Content as commodity? Can AOL corner the market?

Every writer of online content, particularly bloggers, have been bludgeoned with the maxim “content is king.” Behind that pithy statement are exhortations to create content that is informing, engaging, entertaining, timely, helpful, inspirational, detailed, and readable (ack! I’m going to exceed my daily buzzword capacity). All of this sounds like quality, not quantity, rules the online content market. Right?

Today, we got the news AOL has bought the Huffington Post for $315 million ($300 million cash and $15 million of stock—the biggest acquisition of an online content provider to date). This may seem unrelated to the quality-vs-quantity question, but bear with me.

The news caused a bit of head-scratching, mine included, because AOL and HuffPo aren’t an obvious match in branding, content, or politics (as astute observers have pointed out). Many are surprised about the price, and I’m sure it’s raising spirits (financial hopes) in the blogosphere. The award for Best Commentary goes to Max Read at Gawker:

Somewhere, right now, Tina Brown is trying to sell The Daily Beast to Compuserve.

The AOL Way

Seriously, though, I wouldn’t have commented upon this acquisition if I hadn’t also come across Business Insider’s Leak of AOL’s Master Plan. Besides having a goofy name (“The AOL Way”), this plan requires a massive increase in content creation. By April, the CEO hopes to increase stories per month from 33,000 to 55,000, pageviews per story from 1,500 to 7,000 (good luck with that), and in-house AOL staffers are expected to write five to 10 stories per day (which is hard, considering they’re assigned topics). This is only a few of the increased production targets and I won’t mention the editorial goals, where editors must focus on the “profitability” of the content.

Quantity First — What Does This Mean for Writers?

It seems that AOL is concentrating on quantity first, whether through its staff, its content mill (Seed.com), or its subsidiary web sites (e.g. TechCrunch, Engadget, HuffPo). Note that I’m not making any assumption of quality. Some writers can produce informing, engaging, entertaining, timely, helpful, inspirational, detailed, readable copy really, really fast. I’m just not one of them, unfortunately, but as a fellow wordsmith, I wish those writers the best.

And, whether or not AOL’s Way will produce high-quality content, it reminds me of an attempt to dominate the supply of a commodity. They’re not the first company to take such an approach in this brave new world, nor will they be the last.

Of course, once any product becomes a commodity… I picture writers slaving away for factories, having signed away their copyright (or had it reduced, contractually, to insignificance). Oh, wait. We already have that; just search on “content mill writing.” But this won’t affect fiction writers—oops. Take a look at James Frey’s Fiction Factory. One could argue that we’ve always had book packagers, vanity presses, and “work for hire” situations, so this is just more of the same. Perhaps. Writers should still be wary and read the contracts carefully.

How are Consumers Affected?

As a consumer, I’m not pleased to have more, more, and more content to wade through. There are many inaccurate and superseded “pieces” out there, with little way to define timelines of “publication.” See—internet content never goes away. It floats about as it decays from time, only to suddenly appear on the first page of your search results. I regularly get frustrated by some “republished” article pushed at me by a content aggregator who skillfully stripped the article’s publication date. I’ll have to travel several links, or search for the original provider of the article, often to find the information is out of date. The date bracketing on search engines is useless, because many sites create URLs on the fly and use scripts to change file dates, specifically to prevent search engines from marking stale content.

Even though I’m joking about AOL “corning the market,” I’m worried about treating content as a commodity. I’m sure businesses already have to assess the value, in dollars, of their database of content, whatever it may be. Unfortunately for consumers, content cannot be treated like a commodity, where its value is measured (indexed?) extrinsically. One pork belly is the same as another, except by weight, and tons of grain are homogenous. But, as consumers, we’re not interested in reading/downloading/buying a couple million identical words (like grains in a silo), and I doubt we’ll ever be investing in word futures!

Any opinions?

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