Will algorithms run our digital lives?
Demand Media (see this brilliant Wired piece), one of the biggest producers and distributors of online video (see the Mary Meeker / Morgan Stanley presentation here; page 42) produces 100s of 1000s of videos on topics that are solely determined by a proprietary algorithm that crunches data on popular search terms, keywords and their current rates on search engines, and information about how many web pages already cover the topic. If a topic is 'hot' and not yet covered, Demand Media commissions an army of freelance video makers, at $20 per video (!), to quickly produce short clips on the topic, e.g. on 'how to heel-flip on a skate board' etc.
Wired's Ryan Singel talks about AOL's similar new plan: "AOL’s new chief plans to combine algorithms, marketing partnerships and cheap freelance writers in order to turn the stale web property into a vibrant online content factory pumping out stories to fit the zeitgeist..." - all for the sole sake of taking advantage of the Google-page-ranking system i.e. to subsequently yield more advertising dollars.
With both examples, the idea is simple: to produce a huge a and hyper-distributed amount of fast, short - and above all - ultra-cheap content that is a perfect fit with the hottest and most expensive keywords on the web, today, so that the maximum advertising rates can be achieved at all times. In other words, this 'content' only exists as a way of garnering advertising revenues based on keyword popularity - hardly what I would consider 'adding value to the content ecosystem' ;)
In music, recommendations are already generated largely by software algorithms and data-crunching recommendation engines; some people even go as far as predicting whether a song will be a hit or not, using smart software engines (disclosure: I am on the advisory board of this company, uPlaya). Google's page-ranking system relies entirely on machine-intelligence, of course, and Twittercounter's top 1000 list is, of course, generated solely by data feeds - not by human editors (such as my own site, Futerati, which will, btw, be relaunched within the next 10 days).
Techcrunch's Arrington talks about the end of crafted content. Wired calls Demand Media a factory that stamps out money-making content. The Inquisitor talks about how this kind of approach is turning the web into an obese mess. The Washington Post sums it up, rather gloomy: "these models create a race to the bottom situation, where anyone who spends time and effort on their content is pushed out of business."
Here is what I believe:
- Content that is produced only because of keyword popularity and because eager and / or desperate producers (no blame there, btw, just stating a fact) are willing to work for exceedingly cheap rates may bring in the immediate bacon but in my opinion will not last in terms of continuous popularity and therefore in long-term revenues. And if they do, great for them - but it does not mean that all content production will move in this direction. Every single person that likes to eat fast-food still knows the difference between Wendy's and a nice meal: yes, it's more expensive and it takes longer but it's a much better experience, and it makes you feel better. Fast food chains simply co-exist with 'real' restaurants of all kinds, everywhere - and that's what we will have in the content industries, too. If you want to make a quick buck by starting a fast-food franchise, go ahead. I, personally, don't like to eat fast food, nor would I enjoy running a McDonald's franchise so I will go a different route.
- There will always be people who are willing to pay for better, deeper and more 'serious' content, and, in my opinion, increasingly so (mostly because of the trend towards mobile content consumption) - we just need to find new, web-native models of getting paid for content and translate the value of attention into tangible $. Yes, this is a real challenge, today, but new ways are emerging that will indeed provide plenty of resources for the continued creation of high-quality content. Let's have some imagination. Just because 100s of 1000s of aspiring teenagers want to see those free, ad-supported videos on pole-dancing does not mean we won't be selling video-on-demand, DVDs and books on more serious (or indeed, the same) subjects. Cheap, free and low-quality options have always co-existed with more expensive ones, and while the web has made this trend a lot more pronounced it will not spell the end of well-produced and high-quality content - the cheap stuff is simply first because so far we are lacking business models for the better stuff (for the most part).