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The Writing Life: Words flow fast on the 'content farm'

The array of articles online may have earned Demand Studios the 'content farm' label, but it holds an odd appeal for writers in search of freelance gigs.

August 01, 2010|By Erin O'Brien, Special to the Los Angeles Times

It was the last engagement on my calendar, a keynote address at a writers' conference outside Toledo, Ohio, after which the coast was dismally clear: no more workshops, appearances or assignments. The group was intelligent and easygoing, so during a casual discussion, I asked where people were writing for money.

"Demand Studios," said one woman, explaining that she earned $15 apiece for short articles that the Santa Monica-based company published on websites such as eHow.com and Livestrong.com. "It adds up," she went on.

So when I got home, I gulped down my pride and applied. A week later, I was ready to "Take Control of Your Career," just like the Demand Studios home page said.

"It's like working at McDonald's," I told my husband, "but for writers."

Last year in Wired magazine, Daniel Roth described Demand Studios as "a factory stamping out moneymaking content." He and others have painted the DS "content farm" as the beginning of the end of human creativity. As for those who contribute to DS, Roth described us as downtrodden "day laborers waiting in front of Home Depot."

But you won't find me at that pity party — because writing DS articles is weirdly addictive.

For anyone unfamiliar with DS, here's how the process works. A mysterious digital algorithm spits out a constant flow of story ideas in a variety of categories. As a writer, I claim the ones I want, then I get to work. The pieces are short, 400 words or so. Each time I sit down to write, I'm thinking: I can pump out 400 words about, say, truck driving schools in half an hour!

That's part of the appeal, the idea that none of this should take too long. Of course, it never works out that way. Two hours later, I'm hanging over my keyboard vowing never again — until the next deceptively simple idea comes along and the cycle begins again.

It should be easy; I'm a writer, after all. It's not like I'm working in a sweatshop. The only cigar-chomping boss around here is, well, me. Because if I don't hustle, my hourly wage will barely rival what they're shelling out over at the Golden Arches.

Welcome to the infuriating brilliance of the DS model, which succeeds precisely because it is a tangle of gray contradiction rather than the black-and-white operation its detractors claim to see. DS contributors and editors are at once faceless output devices and emotional human beings, evidence that the more we're treated like machines, the less we act like them.

All DS articles are written on spec. They're returned for rewrites and rejected all the time, which often results in appeals and squabbles on the various in-house forums. (Kill fee? Go ahead and keep the $3.75.)

I might be working for DS, but I have to answer to any one of the anonymous copy editors to whom I've assigned one imaginary persona: Dungford. Depending on his response to my work, Dungford is either an affable boss or an incompetent ninny. What I never forget is that poor Dungford is making only $3.50 to correct my verb tenses and banish my errant commas.

I've always taken the editorial process in stride, but I seethe over rewrite requests for these $15 articles. Dungford can infuriate me (How dare he suggest I'm off-title!) or inflate me with idiotic pride. ("Crisply!" Dungford thinks my "Things to do" article was written "crisply!")

Make no mistake: DS gets its money's worth. Dungford has a quota, and I can get fired if my quality stats fall short. The interplay between us is another illustration of the strange combination of digital decisions and human subjectivity. Power struggles notwithstanding, Dungford and I have one chance to communicate and agree on an article. If something goes south between us, nobody gets paid.

Perhaps that's why the DS faithful are a protective lot.

Case in point, the "Holiday Club," in which the Powers That Be (actually referred to on DS forums as TPTB) dangled six $500 bonuses to be distributed randomly over the Memorial Day weekend. The more you submit, we were told, the better your chances of winning!

The faithful gushed over this on the DS forums. I wanted to chant, "Union! Union! Union!" Why not offer a few more dollars per article for the duration? And yet, to what end? We're all freelancers, working for DS on our own volition.

In any case, the DS machine is no cold, calculating HAL but something more like a frantic gaggle of Oompa Loompas. Forum moderators apologize for not being able to answer questions. Messages about technical difficulties pop onto my desktop. I'm asked to log out. I'm thanked for my patience. There's an element of mystery also, with curious forums only particular groups can access and murmurs about private assignments. But the machine always rumbles on.

And why not? Digital content is big business and getting bigger all the time. That TPTB are taking this seriously is not lost on me. The money they pay represents a subtle victory in the battle over free and often substandard user-generated content. A bar has been set, however low.

Not only that, but even humble writing sometimes harbors hidden gifts. Working for DS, I've written several tip articles aimed at visitors to my hometown of Cleveland. One lazy day in June, I decided to benefit from my own advice and take a 20-mile drive. It was my teen daughter's first trip to Edgewater Beach, where I hadn't been in years. We splashed in the water as runners and cyclists glided by. Lake Erie was playful at our feet and majestic as it fanned out into a blanket of shimmering diamonds. The skyline stood solid and serene overlooking it all.

In that moment, my $15 article for Demand Studios was worth a million bucks.

O'Brien is the author of the novel "Harvey & Eck."

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