Alistair Fairweather

Production by the internet masses

2010-02-19 10:01

As I type these words, thousands of people around the world are busily writing or filming short "how to" guides about every subject imaginable, and getting paid for each one they complete. These people aren't professional journalists or bloggers - they are freelancers. And they aren't getting their assignments from an editor or publisher - they're getting them from a machine.

To be more precise, they're getting them from the giant hive of computers that forms the backbone of Demand Media's multi-million dollar operation. And where do the computers get them? Why, from you and me, of course.

It works like this: Demand Media's computers ceaselessly scan the internet to find out which topics (or "terms") people are searching for most often. They then cross reference these search terms against what advertisers are willing to pay to appear next to them, and check how many pieces of content there are already competing for the same terms.

The machines then estimate how much potential advertising revenue each term will yield, rank them accordingly and spit out the most promising topics to be written or filmed by the waiting army of freelancers. The topics are quite specific - things like "How to make guacamole" or "How to fold an origami heart".

Once the content is ready it is vetted by another army of freelance editors and fact checkers, also paid per item, and then fed into Demand Media's network of sites which includes eHow.com and GolfLink.com, as well as syndicated to other big players like YouTube.

Lower quality

And since the demand for their content already exists it tends to get clicked on, read and watched. So, customers are happy, advertisers are happy, freelancers are happy and Demand Media are happy - right?

Well, not entirely. Freelancers typically earn around $12 per written assignment, and $20 per video. At those rates they have to really crank out pieces to make it worth their time. This naturally tends to lower quality, which should tend to less satisfied customers and eventually less advertising revenue.

Except that the content doesn't need to be that good, it just needs to be good enough. No one understands this better than Demand Media founder Richard Rosenblatt, a silk-tongued serial entrepreneur who made his fortune flipping e-commerce companies during the dot-com boom.

Rosenblatt is not a man with an innate respect for fuzzy stuff like quality or culture - he is a man who lives and dies by the cold calculus of the market. If the model did not produce results, Rosenblatt would have abandoned it and moved on already. Demand Media made over $200m in revenue last year, so he's sticking with what works.

Media critics have heaped scorn on the model, likening it to a "content sweatshop" and predicting it will hasten the death of quality journalism. Rosenblatt may be calculating, but it seems he also has feelings. He hit back with a chest-thumping manifesto that, naturally, paints his company as a pioneer of the new economy and champion of the common freelancer.

Production by the masses

Whether or not you buy either argument, there is something a little frightening about the thought of a wave of machine-driven content flooding the internet. In a world increasingly moving away from mass production and towards local, hand-crafted and "small batch" production, this sort of mass produced content seems like a return to the bad old days.

Except this isn’t actually mass production - it's production by the masses. There's nothing homogenous about Demand Media's products, or their producers. This isn't a content sweat shop so much as a cheap-and-cheerful advice service. Besides, many of "workers" seem to actually enjoy what they do.

We journalistic types may not like Demand Media's model, but it clearly works, if only because it lowers the barriers that keep ordinary people from participating in, and making money from, the media. The fact that it also enriches Rosenblatt and co is beside the point.

- Follow Alistair on Twitter: @afairweather

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