I read a chilling story by Wired Magazine's Dan Roth last night about the future of online media, and I'm still trying to keep my breakfast down. It's not pretty.
Roth's story is about a company called Demand Media, which has introduced factory farming to the blogosphere. The company churns out 4,000 articles and videos every single day based on ideas spit out by a computer algorithm. The algorithm analyzes the keyword frequency from major search engines and the ad revenue that each of those keywords returns.
[ Also not bringing you this blog: the FTC. Get the lowdown from Cringely on InfoWorld. | Stay up to date on Robert X. Cringely's musings and observations with InfoWorld's Notes from the Underground newsletter. ]
Its goal: to find the topics people search for most often that also provide the most pennies per click. The algorithm then spits out a series of keywords that are manipulated into a fortune cookie-style headline by a pair of humans (at 8 cents a pop). That headline gets tossed out to Demand's cadre of hungry freelance writers, who get paid $15 a post to generate a few hundred words of drivel. Demand runs the post through a plagiarism detector, pays $2.50 for it to be copyedited and (maybe) another buck for fact checking, and then voila -- instant content, delivered at a tidy profit.
This is similar to a tactic that has long been used by sleazy SEO companies. They commission bogus, link-rich articles about a product or Web site, then post them online hoping to fool Google into thinking the particular product or site is more popular than it actually is. The problem here is that Demand Media is being used with increasing frequency by legitimate sites, like eHow, LiveStrong, and Cracked.
Want to crank out a video on that topic? No problem. You can make a cool $20 for that. Doesn't have to be in focus or anything. According to Roth, YouTube loves Demand Media because -- unlike 90 percent of the stuff people post -- it produces videos that are easy to sell ads against.
Here's an obnoxious YouTube video describing their services, which appropriately enough comes with an ad for cheap car insurance attached to it.
And now the really chilling bit. Per Roth:
Demand is already one of the largest suppliers of content to YouTube, where its 170,000 videos make up more than twice the content of CBS, the Associated Press, Al Jazeera English, Universal Music Group, CollegeHumor, and Soulja Boy combined. Demand also posts its material to its network of 45 B-list sites — ranging from eHow and Livestrong.com to the little-known doggy-photo site TheDailyPuppy.com — that manage to pull in more traffic than ESPN, NBC Universal, and Time Warner’s online properties (excluding AOL) put together.
The result: Reams and reams of crapola filling the Net. Even worse than it already is, if you can believe that. But hey, if that's what the people want....
The brains behind this scheme? Former eUniverse/Intermix CEO Richard Rosenblatt. In 2005, Rosenblatt's company paid $7.5 million in fines to then-New York AG Eliot Spitzer for distributing spyware. Intermix also happened to own MySpace at the time, which put social networks on the map when News Corp's Rupert Murdoch bought it for $580 million.
(Later, former Intermix exec Brad Greenspan sued News Corp, saying MySpace was really worth $20 billion and that Murdoch had parked spies outside his house to sniff his Wi-Fi network. No, I'm not making that up.)
Before the big cashout, the company made money via bottom-feeder content like low-rent dating sites, recycled ink jet cartridges, pet photos, and the "hilarious videos and cartoons" at BigFatBaby.com.
It seems little has changed. Demand Media is the MySpace of online content, but with less class. Its stuff is about as mindless as BigFatBaby and as insidious as spyware.
Surprisingly, if you Google "shameless sleazebag," Rosenblatt's name does not rise to the top of the search results. Maybe somebody should commission a $15 story on that keyword phrase.
Obviously, I have a vested interest in this story. If Demand Media's methods become the way most Web sites generate content (and ad revenue), professional writers will effectively disappear from the Net. It will be just like when that meteor hit the earth 65 million years ago, wiping out the dinosaurs and leaving nothing but rodents.
But when publications are unable or unwilling to pay professionals to write stories or generate videos, we'll end up with two kinds of content: the dreck that Demand Media is producing, or higher-quality content that serves the aims of the people who can afford to pay for it -- corporations, powerful individuals, governments, and so on. So it's either amateur hour or propaganda. Take your pick -- not a very pleasant choice.
And when they figure out the snark algorithm, I'm history.
What do you think? Does the Net need professional content, or is it time for the old pros to crawl off into the tar pits? Post your thoughts below or e-mail me: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story, "This blog has NOT been brought to you by an algorithm," was originally published at InfoWorld.com.