Creepy content

“Content” Creep is an important article by Drew Breunig. I try to shy away from the word “must-read”, but this is probably as close as it gets. Breunig takes a step back to analyze the constant stream of web content we see every day, and he draws some interesting macro conclusions about the current state and future of publishing on the web.

He starts off by explaining the problems with the word “content” itself, and goes on to use the content farm “company” Demand Media as an example of the problem with measuring quality in web publishing:

Unfortunately, even if we assume page views are capable of measuring quality Demand’s business model prevents them from doing so. Because Demand’s “approach is driven by consumers’ desire to search for and discover increasingly specific information across the Internet”, page views are only capable of reflecting how well Demand’s “content” has been optimized for search engines. If a piece appears in search results, is clicked by a user, and closed because the writing is shoddy, Demand is only able to measure everything before the click. At best the page views metric can measure the quality of the headline. At worst they reflect the SEO tricks employed by a site.

Or to put it more succinctly:

Demand has created an environment which incentivizes SEO hacks more than good writing.

This is so true, and results in the type of ad-infested web sites I’ve written about before as well. Breunig goes on to explain what he calls the impending “content crunch”, and the need to adjust business models to account for quality. His conclusion is spot on:

It’s hard to believe a single word could slate an entire industry for failure. On its own, the word “content” is merely awkward. But as a unit of measurement, “content” affects business is real ways. Ignoring the variables audiences care about in order to populate Excel spreadsheets incentivizes weak writing short on substance and attention spans. All this would be tremendously depressing if it wasn’t creating an enormous opportunity for people with the courage to look beyond the numbers, where it’s too messy to measure, and invest in journalism, videos, photography, and art people might actually enjoy.

A site that immediately comes to mind as an example of the kind of courage Breunig speaks of is the brilliant Brainpickings – “a human-powered discovery engine for interestingness, culling and curating cross-disciplinary curiosity-quenchers, and separating the signal from the noise to bring you things you didn’t know you were interested in until you are.”

The article and Breunig’s main conclusions remind me of one of Clay Johnson’s points in his book The Information Diet:

Just as food companies learned that if they want to sell a lot of cheap calories, they should pack them with salt, fat, and sugar””the stuff that people crave””media companies learned that affirmation sells a lot better than information. Who wants to hear the truth when they can hear that they’re right?

The problem lies not just with the content farms, but also with us – the people who click on the links because it gives us more of what we want (even if it’s not good for us). The only solution to this problem is something that sounds like a pipe dream – expecting readers to be more conscious about the information they allow into their lives so that content farming ceases to be effective. In Johnson’s words:

The first step is realizing that there is a choice involved. As much as our televisions, radios, and movie theaters would have us believe otherwise, information consumption is as active an experience as eating, and in order for us to live healthy lives, we must move our information consumption habits from the passive background of channel surfing into the foreground of conscious selection.

For bonus points, read A long sentence is worth the read – it’s also a really good related discussion on the topic:

Enter (I hope) the long sentence: the collection of clauses that is so many-chambered and lavish and abundant in tones and suggestions, that has so much room for near-contradiction and ambiguity and those places in memory or imagination that can’t be simplified, or put into easy words, that it allows the reader to keep many things in her head and heart at the same time, and to descend, as by a spiral staircase, deeper into herself and those things that won’t be squeezed into an either/or.