different route – the route of fast food. As Jaron Lanier writes at Edge, “it has become notoriously difficult to introduce a new pop star in the music business. Even the most successful entrants have hardly ever made it past the first album in the last decade or so. The exception is American Idol… The winners are likable, almost by definition. But John Lennon wouldn’t have won. He wouldn’t have made it to the finals.” Fast food content can bring you Carrie Underwood, but it can’t bring you Lennon – or Trent Reznor or Tori Amos.

Finding people like Yahtzee Croshaw or John Lennon is not easy – it is “notoriously difficult.” It can’t be done with an algorithm or by a popular vote. If fast food content is as easy as taking out the trash, creating hits is as hard as hunting for buried treasure. As William Goldman, the great screenwriter once said, “no one knows anything.” If you’re doing something new, it’s impossible to know how good it will turn out, and how receptive audiences will be to it. That’s why, in the world of hand-crafted content, 9 out of 10 new shows, bands, movies, and games aren’t hits – it’s a 10% hit rate. And that’s a hard road to walk, when fast food content is so fast, cheap, and safe.

Here at The Escapist, our hit rate is arguably a bit better than 10%, but that’s because we’ve specialized in a segment we know and love. Even so, we don’t have a hit even 50% of the time. We constantly launch new series and sunset old ones. When we find something doesn’t work, we have to let it go and try something else. This is not easy, because even the most unsuccessful show or article we publish is the product of someone’s vision and inspiration, not an algorithm that told us to write about Halo 3.

Nor has our pursuit of hand-crafted excellence led to us becoming the largest game-related site on the internet. There are others that are much bigger, fueled by search-optimized blog posts with all the right key words. But we are the best – the best game-related website, according to the Webby Awards, and the best online magazine, according to Mashable. And we aim to stay the best. Which is why we haven’t replaced our editors with a Google Trend analysis, nor replaced our content creators – among the highest-paid in the game media – with $15 per feature freelancers.

We believe content creation should be a little more creative than making an order of fries. We hope you do, too.

Alexander Macris is co-founder and publisher of The Escapist, as well as president and CEO of its parent company, Themis Media. He has also written two tabletop wargames, conceived and edited the book “MMORPGs for Dummies,” and designed the award-winning web game “Heroes Mini.” After hours, he serves as president of Triangle Game Initiative, the Raleigh-Durham area’s game industry association, and runs a weekly tabletop roleplaying game campaign of concentrated awesomeness.

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