Cred and Craftsmanship Still Essential for Quality Content

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writer_smallADOTAS – The same day I published a story arguing an algorithm can’t determine “quality” without human intervention — which Google pretty much proved by making an exception in its algorithm update for Cult of Mac, an Apple news site that witnessed a huge drop in traffic after the algo changes were implemented — WetPaint CEO Ben Elowitz wrote a treatise on PaidContent called “Traditional Ways Of Judging ‘Quality’ In Published Content Are Now Useless.”

Old media types are belly-aching about the loss of quality content with the rise of new media, Elowitz writes, but the four key criteria for traditional “quality” content — credential, correctness, objectivity and craftsmanship — are outdated.

The whole thing is pretty disturbing, but the quote that really gets me is this one:

“In this environment, by and large more content benefits the audience far more than higher-grade art. For the vast majority of categories, well-crafted content is consumed disposably by the audience, and investments in craftsmanship are more an indulgence in the creators’ egos than an investment in differentiation that will win audience.”

This argument is pure fallacy — did the teachings of Ellsworth Toohey inspire Elowitz’s piece? Craftsmanship is utterly essential in content creation. Anyone can regurgitate information, but doing it with flair and clarity while engaging a reader is an art. The majority of content creators don’t add such touches to stroke themselves, they use these techniques to stand apart and find ways to engross their audiences. And once we as readers find someone who engages and informs us, we stick with that person — they have credentials, or “cred,” for you hipsters out there. But Elowitz says cred don’t matter no more.

It’s an engineer’s argument — perhaps Elowitz had a hand in crafting The AOL Way. This school of thought believes you can win the content battle by crapping out SEO-gamed content at a rapid pace — the more topics covered, the more “differentiated.” The article is particularly confusing because Elowitz wrote an insightful analysis of the Demand Media IPO just a few weeks ago

Elowitz seems to be advocating a position that numerous online publishers have adopted — fast-food publishing. Internet users don’t care about the taste (or health value) of what they consume, they simply want something to fill them up cheap and easy. Super-size me — put out fast-food content and as much of it as possible.

The same reason a good percentage of Americans are overweight can explain why the Internet is clogged with junk — cheap crap, and too much of it. In the real world, organic and healthy food is simply more expensive — and when your budget is strapped because of the economy, you can’t always shop at Whole Foods. But for the most part, content on the Internet is ad-supported; in theory anyone can access better quality content — as long as it’s out there. As long as users can figure out where to go — and that’s where cred comes in.

When denouncing the importance of credentials, Elowitz argues, “The audience doesn’t care where the content comes from as long as it meets their needs.” Proof? Look at how Gawker has succeeded without old-media journalists or tactics.

Well, how did Gawker get to 10 million uniques a month? Gawker built a brand. Gawker gained a reputation. Gawker established credentials!

Even TMZ has credentials — its ability to get scoops in the celebrity and gossip world have turned it into a go-to source. But breaking news isn’t the only reason people turn to Gawker or TMZ. They provide humorous commentary and analysis on pop culture trivialities (though Gawker occasionally provides a smart view of issues one could deem more serious, including Facebook’s privacy policy) — people go to those sites not only because of their news, but also their craftsmanship. There are countless junk gossip sites out there, but Gawker in particular has unmatched flair.

Increasingly Internet users are getting news — or rather the headlines — from social media resources such as Twitter and Facebook, we scan headlines. To some extent, Twitter is a customized version of the ticker running across the bottom of a cable news channel. But on Twitter we customized that feed by selecting who to follow based on their credentials — I have a list of industry pros I selected based on their positions as well as their ability to pass on quality content.

Beyond that, the age of the blogger further enhanced the credentials of specific writers: anybody from Andrew Sullivan and Glenn Greenwald to Perez Hilton and Brooklyn Vegan.

Audiences certainly do care where it’s content comes from; we remember the source of our information; which is why Elowitz’s trope about correctness doesn’t make sense — if a site feeds us wrong information, we remember; sure, corrections can be made in real-time but initial impact can’t be underestimated. Elowitz suggests that the old media quality judgment “unforgivingly intolerant of errors in reporting” — does he think readers aren’t? Maybe we’re just used to being constantly misinformed by the media.

Elowitz also argues that “Digital audiences are not relying on any one piece as the sole source.” But even before the digital age, audiences didn’t rely on a single media source for info.

I remember those ancient days of 15 years ago when people subscribed to multiple newspapers and news magazines to get different angles on current events. Being from DC, I knew families that received The Washington Post and The Washington Times, which supposedly gave a conservative slant on the news. And — you won’t believe this — people would watch multiple newscasts to get various angles. People even listen to multiple radio reports!

Since the dawn of mass media, people have sought the same information from multiple sources because we have an inherent need for corroboration of facts as well as varied perspectives (even if the variance seems miniscule).

Old media vs. new media is a bad lens to view the quality content argument through. The Internet age has not changed perceptions about quality from the “old days.” Credential and craftsmanship are tied together in the quality game — credential is something that is earned through quality craftsmanship. It’s also something that can be lost — you guys in the behavioral targeting space remember The Wall Street Journal?

Who determines the cred is what matters. For a long time in the online world, it was Google and its awesome algorithm, but increasingly it’s the people in our social networks, as the algorithm has proved easy to manipulate. This is actually a return to tradition and “old media,” because pre-Google, who you trusted as an information source was likely heavily influenced by the people in your social graph — the real-life one.

Next week Elowitz promises to submit an article about how quality should be judged in the digital age. I can’t wait to see it.

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