The war is just beginning for writers, and it may seem strange given that Demand Media is starting to bounce back from an October share slump, but it isn’t going to be fought between quality writers and content farms.
Despite the frantic changes Google has been making to the search algorithm following a perceived drop in quality as churned-up content fills search results, it isn’t about the damaging effect of outsourcing assignments for the lowest possible cost or the economic effects of global competition.
This time it’s man vs machine, and the machine is getting a lot better.
Content War: Man vs Machine:
You may be dismissing the idea of a machine creating content based on the previous experience of spambots, as they fill comment sections the world over with ‘Blog very good. Me Like’, to build links to a website. Mostly this are easily filtered by a combination of spam filtering software and especially a final layer of human approval. What might possible sneak past a computer tends to fairly obvious to a human, particularly if it involves a variation of the ‘cheapexactnameofaproductiamselling.com’ linked in various ways.
But to adapt a quote by Cory Doctorow on copying, machine-created content will never be worse, or more expensive to produce, than it is today. It will only get better, cheaper and more accessible to both legitimate publishers attempting to make their workflow more efficient, and to spammers and content farms who can finally do away completely with the human element.
Want proof? Check out the work of Automated Insights, as detailed in this recent post by founder Robbie Allen. With a team of 12, they’ve produced over 100,000 sports stories in 9 months, having launched 345 websites which are all automated, and cover every division 1 NCAA basketball team.
Still dismissing the potential? Try reading the following excerpt from the latest game report on one of the sites, CarolinaUpdate.com:
The Tar Heels got to the NCAA Tournament as an at-large team after falling to Duke, 75-58, in the ACC tournament. In making the Elite Eight, North Carolina defeated 15th-seeded Long Island, 102-87 in the second round, seventh-seeded Washington, 86-83 in the third round, and then 11th-seeded Marquette, 81-63 in the Sweet Sixteen.
North Carolina was led by Tyler Zeller, who had 21 points on 75% shooting. The Tar Heels also got 18 points from Harrison Barnes, 11 from Dexter Strickland, and seven from Kendall Marshall.
Kentucky was on fire from beyond the arc, scoring 36 points in three-pointers to get an edge.
Now you see what I mean?
Will the future be written by machines?
When Allen ends his post by explaining how machines are a benefit to human journalists, there’s certainly some truth in it, although I suspect he’s also doing his job in placating the more nervous amongst the publishing professions. Whilst he’s keen to state that the current technology is suited to purely quantitative and data-driven work, and that journalists should be liberated to be able to focus on qualitative commentary, I suspect although he’s a very accomplished programmer, he might be limited in experiencing what happens for many publications around the globe.
As he himself says, ‘In the near term, the writers at O’Reilly and elsewhere have nothing to worry about. But I wouldn’t count out automation in the long term.’ The technology is at an early stage, and will only get better. After all, if 1000 monkeys could knock out a Shakespeare, we now have that processing power. And every year those processing primates will become cheaper and better, until instead of 1000 monkeys for one Shakespearian work, we could be seeing a sonnet per monkey.
What’s the future for human content?
So what happens next for humans who want to create written work beyond the status updates to which many of us might be relegated?
Well, in the short-term, we can choose to focus on quality. That’s certainly why I’m interested in projects like The Verge, and the new site and project from Milo Yiannopoulos whose views I may well have disagreed with on a regular basis, but whose aspiration to build a European quality technology site I can certainly identify closely with. Although we do have it a lot better with Techcrunch EU than the main ex-Arrington site who have recently managed to publish some unintelligible guest posts and at least a couple of stories which I knew to be factually inaccurate, but have never been corrected.
Longer term? Whilst we can believe the noble ideal that machines will always be best with a human working alongside them, my educated guess is that spammers will be first to unleash better content algorithms into the wild on their own, particularly given the revenues they can currently get. The sheer amount of spam content means the tiniest percentage of respondents to Nigerian lotteries generates huge profits, and increasing that with better content in a no-brainer.
And anything suitable for automation – which is a lot – will be picked up by newsrooms the world over as managers and publishers will optimise over the heads of any reluctant Editors. That’s assuming enough Editors actually care about their digital product to raise a fuss when their favoured print is still in a slow death spiral.
And then that boundary will shift. And shift again, and slowly the room of writers becomes a room of servers with a couple of database admins, and one or two sub-editors just checking through a cursory selection of articles.
The solution has to be based around increasing the levels of humanity in everything we write, and everything we do online. Not only to build a bridge with anyone who reads our work, but also to ensure Google, Bing and future search engines are distinguishing what we do. Because as the level of automated content rises and becomes increasingly abused, the search engines will have to respond, and we could see search and creation algorithms cancelling each other out, leaving those authors and writers who have gone through the required steps to verify their organic-based life form will be advantaged.
What that urgently means is three things:
1. If you want to be a writer, you need to be using social media and tools like Google’s Author Markup today. Now. Because the sooner you can ensure you’re human, and the longer that exists, the better off you’ll be.
2. If you’re ever planning to launch your own website or brand, do it now. Don’t expect to learn the ropes in a staff job for a few years and then head out on your own – although that may have been a good plan, if this all comes to pass, you’ll need to be in an established position to be able to get your voice heard if you have a problem with Google’s Author markup, for example. And the way to get that help is to be reaching a million uniques per month by then, which means starting now.
If you wait a couple of years before deciding you’d like to create the ultimate blog/site on a subject, you’ll find that a few thousand readers per month could leave you at the end of one of the longest queues around if you ever need help.
3. Your personal writing style is going to be more important than ever. So a blog can be an invaluable daily tool for honing that, rather than spending your time re-writing press releases in a bland house style to churn out content as if it was 2008 all over again.