Demand Media vs. Wikimedia: the battle for the soul of the Internet

There’s one company I’ve been talking about more than any other lately: (the demonic) Demand Media http://jr.ly/mmzt and http://jr.ly/mxtp

Jay Rosen on Twitter, 27 November 2009

When journalism professor and media critic Jay Rosen discusses Demand Media and its business model, he always includes the parenthetical adjective demonic.  Demand Media is the answer to the question, what would Internet content look like if it was entirely and solely driven by advertising revenue?  Content is commissioned based on an algorithm that calculates the lifetime value of the ads that could be run against it.

Demand Media takes the routinization of knowledge work to its logical extreme.  (For those with a Marxist bent, is there any clearer example of the knowledge worker alienated from the products of his labor than Christian Muñoz-Donoso, from Rosen’s first link?)  And Demand Media expects to be producing “the equivalent of four English-language Wikipedias a year” by next summer.

Wikipedia and other free culture projects, sometimes pejoratively described as “crowdsourcing” projects, have been criticized for undermining the economic viability of traditional, professionally produced media.   But what if the real choice for the future is not between the Wikimedia model and the traditional media model, but between the Wikimedia model and the Demand Media model?  Media driven by love versus media driven by money.  Editor-driven media where everyone is an editor versus demand-driven media where no one is an editor.  Media built from soul versus media with no soul.

52 thoughts on “Demand Media vs. Wikimedia: the battle for the soul of the Internet”

  1. Thought provoking. I had heard of but never bothered to look at/into Demand Media. I’m not sure it has less “soul” than existing and previous millenium commercial media, which already had none. DM is just more efficient, making its soullessness less obscured.

    I’d like to claim that still what matters most is whether the result is free as in freedom — if it is not, motives other than soul may dominate, and the soulful inject other values — and that whether work is done for love, peanuts, fair wages, or megabucks is of secondary importance. Freedom is not price … but soul, hmm?

    Demand Media does have a good insight, applied regularly in many other businesses, but not so much in media — predict demand and base production on that. This lesson could be applied better even by love-driven projects — make it easy for editors (or function appropriate to setting, eg programmers) work on in-demand tasks — some care that their work is seen/used, that could be good for editors, readers, and the competitiveness of free culture/software/etc. One of course can look at articles requested or bugs, and in software OpenHatch I believe is trying to make that easier, but there may be room for these to be more sophisticated without destroying community.

    What if a next generation Demand Media cuts costs even further by only editing together free media in a way that their heuristics tell them will optimize ad revenue?

    1. “I’m not sure it has less “soul” than existing and previous millenium commercial media, which already had none.”

      I don’t agree, as a categorical statement, that unfree commercial media lacks soul (although certainly much of it does). Lots of stuff produced in commercial settings nevertheless has managed to be soulful and wonderful and good for both the people who made it and the people who partake of it.

      I’m talking about soul in the sense of soulcraft: http://ragesoss.com/blog/2009/08/15/lolcats-as-soulcraft/

      You can think of this in terms of freedom, but it’s a different kind of freedom from the free software/free culture definition. It’s the freedom of the maker to work in the way she thinks best, to work to her own standards and choose her own direction.

      For Christian Muñoz-Donoso or the rest of the army of freelancers working for Demand Media, would it make their work any more meaningful or fulfilling, any less soul-draining, if Demand Media used CC licenses?

      “This lesson could be applied better even by love-driven projects…”

      Absolutely.

      “What if a next generation Demand Media cuts costs even further by only editing together free media…”

      It may come down to that, where a business model based purely on algorithmic repackaging rather than creating new content can compete against the Demand Media model. But if it does, it’s a sign that the margins have gotten very small, to the point where professionally-produced content isn’t sufficiently better than free content (at least in terms of selling ads against) to make up what it costs to pay people to make it. In other words, at that point free media–the ultimate “bad competitor”–will have made it impossible to finance content creation based on advertising. Whether that’s a good thing or not is perhaps a matter of political philosophy.

  2. Wikis: We still make the Internet not suck!

    As the founder of wikiHow, I constantly notice the quality difference between wikiHow’s articles written and edited by passionate volunteers and Demand Media’s made for the advertising algorithm pages found on their eHow website. For example:

    http://www.wikihow.com/Make-a-Box-Styled-Gimp – High quality wikiHow
    vs
    http://www.ehow.com/how_2265288_make-box-style-gimp.html – Good for ads, but questionably useful to a human reader by eHow / DemandMedia

    The wiki method does work to produce higher quality, more soulful work. Perhaps in time, web users and even search engines will be able to spot the difference before clicking to a soulless link.

    1. Thanks, Jack. Do you think it’s the wiki method that’s the key? That’s one factor, but I think a soulless wiki is not impossible. And passionate volunteers aren’t the endpoint either; as Jason Fry points out in the above trackback: “media driven by love isn’t always so edifying, either. Have you been to Yahoo Answers lately?”

      So do you think the eHow / Demand Media model is inherently inferior, or is it just the weaknesses of the current search environment that enables Demand Media to make money by commissioning mediocre content?

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