There has been a lot of talk lately about the quality of information available online. The debate has centered around “content farms”, such as Demand Media and the current incarnation of AOL (oops, sorry, Aol.). Kicking off this round was Michael Arrington, who wrote in a post titled The End of Hand Crafted Content:
On one end you have AOL and their Toyota Strategy of building thousand of niche content sites via the work of cast-offs from old media. That leads to a whole lot of really, really crappy content being highlighted right on the massive AOL home page….
On the other end you have Demand Media and companies like it. See Wired’s “Demand Media and the Fast, Disposable, and Profitable as Hell Media Model.” The company is paying bottom dollar to create “4,000 videos and articles” a day, based only on what’s hot on search engines. They push SEO juice to this content, which is made as quickly and cheaply as possible, and pray for traffic. It works like a charm, apparently.
These models create a race to the bottom situation, where anyone who spends time and effort on their content is pushed out of business.
Journalism professor Jeff Jarvis thinks that decrying the lowering of information standards online rather misses the point.
They may be right. But then again, the internet has always been filled with crap. So the challenge has always been how you find the cream. That’s where opportunities lie. That’s what Google saw. The new question is whether Google can keep ahead of the content farms and continually find new and better ways to find better stuff. I’ll bet on Google over crap-creators. But they better get cracking.
I see three rings of discovery today: search (Google); algorithms (see: Google News, Daylife); and humans (see: Twitter)…. As search becomes more personal and no longer universal, SEO as a dark art and as the fertilizer for content farms will diminish and the social graph — our own circles of authority — will become more important in search as well. So I have faith that there are solutions to stem any rising tide of crap.
The rise of hyper-local media taps directly into Jarvis’ third ring of discovery: humans. In these systems, there are a couple of routes by which content (e.g. a blog post, podcast or video) might be generated. Either someone takes it upon themselves to produce something of interest to them, in which case they have a vested interest in its quality, or content is produced upon request and there is a visible relationship between the producer and consumer. In either scenario, high quality, individualized content can be the result and in a local community of readers, it can be easily discovered.
Doc Searls, in his brilliantly titled post, The Revolution Will Not Be Intermediated (us oldsters get the reference), also suggests that we are not the slaves to media manipulation that some fear. He doubts that “fast food content” is going to shut down quality writing, any more than McDonald’s stifles serious chefs.
Nothing with real real value is dead, so long as it can be found on the Web and there are links to it. Humans are the ones with hands. Not intermediaries. Not AOL, or TechCrunch, or HuffPo, or Google or the New York Freaking Times. The Net is the means to our ends, not The Media, whether they be new disruptors or old disruptees. The Net and the Web liberate individuals. They welcome intermediators, but they do not require them. Even in cases were we start with intermediation — and get to use really good ones — what matters most is what each of us as individuals bring to the Net’s table. Not the freight system that helps us bring it there, no matter how established or disruptive that system is.
The intermediaries who hope to manipulate our online habits are smart, powerful and well funded. However at this point in time, they rely on massive amounts of generalized data (statistics) for their models to work. The smaller the group, the less well targeted it can be. So, by building personal networks and using sites that cater to our communities (either geographical or ideological), we strengthen the web and feed the demand for high quality, relevant and personal information.