Wednesday, June 22, 2011

AOL’s Contribution to the Crap Content Tsunami

On Sunday morning I read a fascinating article in the Faster Times by a writer called Oliver Miller, a former employee of AOL who was paid $35,000 a year to pump out blurbs on television episodes for the company’s web portal. The piece provides a fascinating glimpse into one (sadly frequent) approach toward the Internet by some corporates: emphasizing quantity over quality and speed over relevance.
All of this is done in the service of scoring high on search engine rankings to increase viewership of sponsored ads. While writing about TV might sound like a dream for the twenty-something creative professional, Miller writes, the reality of the job was much less glamorous. The sheer industrial quantities of material he was supposed to review meant that he didn’t actually watch the TV episodes but rather based his content on short two-minute clips:
AOL would send me short video clips, ranging from one-to-two minutes in length — clips from “Law & Order,” “Family Guy,” “Dancing With the Stars,” the Grammys, and so on and so forth… My job was then to write about them. But really, my job was to lie. My job was to write about random, out-of-context video clips, while pretending to the reader that I had watched the actual show in question. AOL knew I hadn’t watched the show. The rate at which they would send me clips and then expect articles about them made it impossible to watch all the shows — or to watch any of them, really.
Of course, AOL would never admit to that. They will claim that quality remains the bedrock of their approach toward content creation. However, Miller quotes from a leaked strategy document that proves the company’s real goal is to steadily increase quantity and drive down costs (quality be damned).

And then comes the part that really caught my attention. Miller condenses the philosophy behind this strategy:
When it comes to an article, what AOL cares about is the title, and the “keywords” that will make the article more likely to show up among the top results on Google. You type phrases into “Google Trends,” and it suggests the most popular combination of words associated with that topic.  You then stick those words into your title and first paragraphs. Rinse, wash, and repeat. The article itself was just ballast.
“The article itself was just ballast.” That is increasingly the byword of the Web 2.0. The content of the “content” matters less and less. “Content” is merely the post that holds up a sign directing the viewer toward the ads that the “creator” wants to sell. The keywords and the trending ratings are the real message, but not aimed at human listeners. They are flashing lights that are meant to be read by other computers that run search engines in order to decide how to rout web traffic. Is it any wonder that quality takes a back seat?: “The important part was that the reader would click on those words to read the rest, thereby producing ad revenue for the websites. Words didn’t matter; stealing other people’s work also didn’t matter.”

Miller eventually got laid off, along with many fellow writers. He adds the touching but pathetic detail that the terminations were announced via a robot form letter sent to all the dismissed writers and that some of the ex-workers wrote back: “…these people were sending out polite email responses to an automated form letter that had fired them. ‘I have so many great memories of working for AOL,’ they said.  […] There were no replies to these responses — essentially, my co-workers were saying ‘thank you’ to an uncaring robot.  They may as well have been trying to have a conversation with the coffee maker in AOL headquarters.” Anybody remember Didier Hélin?

In the translation world, there is this constant drumbeat about the Content Tsunami. All those millions of people on the Internet creating user-generated content, we are told, are overwhelming the translation industry’s capacity. So we need technology to keep up. Hmmm, maybe… but stories such as the content farms, Google’s curtailment of access to its Translate API, and now this piece on AOL’s industrial-scale production of garbage all point in another direction. They suggest that the mythical Content Tsunami involves stuff that never should have existed in the first place because its only purpose is to game the arbitrary (and slightly absurd) rules that search engines deploy to catalog the Internet. Moreover, it isn’t even user-generated (as if that were a guarantee of quality, in any case). It is apparently created on an industrial scale by businesses looking to score cheap adclick revenue.

My question always is: if the content is crap in the first place, whyever in heck would we want to translate it? Something that costs less than a penny a word to write needs to be translated at much less than a penny a word. That is why crowdsourced machine translation is the linguistic technology for the New Web. Crap translation for crap content.

Increasingly, the challenge for ensuring the future of the Internet is some way to sift through the garbage produced by cost-efficient, industrial-scale content-creation models. If the Web 2.0 was about connectedness, the main challenge of the Web 3.0 will be cleaning up the Augean mess left behind by this frantic dumping of hazardous waste in order to find the two or three or four daily jewels that are actually worthy of being read and discussed. Curation versus connection may be the way forward.

Miller ends on a far more pessimistic note, however. But he does diagnose the problem very dramatically:
AOL is among the most egregious offenders — but then, this isn’t just an article about AOL. This is an article about a way of life. “The AOL Way” doesn’t simply stand as a pattern for a major corporation; it’s the pattern of the Internet as a whole. The Internet has created more readers than ever before in the history of the world. And yet, perversely, the actual writer is more undervalued than ever before. Every news site that hopes to survive, The Faster Times included, thinks about whether their titles will show up in search engines. In the age of Internet news, Google “keywords” matter. …Regular old words, not so much.
Perhaps a day will come when less translation will eventually become the ultimate aspiration of the ambituous localization entrepreneur.

Miguel Llorens is a freelance financial translator based in Madrid who works from Spanish into English. He is specialized in equity research, economics, accounting, and investment strategy. He has worked as a translator for Goldman Sachs, the US Government's Open Source Center and H.B.O. International, as well as many small-and-medium-sized brokerages and asset management companies operating in Spain.


2 comments:

Wenjer H. Leuschel said...

Miguel, I have been following your writings for quite a while. I like your sharp thinking. This blog article of yours reminds me of a talk of Eli Pariser at TED. I like especially the paragaraph:

"Increasingly, the challenge for ensuring the future of the Internet is some way to sift through the garbage produced by cost-efficient, industrial-scale content-creation models. If the Web 2.0 was about connectedness, the main challenge of the Web 3.0 will be cleaning up the Augean mess left behind by this frantic dumping of hazardous waste in order to find the two or three or four daily jewels that are actually worthy of being read and discussed. Curation versus connection may be the way forward."

You see, it is not only that machines determine what we read, but also that they determine what we should read. I am glad that the machines by far do not prevent me from reading your thoughts in your blog aritcles that inform me that inform me: there are people on this earth who really think of the future of the humanity.

Our lives are tanscient, but our thoughts, if they are substantial, will pass over to the posterity. Your thoughts on the Web 3.0 will go on to the next generation. I know, there are people like me who try to pass over the kind of humam thinking.

Financial Translator said...

Hi Wenjer,

Thanks for following the blog, the link to the Ted talk, and your comments. Parissier just came out with a new book called "The Filter Bubble." I haven't read it yet, but if I get a chance to I'll review it here. If you like this blog, 90% of its ideas come from Jaron Lanier's "You Are not a Gadget," which I have also been meaning to review. The book is excellent for understanding where we are right now from the point of view of communications technology.