Are Content Farms Creating ‘Digital Serfs’?

AdAdge recently ran a piece discussing the move toward content outsourcing in traditional media, from “in-house” journalists and editors to third party “content farms” such as Demand Media and Associated Content:

Hachette is using Associated to supply some content for its Woman’s Day site. Thomson Reuters experimented with Associated for a limited period of time last year but plans to ink similar deals in the future, whether with Associated or another content provider. And Cox’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution published a handful of articles from Associated last summer; it is now running regular articles supplied by Demand Media.

Such partnerships further the ongoing shift among established news operations to capitalize on the availability of cheap content, such as USA Today’s recent deal with Demand Media, which is using its network of freelancers to supply pieces for a new Travel Tips section on USA Today’s website.

In the past I’ve criticized Demand and Associated Content as being fountains of crap content, much like the oil spill in the Gulf is spewing junk into the ocean. But that’s unfair; many of the writers that work for (freelance for) these organizations are former journalists or people with expertise in the areas they’re writing about.

At least some of the content being generated then will be of reasonable and maybe even high quality. The issue as the AdAge piece points out is cost; these sources are just much cheaper than headcount:

Associated pays its contributors anywhere from $5 to $30 per article, sometimes upfront — and in some cases pays a performance fee of up to $2 for every 1,000 impressions the story generates within Associated Content’s site.

The margins on these articles are quite large; but the publisher pays no health insurance or other overhead costs — Demand says it provides “access” to health insurance — so the bottom line on outsourcing is highly favorable vs. hiring staff writers and editors.

Maybe someone will come forward and claim to be making “six figures” from writing for one of these companies but I’m skeptical. What we’re seeing develop, accordingly, is a class of underpaid writer-content creators or “digital serfs” who are largely anonymous and fungible. Some people may, of course, be using content farms as a kind of SEO strategy to promote themselves or their businesses. But those savvy folks are likely in the minority.

Branded publishers know that they can’t maintain their reputations by relying primarily on this stuff but they can back-fill or round out their content online with help from Demand or Associated Content.

Perhaps these companies are simply filling a void and need created by the disruptive influence of the Internet, which won’t support ad revenues comparable to print and thus the staffing. Perhaps these are the new economics of content creation online. But the creation of a class of digital serfs is a lamentable outcome in my opinion.

8 Responses to “Are Content Farms Creating ‘Digital Serfs’?”

  1. Nico Brooks Says:

    Don’t you think the reverse could also happen? Arguably, writers have always been underpaid. Most of the money in publishing has gone to the publishers and the distribution infrastructure. One would expect that over time performance fees like what Associated is paying will become commonplace, and the good writers will accordingly be rewarded. There will be poorly paid writers long as the supply of written word exceeds the demand, but the businesses I work with appreciate good content more than ever.

    • Greg Sterling Says:

      Unless you had “back end” participation on page views and your story really spiked, you’d be hard-pressed to make a living this way. I don’t buy the meritocracy argument. And most of the money will be kept by AC and Demand in the new scenarios, rather than Hearst or Conde Nast.

      Meet the new boss . . .

      Really good writers aren’t even going to play this game. Maybe some who are starting out will do this to build up a portfolio or to make a little money during school or on the side.

  2. troy Says:

    In today’s content on the Internet, quantity is prized over quality. Look at ratings and reviews, how many of the millions are actually well written. A site like eHow has lots of content but some of them are just so dumb like how to wash your hair. In the age of citizen journalism, everybody can write anything with no credentials.

  3. Andy Halliday Says:

    Web content ‘studio’ networks like AC and DS provide infrastructure and direction for those involved in the latest instance of “cottage industry”, which originally leveraged winter downtime in the agricultural economy to provide distributed cloth-making before the advent of the industrial revolution’s factory system. Then as now, the additional income is insufficient to justify full-time occupation doing the piece-work, and there is a steep pyramid with few gaining the skill and technology/tools to sustain themselves at the craft. The system won’t go away quickly because it plays into a current and pressing set of needs in the household economy…work-from-home while there are few steady jobs. But I think the mass-duplication of content fueled by SERP traffic will eventually be replaced by a more efficient technology, perhaps highly automated aggregation and summarization of authoritative content sources in natural language. Then the content writers will have to move on to another cottage industry…nano-weaving?? In the meantime, the human editorial at work is providing some value, though its very hard to distinguish the 400-word masterpiece from the 500-word junk article.

  4. Greg Sterling Says:

    Thanks for that bit of historical context. Agree that content farms will eventually spawn “authority” algorithms that will make this work less meaningful and useful for publishers (at least as SEO bait).

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