“Hand-Crafted Content” vs. the Machine: Betting on the People

Kristina Halvorson

I just finished reading Michael Arrington’s "The End of Hand-Crafted Content " (also published elsewhere as "AOL’s New Fast-Food-Content Strategy Means the End of Journalism You Actually Enjoy").

How. Depressing.

Since reading Wired‘s apocalyptic article,  "The Answer Factory: Demand Media and the Fast, Disposable, and Profitable as Hell Media Model," I’ve certainly spent plenty of time bitching about the lowering of our already low standards for web content.

Here’s a summary of how mass-produced content works:

Pieces [(content to be created)] aren’t dreamed up by trained editors nor commissioned based on submitted questions. Instead they are assigned by an algorithm, which mines nearly a terabyte of search data, Internet traffic patterns, and keyword rates to determine what users want to know and how much advertisers will pay to appear next to the answers. 

Then, the assignment is posted to a ginormous database; it’s accepted by a freelancer somewhere, who then throws something together as quickly as possible because he’s only getting paid, like, four dollars to create it. (Want to know what the best vodka in the world is? A random bartender from a random bar in Florida KNOWS THE ANSWER!) (Uh, you’ll have to sit through the ad first.)

So, in one fell swoop, Demand Media—and now AOL—are both flooding the search engines with awful, terrible content and gleefully commodifying the work of writers, videographers, editors, and other media professionals around the world.

I hate them. Oooooo, how I hate them.

But, you know what?

McDonald’s didn’t put La Belle Vie out of business.

Does McDonald’s make more money than La Belle Vie? Of course they do. They’re freakin’ McDonalds. But La Belle Vie is running a very fine, profitable business, thank you very much, turning out exquisite French food that makes me want to weep with joy. (Even their cocktail menu is extraordinary.) (No, I do NOT say that about every cocktail menu.)

You don’t have to eat at La Belle Vie to appreciate the metaphor. Not everybody wants McDonald’s, and nobody wants McDonald’s all the time. People go out of their way to find what will satisfy, even delight, their appetites. 

AOL and Demand Media (and dozens more competitors, I’m sure) are anathema to pretty much anyone who wants an even slightly obscure question answered online. But in the long run, I’m betting on people, not algorithms. Just because I clicked on your stupid video doesn’t mean I can’t use my back button.

p.s. Google, get on this.