Talk to many displaced old media types and hear an earful about blogs: they lack standards, don't deliver quality content and they pay their writers far less than what they're worth.
But as we enter the second decade of the 21st century, it looks like bloggers may have a go at crying rivers. Thanks to the rise of companies like Demand Media, which specialize what some argue is large-scale 'content farming', bloggers are now leveling some of the same charges that have been leveled at them.
In a post entitled "The End of Hand Crafted Content", TechCrunch's Michael Arrington states that he's worried about the "rise of cheap, disposable content on a mass scale, force fed to us by the portals and search engines". This "fast food content", he says, is "cheap, crappy" and produced by "masses of sub-par journalists" with "little or no editorial oversight".
That sentiment is echoed elsewhere. Richard MacManus of ReadWriteWeb declares that "the bottom line is that the quality of content produced by these 'content farms' is dubious, which has an impact on both publishers and readers". And he wants Google to take action (good luck with that).
The arguments made, which one can easily sympathize with, are also slightly ironic. As well-known skeptic Loren Feldman points out in a vlog, many of the blogs bashing Demand Media and its ilk have themselves been called out for producing content of questionable 'quality' and employing loose 'editorial standards'. Feldman's most important point: most prominent blogs are guilty of pandering to Google. The problem? The Demand Medias of the world produce Googlebait on a much larger and more efficient scale than the vast majority of bloggers could ever hope to replicate.
You could debate this subject for hours on end but I'm not sure how worthwhile the mud-slinging is. That's because there's nothing inherently wrong with fast food content.
Yes, it's true that the content produced by companies like Demand Media is not going to win any awards and in some cases, it's not very good by any honest standard. So what? A Big Mac isn't the most nutritious meal, but reasonable people are not going to suggest that cities banish McDonald's restaurants to the side streets so that only the 'gourmet' restaurants can line the main strip.
There is a market for content of all types, just as there's a market for restaurants of all types. You might scarf down an occasional Big Mac at McDonald's, but that doesn't mean you'll never make reservations at the most expensive restaurant in town. And so it goes with content. If you're looking for information on how to change the oil in your car, you could probably do far worse than the eHow article on the matter.
A common undercurrent in all of the criticism of content farms is that the content isn't fit to be published. ReadWriteWeb's MacManus comes right out and says it: fast-food content "often...lacks knowledge of the topic at hand". This, in my opinion, is perhaps the most intriguing criticism since many well-known bloggers have no professional training as journalists, and were hardly world-renowned 'experts' in their fields when they started blogging. But that doesn't mean that they are incapable of producing content that has appeal to consumers. To the contrary, their passion and authenticity gives them the ability and freedom to offer different perspectives, even if they're not always 'correct'.
Frankly, I there's too much academic discussion of 'quality'. I'm the first to agree that quality content is king, and the Demand Media model isn't something I'd personally want to get involved with. But we're not talking about user-generated link farms or aggregated junk here. Love it or hate it, we are discussing original content. And there's no monopoly on who can create it. You don't need a Ph.D. in Journalism to write an article about changing oil, and there's nothing scummy about Demand Media's strategy of cherry-picking subjects with economic value. Monitor what topics people are searching for, evaluate their economic potential, and create original content to meet the demand if it makes money. You can call that 'content farming' and 'gaming the system', but I'd rather call it what it really is: 'market research' and 'common sense business'.
Obviously, not everyone wants to consume fast food content, and not every writer is going to be willing to cook up delicious content for nickels and dimes on the word. You'd think that would be obvious. Given the fretting in the blogosphere, however, I would suggest that some of the 'gourmet chefs' who are surprisingly worried about the new McDonald's down the block may not be so confident in their menus.
Photo credit: Radio Saigón via Flickr.