Those of us who labor online are all too aware of the meaning and tyranny of content, the actual stuff you read when you visit a web page. On sites like Facebook, the content is user-generated—readers hang out and tell one another things—which is really great for the people who run the site, because it means they can pay their employees to sell ads or do research rather than waste time trying to produce information or stories that people want to read. Then companies like Goldman Sachs and Columbia invest in them or produce Oscar-nominated movies about them.
At the other end of the content spectrum are major sites like people.com or the Daily Beast, which, while they provide various types of forums where readers can interact, are staffed and written by professionals who are paid salaries and freelance rates that (at least theoretically) allow them to make a living. The disadvantage of such companies is that their business model likely depends either on an old-school, offline media giant or other corporation (like People or the Wall Street Journal) or on massive up-front investment by some outside company or mogul (Barry Diller’s role for the Daily Beast) that may take decades to earn out (if it ever does).
Hovering somewhere between these two types are sites such as Open Topic and Huffington Post, which supply varying amounts of original news and opinion (which, at least in the case of Huffington Post, is often more Facebook than Wall Street Journal; only the more important opinionaters get paid)—but also act as aggregators, linking to other content from all over.
Down on the farm
Then there is the type of content that lends itself to farming. Of course, the traditional meaning of farm is reassuring and homey, as in “family farm”; in fact when a farm is enormous and run by a vast corporation it ceases to be a farm at all and becomes an agribusiness. Yet when used in conjunction with products that aren’t the traditional type, like, say, pigs or peas, farm takes on a pejorative sense, an equivalent of factory: fish farm, baby farm, puppy farm. Farming out is subcontracting, usually in a somewhat exploitive, production-line kind of way. And here is where “content” meets “farm!”
For an exhaustive investigation of one type of content farm, go straight to Suzanne Mozes’ terrific recent article “James Frey’s Fiction Factory” for New York magazine on a new venture of the notorious Frey (remember? The guy who confessed to Oprah on her show that he’d lied in his memoir, A Million Little Pieces). His declared aim in his new publishing venture, Full Fathom Five, is to produce a young-adult novel capable of achieving success on the level of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series; his method is to hire young, hopeful writers for pitifully low pay ($250 for an entire book), pick the best prospects for bestsellerdom, and take most of the credit (and all of the money).
Frey’s idea differs from more traditional book factories—like, say, Harlequin Romance—in that the writers he uses retain no rights to their work and are essentially very cheap vehicles for supplying Frey and his organization with material. On an even cheesier level, the same principle is at work in other farming operations. A recent article on AdAge.com announced that a comparison-shopping website named Pronto (a subsidiary, coincidentally, of IAC—InterActiveCorp—Barry Diller’s company) had launched the (apostrophe-free) Writers Network, a website designed to recruit people to write short, how-to-ish articles—most of which end up on other sites also owned by IAC, such as Home and Garden Ideas. Such info-pieces are often tied to companies like Pronto in order to help drive traffic to the sites: you google something like “how to throw a nineties party” (well, they hope you do), and the article supplies tips and ideas—and then provides links for you to shop for their suggestions.
There’s something un-writerish about the Writers Network—the website has a sort of slick, corporate shine that seems more appropriate to an insurance company than a hunting ground for inkstained freelancers. Still, there on the right is a list of as-yet-unclaimed “top new assignments”: “Make Your Own Backyard Ice Rink”; “How to Save Dying Plants”; “How to Install Horseshoe Pits”—say what? But what made me look twice were the fees, listed under each “assignment”: $20 for the ice rink, $17.50 for the dying plants, a princely $22.50 for the unquestionably taxing topic of horseshoe pits. Not $22.50 per 100 words, or even per 1,000; no, $22.50 for the whole thing, however complex. I downloaded the Writers Network contract; it’s five single-spaced pages that could be summed up in one sentence: the writer has no rights once he or she has taken the hard-earned $22.50.
Here’s the thing: apart from not really providing enough remuneration to sustain life—at these rates, one would have to write three or four pieces of this type a day just to equal eight hours at the federal minimum wage—it becomes depressingly clear that at such prices, the Writers Network is not going to attract people who can actually write. Or, of course, do more research than the bit of minor googling we can all pretty much manage by ourselves. Here’s an example from the author of the nineties-themed-party piece:
While there are plenty of trivia games out there already, it’s often times more fun to make your own. Search the web for “nineties trivia,” and you will be amazed by how many questions come up. Copy and paste the ones you love into categories and prepare to entertain!
Why, that’s brilliant! I can google the web to find an article on a nineties theme that tells me to google the web to find the answers. So handy.
Here’s the opener to another piece by a Writers Network author, this one on last-minute stocking stuffers:
If you find yourself empty-handed and fresh out of great ideas right before Christmas, it doesn’t mean everyone’s stockings have to be free of stuffers. You’re not alone in this dilemma. Despite the fact that we have a year to prepare every year, each one of us has been left scrambling for gifts last minute. There are a number of foolproof ideas that will keep you from coming up short in the final hour. Keep a stack of stocking stuffers handy at all times. The best time to buy these is right after Christmas, during post-holiday sale season.
Hard to know where to begin here amid the forest of clichés and clumsiness, but perhaps the spot to pick on is halfway through, when the writer describes what the reader should have done a year earlier to avoid being in the situation that the article is supposed to be remedying.
Enough. It’s pretty evident that with content farming, as with so much else in life, you get what you pay for. However, the aspect of this that we should find worrying is not the fact that if you pay crappy wages you will (usually) get crappy writers; it’s that it’s utterly clear that the companies commissioning this stuff have no interest in publishing good writing—and it is possible to produce good writing even on topics as mundane as saving dying plants. No, these Home and Garden Ideas are just a fig leaf, a sad, advertorial front for the shopping pushers. People who can’t write are being (nominally) paid to write stuff that nobody really wants to read. As my friend the novelist Michael M. Thomas says: “The internet has given those who have nothing to say a place to say it.” —TAMARA GLENNY