A few thoughts (and some links) about content mills…

Over the last couple of days, I have been reading a lot about content mills. In case you aren’t familiar with the term, content mills or content farms are websites or networks of sites that churn out thousands of pieces of content per day, which are optimized to score high on specific search engine results. These content mills pay freelance writers very poorly to pump out the content, and their quality reflects that. This is the crap that is cluttering up your Google search results, which I have written about before here.

I don’t have much to say about content mills, except that once I identify one, I avoid it with extreme prejudice. I also noticed that when you google the term content mill, the first result, “What Is a Content Mill,” comes from a well-known content mill. Irony in action.

Anyway, it appears a backlash is a-brewin’. People want this crap out of their search results. Yeah, me too. Anyhoo, here are some good links on the subject for further reading:

The Search Engine Backlash Against ‘Content Mills’ (MIT Technology Review)
Google, Content Farms & Why This May Be Blekko’s Moment (Search Engine Land)
MediaShift’s Guide to Content Farms (PBS)
Content Farms: Why Media, Blogs & Google Should Be Worried and How Google Can Combat Content Farms (ReadWriteWeb)
Content farms v. curating farmers (BuzzMachine)
Content dust bowls (Magellan Media)
The Future of Media Isn’t Free Content, It’s Cheap Content (Metafilter)

So much crappy writing, so little time…

The web has made it easy for anyone anywhere to publish their writing with very little effort or money, and for the most part, I believe this is a VERY GOOD THING. There probably hasn’t been a time in history when people could so easily express themselves, and instead of shouting into the void, there’s a good chance that someone somewhere is actually listening.

But as freeing as this collective outpouring is, the writers of the web are producing a lot of dreck. Originality is as rare a commodity online as it is anywhere else. But I have found that the worst writing doesn’t come from the vast sea of personal blogs (although there is plenty of bad writing there), but from the so-called professional blogs that rely on a never-ending stream of content to get ads in front of eyeballs.

It’s depressing reading the same rehashed, boring, generic prose over and over again. These sites, which seem to constitute the bulk of what gets published online (at least on a regular basis) occupy the same wasteland as the magazines in the grocery store checkout line or the Today Show and its ilk — except they are much harder to avoid. Google’s search algorithm doesn’t filter for quality, as far as I can tell.

And I have to blame Google for this never-ending babble, because these sites believe they have to publish quickly and often. I know that pageviews drop if you don’t post frequently. And if pageviews are your bread and butter, then the act of posting — rather than the content you post — becomes the crucial thing. Who cares what you have to say so long as you keep talking?

So we get list after list of 20 this or 50 that, pseudo-slideshows designed to keep us mindlessly clicking, unsupported prognostications of the end of everything, vague punditry that answers questions none of us cared to even ask. Because of the pressure to keep posting, few take the time to ruminate, percolate, revise or edit. This isn’t writing; it’s masturbation by blog post.

I’ve found the best online writing either at the very top of the food chain — on the sites of renowned print magazines like The Atlantic or The New Yorker, some publishers that have invested writer and editorial talent in their websites, and blogs of well-known writers — and at the bottom, where individual writers toil in relative obscurity, simply for love. (I try to highlight those writers here when I unearth them.) The best links rarely show up in Google searches; they are shared by my virtual friends on Twitter, Google Reader, and the comments areas of my blogs and blogs I read.

But there’s a certain randomness to waiting for good writing to fall into your lap. There is no online library where high-quality writing on all kinds of subjects has been selected, cataloged and annotated. Who would be willing to pay for such a service when we are so used to getting everything on the web for free, even if it is one that we could all benefit from?

In the meantime, we keep floundering in the sea of dreck. The reward is when we discover a new insight or thought or poetic piece of writing. Sometime it happens several times in a day; sometimes it doesn’t happen for a week or more. But still, it happens.

You should also read:
The Future of Print (Booksquare)
Why I Blog by Andrew Sullivan (The Atlantic)
Slow Blogging Manifesto

The death of everything!

I am getting a little tired of reading blog posts and articles proclaiming the “death of this” and the “end of that.” Just a quick Google search turns up the death of beer (The Atlantic), the death of fiction (Mother Jones), the death of the open web (New York Times — actually an article I liked), the end of men (The Atlantic again), the end of the best friend (New York Times again) and the death of the Internet (quite ironic for a video posted on YouTube). Other things rumored to be dead or dying: newspapers, science fiction, the novel, print books and my sense of humor.

This hyperbole makes me weary. It is not really appropriate to proclaim the death of anything until you have actually viewed the corpse. But I often find that articles making such proclamations have very little in the way of real evidence to back up their predictions. Instead, they tend to reach for the worst conclusions based on scant evidence and overblown fears. I’m ashamed of these fine publications for succumbing to wild speculation just to bring in readers.

From now on, I will refuse to read an article that proclaims the death or the end of anything, unless it’s an obituary for an actual living being. I want to read about life, not death.

Thoughts on advertising on the Internet

I am revisiting a perennial bugaboo: advertising on websites. This was sparked after reading a post that pretty much equated ad-blocking to stealing (similar to the “using DVRs to fast-forward through commercials is stealing” argument).

Not too long ago, I started using AdBlock. I had never seen the need before, but since I switched to web surfing on a Netbook, website ads became not only annoying and interfered with the content I was trying to read, but also slowed down my computer unacceptably. Even though installing the Chrome AdBlock extension is relatively fast and easy, I probably wouldn’t have taken this step if my web surfing experience hadn’t deteriorated so much.

The post mentioned above claims that if I cared about the content I was reading, I wouldn’t block the ads that support that content. On the surface, they have a point. But dig a little deeper, and I think this argument quickly falls apart.

This argument makes a couple of huge assumptions: 1) that each website deserves to make money off the Internet, and 2) that ads are the best way to make that money.

Let’s look at point #1 first. I don’t think that everyone who sets up a website has the right to make money off that website. There’s a lot of stuff on the web, and a lot of it is garbage or regurgitations of other people’s content. Even running AdBlock, I can usually tell when a site primarily supports itself with garish or tacky ads. The content is often insipid or a basic rewriting of something I’ve already seen a dozen times or just plain bad. There are exceptions, of course, but I’ve more often than not found the best writing on the web is coming from sites that aren’t getting directly compensated for it by ad revenue, such as bloggers, authors on their own websites and columnists writing for fun.

This reminds me of the content I find in local newspapers. In some newspapers — such as the New York Times, which I read regularly offline and on, and which I pay for — the content is often quite good, interesting, well-written and educational. Go down to the local level, though, and the content becomes one-dimensional, just filler between the ads. No wonder newspapers are dying. I might glance at the local newspaper from time to time, but I feel no need to support it because it doesn’t provide the value I’m looking for.

Now for point #2: I’m not convinced that the advertising model either works online or is appropriate for the Internet. Television is an advertising-supported medium (although to tell the truth, I tend to watch more pay TV than anything). The reason this works is because the barrier to entry is high — you need a lot of money, people and talent to make a good TV show like Lost, for instance — and the payoff in terms of audience numbers is equally high. If I really like a show, then I will sit through its advertisements.

But anyone can start a website in a matter of minutes. The barriers to entry are low. You don’t need a lot of people to do it; you can write it alone, in your spare time. As a result, there is a lot of free content on the web, and some of it is quite good, even if the writer isn’t getting paid.

In fact, some of my favorite sites or blogs are run by people who aren’t making any money directly off their efforts. Many of them are writers who use their sites to promote their books or columns. Others are professionals writing about their work and thus building the reputation of themselves or their companies or nonprofit organizations (or whatever they are promoting). Many are bloggers like myself who write just for the fun of it. Because these content creators have other motivations than increasing ad revenues by getting large numbers of pageviews, their writing is often more passionate, honest and compelling than the content found on ad-supported websites.

There are exceptions that prove the rule. Lowest common denominator sites like FAIL Blog or LOLcats can support themselves handily with ads, and more power to them. For sites like those, ads are a good match. But for the vast number of websites, running ads — especially the kinds of ads that interfere with the content or are the equivalent of late-night infomercials — devalues the content, if it even had value to begin with.

I’m not saying that writers don’t deserve to make a living off their words and their talent. But I am saying that maybe not everyone who sets up shop on the web deserves to make big money off of it. If you offer content that has high value, people will probably support you, either directly or, more likely, indirectly. But if you don’t provide the value, and if you cheapen the content with obnoxious ads, then people will block the ads or move on to some other site. As long as the barriers to entry remain low, and talented people are motivated to provide good content without ads, there will be someplace better to move on to.

“Why Ad Blocking Hurts the Sites You Love” (MetaFilter)
Why Ad Blockers Work (Rob Sayre’s Mozilla Blog)

Practical uses for blogs: Journals and research notebooks

The blog has become so popular because it is a format that has a wide variety of uses. Generally, web surfers are used to seeing blogs used in one of the following ways:

  • to present information and news on a narrow subject in small, manageable chunks, generally supported by advertising
  • to communicate news about a service, product, organization or program
  • as a diary, detailing the daily life of the writer, which may or may not be of interest to anyone else
  • in its original usage, as a place to post interesting links (although I think other tools have surpassed the blog for this purpose)

Or as some combination of the above.

I have found the blog to be a useful format for another purpose: as a notebook or journal. I keep 6 blogs (5 public, 1 private), which I grant you, seems like a lot. But to my mind, they are the virtual equivalents of 6 notebooks I might have once kept or did keep before I discovered blogging. Yet they are so much more powerful.

I think of my blogs as journals or research notebooks. Journals differ from diaries in that diaries typically focus on the mundane day-to-day events in the life of a person. A journal, on the other hand, is a record of a person’s thoughts and learnings, often about a particular subject. For instance, you might keep a journal recording your thoughts about the books you read, as I do. Or if you are teaching yourself to cook, you might keep a journal of tips, recipes, ingredient notes, etc. (again, as I do).

A journal can also be the equivalent of a research notebook, although I differ between the two because I tend to keep more clips, quotes, pictures and other people’s writing in a research notebook, while a journal is usually all original writing. For instance, one of my blogs is my notebook of post-apocalyptic research. It contains photographs, lists, article summaries, poetry and my own thoughts, all mixed together.

Blogs have it all over physical notebooks, though. Here’s why:

  • Links - you can link to articles of interest, research sources, related pieces, etc.
  • Media - it is relatively easy to incorporate graphics, photographs, audio and media into a blog to enrich the content.
  • Search - a blog is fully searchable, making it a simple matter to locate whatever you’re looking for.
  • Tagging - enables you to quickly categorize your work, cross-reference related items and visually see patterns emerge over time.
  • Unexpected feedback - Blogs can be public or private. But if you make your blog public, you are inviting comment, which allows others to contribute their own ideas, other resources, questions and support to your work, which may enrich your work in unanticipated ways.

Whenever I start a new project from now on, I intend to start a blog to accompany it. Whether it amounts to anything is not important. What is important to me are the tools that blogs offer to help me plan, record, organize and — yes, this one is important, as well — share my work and what I’ve learned.