While writing my Platform Evolution post I gave some thought to commenting on an excellent Infographic about content farms. No sooner did I decide against it than I ran across this excellent post on Publishing Trends about content farms. Then, a day later, a good friend sent me an unbidden and timely link to a post on Making Light, which, among other things, talks about — wait for it! — content farms.
If you’re not familiar with content farms you can get a quick overview here. As a writer, what concerns me most about content farms is that they are to writing and publishing what Ebola is to the human body. If I was an astrophysicist I would also add that content farms are to information and knowledge what solar storms are to communications. And if I was a logician I would say that content farms are to accuracy and reliability what tsunamis are to fishing villages.
Which is to say that everything about content farms is bad, but not equally bad. The worst aspect of content farms is not that they’re the new frontier for spammers and swindlers, it’s that producing so much crap at such an incredible rate renders every single aggregating and filtering mechanism useless.
Google as a search engine for retail products and reviews has been beyond broken for years. (Try searching for “best _____”, where the blank is any product you’re interested in.) Amazon is currently the default search for products, but it’s starting to fall apart as well. (Am I looking at the latest version of the CD/DVD/book I want to order? Is it new or used? Does it ship free or for a fee? Is it shipping from Amazon or some fly-by-night third-party reseller?) And of course the idea that all that ballyhooed user-generated social-media content is pretty much crap is also nothing new.
What content farms do that’s new is automate the production of internet crap by exploiting free labor and making liberal use of other people’s content in a plausibly deniable way. For independent writers trying to attract attention, fighting through the noise pollution generated by content farms may seem impossible, and all the more so as content farms begin to pollute e-book retailers like Amazon. The antidote to this virulent hemorrhage of obfuscating web text may seem to be a gated social networking community, but I think the opposite is true.
The Best Offense
When you own your own website you establish a perimeter you can actively defend. Whatever else might be happening on the wild and wooly web — whatever newfangled social-networking site or app might be setting the masses atwitter, and whatever predatory forces are conspiring to mute your voice — you can control the integrity of your brand and web presence from behind your server firewall.
As the web disintegrates and segregates more and more, and as sites like Facebook and Amazon fight to lock you in to their communities, denying portability to the relationships you establish on those sites, your isolated, solitary website will remain unsullied. As such it will help you accomplish what fewer and fewer netizens are able to do these day: authenticate yourself. Nobody will be confused about who you are because on your own site you control the message and the medium.
Rather than having to fight through other sites or networks, an independent website also allows readers to find you using almost any basic search engine. Yes, people will need to know something about you — your name, the title of your book(s), etc. — but that will be true no matter how you attempt to integrate your platform into the web.
Content farms, by their very nature, and designed to obscure and deceive through sheer volume. Should content farms progress to the level of writing useless articles about every name in the phone book, then yes, that could pose problems for independent authors. But those problems will still be significantly less if you have your own dedicated site.
Why? Because most search engines take the quality of posts into account. In less than a year and a half I’ve managed to turn the keywords ‘mark, barrett, writer‘ into multiple first-page search hits that allow people to find me. If readers learn or remember the word Ditchwalk they can find me even more quickly, either by typing in that word as a URL or searching for it.
In an age when more and more individuals and businesses are determined to exploit and corrupt information, the ability to validate and authenticate your own presence on the web carries a premium. As an independent author you are and must be your own brand, and I believe it’s less important in a platform context to distribute that brand than it is to make yourself easily identifiable and accessible. (You don’t have to join Facebook or Twitter or anything else in order to find and access Ditchwalk.)
The Best Defense
The biggest fear most writers have about not being on Facebook or Twitter — apart from missing out on the markets themselves — is that somebody will poach their name or brand. The fear of brandjacking is actually stoked by social networking site because it drives a considerable amount of registrations: sign up now or someone will steal your identity! (Some websites make this threat part of their business plan, driving registrations by implicit extortion.)
Back in the day it was possible for a sole-proprietor to maintain a presence on one or two social networking sites to make sure nobody was poaching. Anyone visiting those pages could be redirected in some fashion to the brand’s home page. Today that’s not only not realistic, but social networking sites have gotten better at making it hard for people to leave the compound. Trying to integrate with every site that has a market/community — let alone maximize those relationships — could easily leave the independent author with no time to work.
From your perspective as an author, establishing the prominence of your own name probably seems critical, but it’s not. There are a lot of Mark Barretts in the world, but because of my investment in Ditchwalk I don’t have to compete with any of them. Merely by writing a few blog posts using words central to my work I’ve been able to differentiate myself from others who are fortunate enough to have the same great name.
In the same way that I’m not going to play defense in order to protect myself against brandjacking, I’m not going to play defense against namejacking. Even if I thought parents were naming their kids “Mark Barrett” in order to dilute my brand, I wouldn’t bow to that kind of extortion because it’s too easy to get around the problem. (I might consider suing them for trademark infringement however. Or blasphemy. Or something.)
There’s a bit of equity in all this, too. If you’ve got a really common name it’s going to be a little harder to differentiate yourself from everyone else, but you’ll benefit because most people will be able to guess the spelling. If your name is less common it may be harder to spell, but it will be much easier for you to differentiate yourself.
It’s possible that someone somewhere may at some point put up a fan page using your name. It’s also possible some weasel might try to steal your identity by brandjacking. It’s useful to do web searches from time to time to see when and where your name appears, and in what context, but I don’t think there’s any reason to be paranoid. If you do find somebody ripping you off you can probably get the offending account or web page taken down by contacting the relevant admins.
The Signal-to-Noise Test
If you’ve been using the web for a decade or more you’ve experienced the decay. Searching for even simple things has become a chore, in part because of the nefarious practices of a dedicated and growing subculture of spammers and exploiters, but also in part because of a social-networking mindset that says the open web is a threat.
When you’re building your own platform and considering how different applications or sites might benefit you, consider the signal-to-noise ratio. I stopped using Twitter because the ratio of signal to noise kept getting worse no matter what I did. I stopped using Facebook because Facebook constantly abused and confused its own users, while at the same time encouraging a nearly endless stream of meaningless updates and postings.
When you base your platform on your own website, the signal to noise ratio is under your control. Nothing and nobody can get in the way of your message because there is no noise unless you allow it. As a result, the clarity of your site stands apart from the muck spewed forth by content farms and networking sites. And there will only be more muck.