James Frey and Content Mills

In my opinion, anyone who isn’t named “Oprah Winfrey” who decides to do business with James Frey is getting what they deserve.

Some suggest that Frey’s “victims” were made vulnerable by MFA programs that didn’t educate them about publishing, but it requires little training to identify Frey’s contracts as absurd. (Does anyone really think $250 is fair market value for a commercially viable novel or that letting someone else use your name as they please is smart?) The writers who signed those contracts weren’t acting out of ignorance but from some combination of desperation, hope, and a sense of exceptionalism that writers need to get out of bed. (“I know James Joyce died in poverty, Kafka worked a desk job, and Dan Brown can’t coax a sentence out of a bag, but I can be brilliant and rich.”) Some of them were just taking a flyer.

Sadly, though, it seems that Frey-esque exploitation is becoming part of our Internet culture.

Or, looking to the future, consider the example of Demand Media, a so-called content-mill, which uses a vast collection of Web-recruited freelancers to generate articles for about $15 per 300-word item; copy editors are said to get $2.50 for each piece they correct. The outfit’s editorial direction is charted by what the company’s prospectus calls “our proprietary algorithms,” which is to say, equations that mainly weigh two factors: what people are searching for on Google and what advertisers might pay to associate themselves with a given topic.

According to Demand’s manifesto—yes, they have a manifesto—all this is merely “listening to the customer,” an “incredibly liberating” development that “guides” not only the “content we create” but “the communities we nurture.” Its competitor, Associated Content, actually calls itself “The People’s Media Company”; on the occasion of its purchase by Yahoo!, Associated’s founder claimed he had in mind “a democratization of content.”

That latter quote comes from Thomas Frank’s editorial in the new Harper’s, which you’ll have to pay to read.

Sadly, building a huge website with mostly worthless content that you pay for by the metric ton seems to be a better business model than making a small, carefully tended website with genuinely worthwhile content that attempts to move our culture forward. Yes, the Internet has enabled many good things, but these good things seem to be getting overshadowed by a logic that is pulling the medium in a distinctly bad direction.

And speaking of money, this is still donation week. Thanks to all who choose to donate.

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