Technology

"Content farms" and the media Precambrian

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanFeb 26, 2011 6:04 AM

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I've only become aware of "content farms" in any significant way over the past few days. Yes, I'm aware of Associated Content and eHow. I use Google! But I've always ignored them. But with Google's turn against these websites I've become curious. This Wired piece from October 2009 is a gem. Here's the part that caught my attention:

Plenty of other companies — About.com, Mahalo, Answers.com — have tried to corner the market in arcane online advice. But none has gone about it as aggressively, scientifically, and single-mindedly as Demand. Pieces are not 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.

In some ways "mainstream" websites also do this a bit, Nick Denton relies on fine-grained metrics for his Gawker Media properties. But obviously the sort of thing that content farms do, responding so specifically to the interests of the audience, take it to the next level. I started browsing some of the "articles" produced by the contributors, and I think Farhad Manjoo has it right:

Associated Content stands as a cautionary tale for anyone looking to do news by the numbers. It is a wasteland of bad writing, uninformed commentary, and the sort of comically dull recitation of the news you'd get from a second grader. Oh, and here's one more interesting thing about Associated Content—because its stories are bulging with hot search terms, it gets more visitors than just about every news site online, including washingtonpost.com.

I poked around for pieces on genetics and genomics at Associated Content, and came across stuff like this, What's the Latest Research in Personalized Nutritional Medicine, Foods, and Genomics?:

The University of California, Davis is outstanding in its continuous assessment of the needs of personalized nutrition, targeting specific gene responses, identified after 10 years of research and development. Also browse the paperback book, How to Safely Tailor Your Food, Medicines, & Cosmetics to Your Genes: A Consumer's Guide to Genetic Testing Kits from Ancestry to Nourishment. The Sacramento-Davis area is a research hub in the field of nutrigenomics and nutritional medicine. But you have to know where to look to see what, where, when, why, and how the research is being done and who is leading and/or funding the studies. Sacramento focuses on the future vision of nutritional genomics identifying research targets and consumer applications. You have various conferences on nutritional genomics, personalized nutritional medicine, and preventive and integrative nutrition as well as metabolic and nutritional dietetics research and developing. Whereas, other universities are funded to develop only drugs, UC Davis studies the health benefits of fruits and vegetables as well as other nutritional-medicine-related topics.

It goes on and on like this for eight pages. As Manjoo said, this is really reminiscent of the style of writing one recalls from elementary school. The better articles on that website in genetics and genomics tend to resemble dumbed-down Wikipedia entries. Considering the brutal "bottom-up" mode of content generation which these media "factories" have pioneered I couldn't be help but think of stromatolites, the macroscale structures which derive from the collective action of cyanobacteria. They have their own logic, but ultimately conventional multicellular organisms have driven them to marginal niches. I'm not sure that content farms are going to be such a passing fad, but I doubt they'll be able to persist indefinitely. Their articles are such substandard crap.

Image credit: Paul Harrison

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