Jottings on Facebook, Wikipedia, Content Farms

I was thinking of writing about this, but the always-on-the-ball and perceptive Ivor Tossell beat me to it and did it better in this morning's Grope and Flail so I'll point to him instead. Now that half a billion of us are Facebook users, how do we think about the Web 2.0 phenomenon? Do we think of it as the friendly publican who provides a place for us to talk, or as a dynamic and fascinating landscape to move in, or as the provider of a necessary service like our ISP or cable company? Turns out it's more of the latter. We use Facebook despite, not because of, our relationship to the company. Here is Tossell.

Last week, the American Customer Satisfaction Index, a venerable consumer survey, for the first time published findings on consumer satisfaction with social networks. Facebook scored remarkably poorly, squeaking in at the bottom of the category, just ahead of MySpace, which is about as pleasant as a monster-truck rally.

“This puts Facebook in the bottom 5 per cent of all measured private-sector companies, and in the same range as airlines and cable companies, two perennially low-scoring industries with terrible customer satisfaction,” reported the ACSI.

Airlines and cable companies!

This doesn’t square with the mythologies that have grown around social networks, which usually tell us that these websites have personality-altering, life-changing properties that transform formerly mild-mannered citizens into hyperconnected life-sharers. Right now, Facebook is trying to turn this milestone into a public-relations exercise about the stories of transformation that Facebook has brought about.

This misses the point. The simple fact is that – like an airline or a cable company – Facebook is useful.

The survey is also written about at PC Mag.

Also in today's Globe, an interview with chief Wikifiddler Sue Gardner. While I'm generally a Web 2.0 curmudgeon I do like Wikipedia a lot, and Gardner brings out what's best about it. It has stayed non-commercial, and that has been the key to its success and to the loyalty of those who contribute to it. It's non-commercial nature also makes it something of a rarity. I particularly like this:

“Wikipedia is like the National Parks Service. The Internet is a vast space and it will only continue to grow, but in the vastness you still need space for parks or public libraries.”

One issue that concerns Gardner is the non-representative nature of Wikifiddlers:

Also challenging Wikipedia-as-democratic-paradise is the fact that 87 per cent of Wikipedians are male (the average is a 25-year-old engineering student). Most come from affluent countries that afford them the technology and leisure time to sit computer-side, without pay.

Ms. Gardner’s goal is to correct that imbalance: “My vision for Wikipedia is for it to be the sum of all the world’s knowledge,” she says simply, taking a sip of her Fresca. “To do that, I want more women, more older people, more people from Africa!”

Where are the women? It turns out that a lot of them are working at commercial content farms. These fast-food  (,, and so on) pay people to provide material that they can then use to sell ads. The last six months has seen a flurry of interest in these outfits, who churn out thousands of articles a day to collect Google search results. A survey of articles is here. The revelation that Google's latest Search Stories video inadvertently shows how ubiquitous they have become is at TechCrunch.

A "day in the life" piece by a Andria Krewson, a contributor to one of these farms, explains how they work. She makes the point that "Demand Media doesn't need help with public relations from me. They're compiling comments in an internal forum from their writers about why they love Demand Studios. And plenty of people have commented. They appear to be overwhelmingly women, often with children, often English majors or journalism students, looking for a way to do what they love and make a little money at it." Unlike Wikipedia of course. Still, I agree with the popular take that Demand Media and its competitors are a Bad Thing. But are they the way of the future?

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  1. Actually, there’s a substantial number of women “of a certain age” (unpaid) working on Wikipedia. This usually goes under the radar, since they work on stuff which is popular with their subculture, which does not often intersect with the most popular material on Wikipedia, geek-culture. [antistrawman – I didn’t say these sort of women couldn’t be geeks, but overall, the two groups don’t have a lot of overlap]. There’s interesting tensions between these women and the young men, in terms of the way people interact with each other and generally status-posturing (e.g. the former group does not like the sexual banter of the latter group). My favorite example of this phenomenon is the women who took the young guy saying he was released from Arkham Asylum as *literal* (note – “Arkham Asylum” is the place in Batman’s world where all the villians end up, and escape from).
    > It has stayed non-commercial
    Wikipedia CAN’T go commercial, in a strict sense – it’s owned by a non-profit. But don’t think Jimmy Wales hasn’t tried alternate approaches. My favorite quote about this, from an interview he gave to a magazine for *traders*:
    “In 2004, he launched another Web site, this one called Wikia Inc. (See “Wikipedia 2.0.”) The company, Wales readily admits, is his effort to take the success — and, indeed, the underlying philosophy — of Wikipedia, and commercialize the hell out of it. “Look, I’m not against making money,” he says.”

  2. My impression of the non-commercial nature of Wikipedia is that it comes down to the Spanish Fork episode that cemented the GPL as the license for the content. Is that so?
    It does seem that Mr. Wales is amusingly trapped in this non-profit status despite his efforts to find ways to parlay the Wikipedia name into money. What I liked about the interview with Sue Gardner is that her outlook seems very different from Jimmy Wales – and seems to be an outlook I can support much more happily. While JW looks for ways out of the non-profit status, she seems to revel in it. It would be nice if Wikipedia could grow beyond its origins and beyond its founders.
    I’m sure that you are right and that there are many women working on Wikipedia, but is it proportionately a high number? The figure I saw came from the NYT a year ago, who reported over 80% male ( Would that fit with your knowledge?
    I admit to not understanding what comes across as your dislike of Wikipedia. It has many problems and faults, but I think you see it as terminally flawed, whereas I see it as something of a bright light, specifically because of its non-commercial nature.

  3. I think it’s a much longer and more complicated story than the Spanish Fork – that was just one (albeit important) incident.
    I would be hesitant in forming an assessment of anyone from a puff-piece interview. There’s plenty of gushing portrayals of Jimmy Wales around, which hardly give an accurate picture.
    I wouldn’t argue against that men largely outnumber women working on Wikipedia, though I couldn’t give exact numbers (and it may be different proportions for casual vs. highly committed participants). I was more responding to your point about where they are, versus the paid Content Farmers.
    Regarding my perspective, non-commercial is not the be-all and end-all of making something laudable. Wikipedia seems to me built on a huge amount of misery, suffering, and dysfunction, surrounded by the same type of “Web 2.0” hucksters who have the motto of “You do all the work and we get all the money”. Except they haven’t figured out how to get all the money directly, so they settle (so far) for indirect monetization. There’s a reason Jimmy Wales is asking for $50K-$75K ($100K?) PER LECTURE, and it’s not because he’s so entertaining. When I say “Wikipedia is a cult”, people often don’t get what I mean, knocking down a strawman comparing it to crazy murderers like Charles Manson. But I’m trying to convey the element of emotional manipulation, of exploiting people to do free work because they believe in The Cause, that they’re Making The World A Better Place – while a few at the very top of the pyramid sure have the world being a better place for them.
    All the hype around it – the techno-mysticism (bumblebee glurge), the pseudo-popularism (amateurs -yay!- can write an encyclopedia, just as a good as those pointy-headed – boo! – elitists), the marketing tricks (if the article was wrong, the reader should have fixed it) – all these should be big red flags that something very baleful is going on.
    If you think of it as an *unpaid* Content Farm, dedicated to making non-spammy search results for Google, running on appeals to status and petty power instead of any wage – would that make some of my objections clearer?

  4. I am absolutely, 100%, completely with you on the issue of people – especially young, idealistic people – being misled by ‘Web 2.0 hucksters’ who promote the amateur, collaborative spirit and then make millions off it.
    And yet there are many appealing things about non-market production. I’ve been reading Erik Olin Wright’s Envisioning Unreal Utopias, which promotes social production (of many forms) as alternative to market production, and find a lot to admire. The last few years have not been kind to Benkler’s Wealth of Networks, but I wish more of what he talked about was actually happening.
    For me, the clearest division is the one between a commercial enterprise on one side, and volunteer effort on the other. I realise that “social content” can be like ‘an unpaid content farm’ but they are different, in the same way that writing letters for Amnesty International is different from writing letters for money.
    I think I do see where you are coming from, but I guess I see the bad parts of Wikipedia as internal problems that the organization can, perhaps, overcome if the right people are there. The issues it has seem far from unique – many politically left wing organizations have been through similar phases – and the end result, despite JW’s best efforts, remains non-commercial.

  5. Well, just saying, but Danah Boyd said it too, like 2 months ago… Her piece is pretty decent too.

  6. Thanks Marcio – I had seen her earlier rant, but not the piece that you link to, and I agree it is pretty decent.
    You are right that the point about Facebook is hardly original, and the growing discontent with the company seems to be becoming systemic. Of her references, I particularly liked the Privacy as Product Safety piece by James Grimmelman.
    I think I partly posted these jottings because I’ve been reading Ivor Tossell for some time and consistently enjoy his writings, and wanted to send a few people his way.

    I think the question will be, what quality level will the mass production be able to achieve. There will be a limit, and sites that take a more authoritative view and give trust a boost within their content (like does) and pay their writers more for better content will win in the long run. I guess it’s the different between a mass produced car and a hand crafted car. Which will last longer and have less issues? I put my money on the hand crafted vehicle. I think the same is true with the large sites that rely on mass but have little quality behind each article. We recently saw this with QA sites and will soon see it with content farms that don’t live up to Google’s and the users standards.

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