My Summer on the Content Farm

Remember that “I Love Lucy” episode where Lucy and Ethel take jobs in the chocolate factory and the conveyor belt starts pumping out candy faster than they can pack it in the wrappers so they start stuffing their faces and cleavage with the excess, cowering from the intimidating factory matron? That’s kind of what it’s like to work for Demand Media, as I found out during a brief, ill-fated stint as a freelance copy editor at the 17th largest web property in the U.S. this summer.

The product coming down Demand’s virtual assembly line—4000 “articles” a day with titles like “Hotels in Fayetteville, NC With Jacuzzi Tubs”; “Kosher Restaurants in Cluj-Napoca, Romania”; and “Hair Styles for Women Over 50 With Glasses”—is the empty-calorie “content” you’ve surely noticed cluttering your Google search results lately. If you’ve been keeping up with media musings on the Walmartification of service journalism by Demand—which runs sites like eHow and LiveStrong—and the other so-called “content farms,” like Yahoo’s Associated Content and AOL’s Seed, you know that this company’s business strategy is regarded as “audacious and controversial”; that their content is algorithmically designed be narrow in focus and broad in reach in order to maximize ad potential, and that it’s also generally kind of “crappy“; that by paying insulting rates to the freelancers who churn out this copy, they devalue the work of people who attempt to write for a living; and that they might not be as profitable as they like to say they are.

I knew all of this, too. But I have this compulsive condition, borne out of a cocktail of overoptimism, workaholism, and poverty, in which I troll MediaBistro, rampantly applying for freelance work. NB: without fail, a telecommute gig that advertises flexible hours, free-flowing assignments, and upwards of $20 an hour is too good to be true. This is a lesson I’ve personally learned and seem to be determined to keep personally learning until I retire. And it was in that spirit, one evening late last spring, that I put my skepticism on the same shelf as my discomfort with page-view whoring and the depreciation of my chosen profession, polished up my resume, and uploaded it to Demand’s resume-processing/world-domination cyberhub.

I should mention that I work at a magazine. As an editor. For money. Every day, and sometimes well into the night. This has been going on for about four years, and before that I worked in book publishing while I got a master’s degree in writing. Call me cocky, but I didn’t worry too much about meeting the professional prerequisites Demand thought necessary for the successful copy editing of five-point bulletins on topics like refurbishing vintage saxophones without the use of harsh chemicals. So, several weeks later, when I logged into the cyberhub and found that my application had been rejected, I felt less dissed than puzzled. Could it be that all 11,252 available copy editing positions Demand’s site boasted had been already been filled by applicants more qualified than I? If so, where on Earth was this modest-sized university’s worth of vastly experienced copy editors hiding?

About a week later, the exact same job posting popped up. I reread it carefully, and then cross-examined my resume, where I spotted my fatal flaw immediately. I was a masthead-certified “copy editor” for two full years before I took on a managing editor title. It seemed obvious that, in applying to be a straight-up copy editor, I should sell myself as a copy editor. So that was the title I’d highlighted on my resume. But duh! To qualify to be a Demand Media “copy editor,” the ad clearly stated, an applicant should have a “Minimum of 2 years as an Managing, Line, Features, Section or Associate Editor at a newspaper, magazine, book publisher or publication.”

So I made a tiny tweak on my resume. And by “tweak” I really mean tweak, not lie: I changed “copy editor,” which was my previous title, to “managing editor,” which is my current title, and lo and behold I had a positive response in my inbox within 24 hours. In retrospect, this was just my first brush with the habitually defensive posture Demand assumes in the face of some of the pointed criticism it regularly receives, such as that about the professional credentials of its “content creators.” (It was also emblematic of the way the whole corporation, not just the web content creation factory it manages, seems to be run by an algorithm.)

To wit: the response in my inbox was from a robot. The robot told me that it had decided to move me onto the next stage of the application process for further consideration. If I passed the editing test, I’d be expected to log at least 12 hours a week, minimum, and at $3.50 per article I could expect to pull in $20-30 an hour, with the potential for “higher-value” pieces down the line if I was a “top” performer. I managed to put off daydreaming about the bills I could pay with that extra $200+ a week for the hour it took to go over two short articles. Then I proposed a toast, with two hypothetical bottles of Charles Shaw, to the $7 I would have been paid for the feat if it was not just a test.

A day or so later, the robot booped at me again, welcoming me to the copy editing community. It told me I could prepare myself to hear from a human, who was to act as my human point of contact for questions that required human answers. In the meantime, perhaps I could familiarize myself with the content farm ethos and process and other details by reading these enclosed packets? One was a sprawling 14-page document labelled “A Quick Breakdown of the Copyediting Process,” the other a 12-pager called “Editor Guidelines.”

Meanwhile, there arrived the email from the Actual Human. At least, it purported to be a human. It had a human name, anyway, which we’ll say was Robert. “We work at an accelerated pace, and I don’t care if you send a note filled with typos or missing words, as long as I understand your intention. Don’t waste time copyediting yourself, and don’t fret when you spot a few gaffes in one of your communications,” Robert insisted. Also: “Important: When I do provide advice or render a ruling, please don’t reply with thank-you notes. I’m sure all of you were raised with respect for the traditional courtesies, but nearly 500 editors work alongside me, with that total growing weekly. Between this box and the Help Desk, I typically receive 200 queries a day. If each of you sent missives of gratitude, I’d never be able to dig out.”

Okaaaaay.

Robert would be available to answer any content crises that I should encounter, but would close his “answer desk” promptly on Friday afternoons, and I was not to email during this time. Also! Before I was to contact him with any questions, I was to read the section about contacting him in the attached guide; a different 14-page document from the one I’d previously received, this one enthusiastically entitled “Tips for Making a Magnificent Team Greater.”

One soul-crushingly hot day this past July, I set aside an afternoon to comb through this novellas’ worth of explanatory documents. Together, they amassed 40 pages that were sprawling and contradictory and confusing and repetitive and overwhelming and detailed but not really in quite the right way. I did not make $3.50 that day. In fact, I paid $3.50 because it was so freaking hot, I had to seek shelter in an air-conditioned, WiFi-equipped organic coffee shop, drinking organic iced coffee.

“We aren’t here to break news, lay out editorial opinion, or investigate the latest controversy,” Demand’s corporate manifesto declares. “Our audience tells us they want incredibly specific information and we deliver exactly that – in a style that the average consumer appreciates and understands.” In a nutshell, what the company does is to take informational demand and create, in virtual-sweatshop fashion, supply. Basically, if you plug it into Google — “Seasonal mating habits of poison dart tree frogs,” say — it’s got a good chance of eventually finding its way, via a proprietary set of content-churning algorithms, into a list of “topics” to be turned into an article or bullet-point list by Demand’s cadre of stay-at-home moms, independently accredited experts in something or other, magical writing elves, and junior high honors students. Just kidding! These people are professional freelancers, who make $15-30 per piece. Then, the next time you’re researching the seasonal mating habits of poison dart tree frogs, or anyone else on Earth is, since Demand’s properties reach 59 million users a month, said article will top out the Google results.

My role, as a “copy editor,” was roughly akin to that of Lucy’s with the candy wrapper. I was to be an intermediary between the web at large and the raw, reliably weird substance that results from the unlikely union of algorithmically created topic assignments and writers of, shall we say, widely variable competence. The actual nuts and bolts of style consistency and tone were part of it, of course. But they seemed to be peripheral to what I was actually being asked to do, which was to quality-check each piece of content according to a set of generic yet meticulously detailed standards. It fell on my shoulders to ensure not just that no dangling modifiers marred any directories of Jacuzzi-having hotels, but that the piece wasn’t plagiarized, written off the top of some Jacuzzi-having hotel aficionado’s head, based on obvious or non-information, referencing other websites, or plagued by any of the other myriad atrocities that web content can be subject to these days.

The overarching theme of the trilogy of how-to manuals, as far as I could tell using my admittedly rusty elementary reading comprehension skills, was “cut fluff.” A straightforward enough mission, and obviously, a necessary one. I was to ensure that as many sentences as possible began with vivid, actionable verbs. And that I could clearly picture in my head the step a reader was being instructed to take. If a piece was a total mess, I wasn’t supposed to spend time rewriting. Instead, I was to make very specifically worded comments (there were so many notes on phrasing said comments constructively and politely, I could only assume that this had been a point of prior contention) back to the author. The author then had a few days to turn a rewrite around. I’d review it again, and then I could approve it for publication or reject it if it was still too fluffy or sucky. At the time of publication or rejection I’d also rank the veracity of the article on a numerical scale, and have the opportunity to make notes about the author for internal review.

And then? Then I would get paid $3.50.

Given the intellectual investment I’d already put into this process, I judged, badly, that it was too late to turn back. So, I turned to my “queue” of editable articles, and chose the one that sounded like it had the least potential for tears or disaster. It was on crafts to do with preschoolers. Like, macaroni and yarn collages. I dutifully made sure all the verbs were actionable and that the instructions were vividly picturable and that none of the suggestions seemed totally implausible. Might have even gotten some subject-predicate agreement all up in there. Then there was a vaguery I was unable to resolve. It was about the orientation a yellow-painted paper plate should take before the adhesion of tissue-paper “sunbeams.” Wait, was the author saying that the paper plate was upside down at this point? Or was it right-side up!? The classic, dreaded copy ambiguity. I could not, for the life of me, picture it. So I queried the writer, who, some days later, clarified the issue (upside down!).

Accept. Rank. Ka-ching (or, I suppose, kerplunk).

It was an entire week before I could cajole myself to do another one. Then two more before I could do a third. I logged in every few days, full of good intentions, determined to make the most of the time I’d already spent learning the ropes. But then I’d scan a list of titles such as “How to Get Free Plastic Surgery” or “How to Unseal a Cremation Urn,” and I’d get depressed and have to go out on an urgent Charles Shaw run.

Meanwhile, there was a weekly deluge of informational emails from Robert, my human point person, which provided extra extra detail (“How to Hide an Erection” and “How to Be an Escort in Second Life” were deemed examples of inappropriate article titles that should be flagged for review; “At-Home Treatments for Anal Warts” might be okay), occasional heartfelt thanks, and sporadic missives that totally contradicted established paperwork instructions. In something approaching a tizzy toward the end of the summer, for instance, Robert insisted that people stop emailing to let him know they’d be out of town and thus not meeting their weekly quota; earlier we’d been instructed to do exactly that or risk lose editing privileges forever.

By this point it’s fair to say that the issues were mine, and that they were motivational in nature. Here’s the thing. Supposing that copy is composed by someone with a decent grasp of the English language, I can edit it rather quickly. But I’m also, admittedly, a bit of a perfectionist. It’s an industry hazard. I was beginning to seriously doubt that it would be ever be possible to churn out five of these puppies in an hour, which is what it would take to net $20, which was the lowest freelance editing wage I could begin to justify working for. All told, I found that I spent a minimum of half an hour on each piece — even on “How to Start a Successful Pop-Punk Band,” by far the cleanest and possibly most informative of the articles I edited — after editing, fact checking, querying, and navigating the rejection/publishing/ranking process. Leaving out my unpaid training, as it were, this put my average hourly rate somewhere around $7. Peace!

There’s no small shortage of Amway-esque hyperbole on Demand’s site about how awesome life in the freelance “studio” can be. The Demandifesto woos with promises that beyond the basic pay-per-piece, frequent contributors are eligible for perks like affordable health insurance and grants to pursue their creative aspirations. It’s forums are full of beaming profile avatars, cheery bios, and accolades about how great it is to be able to set one’s schedule and get paid like clockwork via PayPal, which, granted, in this day and age of invoice voids, it is.

Except when it just isn’t worth it.

Maybe I’m just lazy? Incompetent? Entitled? To think that earning $3.50 shouldn’t be so much damn work? Or maybe I’m not. The eHow article “How to Price Yourself as a Freelancer” is broken down into three steps. “Determine a ‘minimum wage’ for yourself based on an assumption of 40 hours a week and your barest financial needs according to your expenses and where you live. Use this number as the minimum for negotiations on your price, taking into account ALL the time you are devoting to the job in question,” it advises. This is step 1. Also in step 1? “Resist the temptation to do any work for less than legal minimum wage. Sure, almost nothing is better than nothing if you don’t have work, but don’t do it: it just makes everything worse for yourself and others in your industry in the long run as freelance employers come to expect more and more for less. There’s a reason wage laws exist in the world of permanent employment!” I hardly needed to read on to step 2. Especially as I was distracted by the accompanying banner ad that blared: “Become a Bartender.”

I stopped editing, waiting for my a robot or human or hybrid to find me out and fire me. Nothing happened, for weeks and weeks. Finally, a human I hadn’t been introduced to heretofore wrote to check in. “I notice you’ve only edited three articles,” she said. “Do you plan to resume editing?” When I didn’t reply (I was thinking!) she wrote again, a few weeks later. “Please let me know ASAP if you intend to edit. Otherwise, we’ll remove your editor permissions from the site.” I can’t say I wasn’t given plenty of time and a fair chance to change my mind, which made me wonder if their supply of overqualified professional editors with the time and inclination to throw their labor into a web well for 1980s babysitting wages wasn’t dwindling, just a little. I took my summer’s worth of earnings, $10.50, and called it a day.

“Listen Ethel,” Lucy says, back on the assembly line. “I think we’re fighting a losing game.” So it goes in the back end of Demand Studios. In fact, being in there felt a lot like it feels to search the web in the content farm era: There’s more than enough information, but none of it’s really useful. I’m not the first, on either side of the mirror, to make such a critique. Indeed, it’s been made so often that Demand has heard it loud and clear and would like you to know that it does not give a shit. “The critics are outnumbered by the millions of consumers who are satisfied… and the hundreds of content creators who go on record saying Demand Media is a hero for them,” proclaims the Defensifesto. “Unlike many around us, we aren’t worried about the future of the Internet because we are too busy trying to create it.”

If that’s going to happen, it’s not going to be on robot sweat alone. It’s going to take a hell of a lot of human hands. And mine, at least, won’t be among them.

Jessanne Collins is a Virgo with a Gemini moon and a Capricorn rising. Obviously.