The demise of quality content on the web

I remember exactly when I decided to stop reading Mashable. I saw the headline Facebook Users Beware: Facebook’s New Feature Could Embarrass You on Twitter, clicked through, hunted for the words of the article among the sea of ads and social sharing icons, and then closed the tab after realizing it’s just another rehash of Facebook frictionless sharing (albeit in a tantalizing way). I went back to my Twitter feed and unfollowed them.

I’m sure the article was great for traffic, though. It is the perfect linkbait title backed up by a perfect SEO-ified URL (/new-facebook-feature). Here’s a screen shot of what’s visible above the fold:



You can’t see a single word from the actual article without scrolling. It reminded me of a comment that Merlin Mann recently made in his typically funny and obnoxious style:



I think I’ve finally hit the limit of my tolerance for web content that’s designed to make advertisers happy. I have no problem with working hard to build an audience – I have a blog, after all. But we seem to be in this bizarre race to the intellectual bottom to write the most generic article in the world so that everyone with an Internet connection will click through. And the only purpose seems to be to keep the advertising monster fed, fat, and happy.

I’m worried that all the noise makes it increasingly difficult for quality content[1] to be seen. Worse, I’m worried that it’s discouraging the creation of quality content because what’s successful (i.e. what gets the most clicks) is mostly lowest-common-denominator blog post titles that either start with a number or end with a question mark. James Bridle sums up this problem so well in The New Value of Text:

Like over-stuffed attendees at a dull banquet, the mind wanders. We are terrified that people are dumbing down, and so we provide them with ever dumber entertainment. We sell them ever greater distractions, hoping to dazzle them further.

Or as Marco Arment put it: “Anti-intellectualism is one of my biggest fears for our society.”

Yet despite all the evidence to the contrary there is still a common refrain on the Internet that quality content will always find its way out of the depths of obscurity. Kristina Halvorson recently complained about the fact that computer-generated articles are gaining traction. Joshua Porter responded: “Re: quality content…there is always room at the top.” My response to that was cynical, but borne out of the type of regurgitation you see everywhere:



I used to believe that if you write with passion and clarity about a topic you know well (or want to know more about), you will find and build an audience. I believed that maybe, if you’re smart about it, you could find a way for some part of that audience to pay you money to sustain whatever obsession drove you to self-publishing (and to do it without selling your soul in the process). There are certainly examples of that out there (Daring Fireball, Shawn Blanc, Ben Brooks, etc.), but I’m not convinced any more that such an option exists for anyone who works hard and gives it a solid go.

The problem is not that people don’t have enough time, it’s that people don’t have enough attention. Like an oil well there’s only so much there, and once the well runs dry you don’t have a lot of options:

So one effect of Peak Attention is that every human mind has been mined to capacity using attention-oil drilling technologies. To get to Clay Shirky’s hypothetical notion of cognitive surplus, we need Alternative Attention sources.

The wells of attention are being drilled to depletion by linkbait headlines, ad-infested pages, “jumps” and random pagination, and content that is engineered to be “consumed” in 1 minute or less of quick scanning – just enough time to capture those almighty eyeballs[2]. And the reality is that “Alternative Attention sources” simply don’t exist.

I don’t know where we go from here. I just know that I’ve stopped reading sites that cater more for advertisers than for me as a reader. It won’t make much of a difference, but it will hopefully help me sleep better.


  1. Of course, we’re never going to agree on what “quality content” means. It’s one of those “you know it when you see it” things, and everyone’s definition will be different. Still, my personal view is that quality content presents two or more of the following components: (1) new information, (2) interpretation of information, and/or (3) a well considered personal opinion about what the information means.  â†©
  2. Wait, who am I to decide what people should and shouldn’t read? You’re absolutely right, I can’t do that so I should get off my high horse and let people read whatever they want to read. This is an opinion piece.  â†©