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 eHow.com - 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.