Now that I’ve been freelancing for about three years, I think I’ve built up sufficient experience to get metaphysical about this thing called writing. There’s a word that people throw around in the online world, and it’s a word I’ve come to despise. That word is:
This cursed word has become pervasive in the world of online writing, and we largely have Google to thank. If you hang out your virtual shingle on the Web by creating a website, then you have to figure out how to get people to see your website. A large part of that process involves learning to game Google.
On one side, you have the small business owner. She wants to sell products and/or services to people and knows that she has to reach out to an online community. After building a website, she decides to post it online. She waits for the money to pour over her like a cascade of gold at Gringotts. It doesn’t. She needs a different strategy.
Enter Google. Google has a business interest in making sure that, when a person types a search term into Google’s search field, that person receives a list of high-quality search results. If the searcher continuously receives lists of junky spam sites, then that person may start to use Bing. As if—nobody uses Bing. But I digress. To ensure quality, Google constantly tweaks and bangs its algorithm to reward websites that provide useful, relevant and well-written “content.”
Google’s demand for quality rewards the small business owner for producing great website content. Also, Google rewards the small business owner for regularly updating that website with fresh content. The scenario sounds like a win-win for all involved, doesn’t it? The business receives organic promotion through search rankings, and customers come face-to-face with high-quality websites.
Then, as in all capitalism, we begin the race to the top. For business owners, it’s a race to the top of Google’s search rankings. Sure, they want high search rankings, but they also want to be useful because Google, like life, tends to reward usefulness. Quality content is important, but see, the shop around the corner also has a website that is well-written and useful. What’s the solution? More content. More usefulness. Piles and piles of useful content. They blog. They write articles. They open Facebook pages and Twitter accounts. These steps are followed by white papers, e-books and landing pages for pay-per-click campaigns.
Who has time to create piles of content and run a business at the same time? The solution: Hire a writer to mass produce on your behalf. In business writing, as in the call center, competition has gone international. You can easily ask someone from another country to write for you at a low rate.
You probably have limited resources as a small business owner, so the writer that charges 1¢ per word looks attractive to your ledger. You provide some keywords about your business, such as “landscaper in Salt Lake City,” and ask the writer to generate some content. You get your article back. You’ve paid $5 for 500 words. Congratulations! You’ve got content.
Content production has created its own little economy: search engine optimization companies, online marketing strategists and social media advisers galore. They all have content strategies, too. For example, you can visit their websites to read with titles such as, “Is Your Content Marketing Strategy a Dog or a Puppy?” I’m not kidding. That’s a real title that recently passed through my Twitter feed.
As content is mass-produced, it gets dumbed down. It’s market value also drops. After all, why pay a writer a living wage, even if that writer produces a higher quality product, if you can get “content” from someone willing to work for less than minimum wage? After all, if your goal is to rise in Google’s search results, who cares what you put on the Web so long as it drives customers to click on your website?
What becomes unreasonable is when a client wants the best of your brain power with a 24-hour turnaround time at a ridiculously low rate of pay. Unfortunately, as the market drives quality and prices to the bottom, the focus becomes less upon the craft of writing and more on mass production of content. For instance, I recently wrote a white paper on a fairly complex topic. The client sent me two rambling, single-spaced pages containing his disjointed thoughts on the topic. I researched and wrote the white paper, and when I was finished, I realized that I had not only created “content” for this client. I’d also given him my research, my thoughts, my analysis and, essentially, my brain power. He can take that white paper, post it online and say, “Yes! This is what I meant to say all along.”
Neil Gaiman summarizes the topic best: “We’re in a transitional world right now, if you’re in any artistic field, because the nature of distribution is changing, the models by which creators got their work out into the world, and got to keep a roof over their heads and buy sandwiches while they did that, are all changing.” He’s also right when he says that, while no one knows what publishing and distribution will look like in a decade, changing times can be exciting times.
We’ve seen the consequences of mass production in our history. We’ve also seen the metaphors of mass production in our art, from zombies to Uruk-hai to Borg to Cybermen. All of these creatures represent our fears of losing our self-determination and our uniqueness. They also represent our fear that what we are will be taken and twisted until we become the very thing engine of automation that we hate. You don’t have to be a writer to have these fears. The timpanist sitting at the back of the orchestra, the illustrator creating panels of comics—all of these artists have similar fears, that their worlds are disappearing and that they’re ripe for obsolescence.
On one hand, my fear is that too many good writers that deserve to make a living for their skill and intellectual property will go the way of other artisans in the face of mass production, marking down and dumbing down, all in the name of “content.” On the other hand, no writer can contribute to the craft in the same way as I can. I say that not with arrogance but with a great appreciation for the uniqueness of each writer, for no other writer can contribute to the craft in the same way that you can, either. We may distribute our art differently than we did before, but as it always has, art finds a way.
I’m not sure how to fight back against “content.” Because I produce it, I’m part of the problem, but for now, it’s how I buy those proverbial sandwiches. I’m an idealist, though, so I still believe that if I produce art as only I can, then I’ll find an outlet that may pay me to do so. And then, if that art connects with enough people, then I can leave the world of mass production behind.