Sunday, February 6, 2011

Content Farms Are Not Evil, Just Upstarts

If you've heard the term "content farms," then you've heard people rail against websites widely considered to be content farms: Demand Media's eHow,, WiseGeek, BrightHub, Suite101, HubPages, InfoBarrel, even Wikipedia...and hundreds more.  As content farms, these websites either get their content from crowdsourcing (that is, they get their content from everyday people as opposed to those employed on a contract or permanent basis) or from contract writers with not necessarily journalistic qualifications.

Google has recently declared war of sorts on content farms.  It's not clear at all to me whether their definition of content farms is the same as yours or mine, or even whether Google considers properties like Demand Media to be farms.

But regular folks do use the term "content farm" for the websites above.  They complain that:

  1. They are not "authority" websites.
  2. They are spam.
  3. They have copied, spun or scraped content.   
  4. They produce volumes of content just to make money.  
  5. They don't offer value to the user.
I'm here to disagree, or rather to defend content farms, and in a big way.  Yes, I write for some of those websites.  I'm also a user of some of those websites.  And I see a different perspective. 
  • Do these websites exist to make money?  Yes.  So do newspapers.  So do massage therapists.  So do call centers.  So do doctors.  So do the big banks.  So do food producers.  So does any profit based business. They all produce a product or a service, sometimes out of love for that product or service,  sometimes not, but at least out of the desire to make money.  Content farms are doing nothing that the businesses they are competing against are not also doing.  Is it moral?  That's for you to decide.   But the question at hand is, is their product or service useful?  I'd say that we can spare the big banks, but not so much the content farms.  We need those, for reasons I'll explain soon.
  • Are content farms spam, existing only to be "monetized" by Google AdSense?  I don't know, and furthermore, only Google does, and they haven't been saying much about it.  
  • Do content farms have copied, spun, or scraped content?  From my perspective, I see far more content copied, spun and scraped from content farms than by them.  But I'll admit this is anecdotal evidence and that yes, some content creators do copy or spin content on some of these content farms, despite each sites' attempts at quality controls.  (Incidentally, the websites on which I've published do not want recycled or rewritten content, which is considered plagiarism).  However, the problem of intellectual property violation is by no means limited to content farms.  Rather, content farms are a front-stage but relatively small part of a much bigger show.  The huge problem assaulting the web is the inevitable challenge posed by digital technology to existing intellectual property laws designed in an infrastructure of print and controlled media.   What does that mumbo-jumbo mean?  Basically, that it was hard to copy things before, and now it's easy, and the old intellectual property laws were designed to protect property that was already well-protected by physical constraints.  For example, in the world of magazines, people used to read only the few magazines sold in the physical bookstores or by subscription or in the library, and you had to physically copy them, transport them, covertly resell them, etc.  Now to copy and publish material, all you have to do is search for one of the billions of bits of published material freely available, copy, paste, post, and takes less than twenty minutes and chances are you won't even get caught.  The laws and the technology have to catch up with what people can now do in their new environment without stifling necessary free expansion.  This is hard, and not a problem caused by content farms, but by the Internet itself.
  • I'll deal with #1 and #5 together, since they're related.  Does the content in question have authority?  Value?  Yes, a goodly portion of it does.  Content farms are not always sourced by authorities in the traditional sense, but that does not mean the content does not offer value for the users as good as, and even better than (since many are more concisely and clearly written), that of so-called authority sites (so-called because our criteria for calling a website an authority are controversial).  They're valuable because these "farms" utilize the skills of the unproven but talented (read: youth), the authority of the freelance little guy rather than that of the hired drudge (what's the difference, again?), the garage expert rather than the certified and accredited expert.  But wait, now...they utilize the certified and accredited experts, too, because the opportunities for jobs in the traditional job market are fading.  Sure, those experts could have their own websites, but content farms make publishing easy for the non-techie.  In fact, that's what the "content farms" that aren't editorially controlled are, like HubPages: they're massively popular self-publishing platforms.  Even Suite101, though editorially controlled, doesn't dictate titles or topics.  Those that use established professional editors like and Demand Media actually seek experts to write for them, and get them, too, because the experts are out of traditional work.  So yes, the expertise IS there on these websites; and where it's not, we have homegrown expertise, creativity, and talent coming from out of the woodwork, just as it did at another time of a critical economic shift - the Golden Age in the early 20th century.
Everyone who reads this blog knows that I tend to proselytize about the "new economic model" of the Internet.  Though I'm not really a preachy person, I'll probably keep doing so on this subject until I'm done.  Think of the World Wide Web as a big, new territory opening up from what was a shrinking, overpopulated, and highly competitive territory.  Online, there's lots of space and resources and people are moving here for economic and social reasons: it's cheaper, faster, more equitable, and more bountiful than the economy built on the technology of the train, car, telephone, airplane, and TV.  

Content farms provide something akin to a ramshackle mall structure in this new land: they provide a framework for people to enter the land and get down to business.  Writers publish not just the stereotypical "made for AdSense" or "MFA" pages, but marketing pages for struggling businesses (the much-maligned affiliate model), creative works, and the "how to" tricks of human enterprise that allow people engaged in all trades, from cooking to boat building, to set down their knowledge when there is no apprenticeship model or family inheritance model any longer for transmitting this knowledge.  Content farms offer publishing platforms for what will soon be a new Golden Age of creativity and information, the first truly bright spot in progress since the World War II era.

The people publishing on content farms now are not mostly scammers or spammers.  They're disreputable, but only as the pioneers of the past were: they're the immigrants, the newcomers, the non-established, non-certified  new blood, and in a dying economy, what we need is this new blood.  

Yes, there's a lot of dreck produced on content farms.  I don't like that, but I consider it not much different from the dreck produced and sanctioned by corporations calling themselves newspapers.  (Why do we need the Associated Press again?  AP was invented alongside the telegraph, so that regional papers could get non-regional news.  Well, the Internet takes care of that now; with a click of the mouse, I can read about the earthquake in the newspaper of the city in which it's happening.  So shouldn't newspapers let go of all recycled content?)

To get good content, we have to open ourselves up to all non-harmful content.  That's what content farms are good at doing.  Sure, it's a search engine's challenge to lead people to content that isn't harmful.  But that doesn't mean getting rid of those upstart content farms, despite the speculation running rampant all over the Web, including a recent discussion on   Hey, somebody come up with a real content management system that your grandmother could use, and then maybe we can get rid of content farms.

What do you think?
Copyright Nerd Writer Mom

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