Thousands of other filmmakers and writers around the country are operating with the same loose standards, racing to produce the 4,000 videos and articles that Demand Media publishes every day. The company’s ambitions are so enormous as to be almost surreal: to predict any question anyone might ask and generate an answer that will show up at the top of Google’s search results. To get there, Demand is using an army of Muñoz- Donosos to feverishly crank out articles and videos. They shoot slapdash instructional videos with titles like “How To Draw a Greek Helmet” and “Dog Whistle Training Techniques.” They write guides about lunch meat safety and nonprofit administration. They pump out an endless stream of bulleted lists and tutorials about the most esoteric of subjects.
Plenty of other companies — About.com, Mahalo, Answers.com — have tried to corner the market in arcane online advice. But none has gone about it as aggressively, scientifically, and single-mindedly as Demand. Pieces are not dreamed up by trained editors nor commissioned based on submitted questions. Instead they are assigned by an algorithm, which mines nearly a terabyte of search data, Internet traffic patterns, and keyword rates to determine what users want to know and how much advertisers will pay to appear next to the answers.
The process is automatic, random, and endless, a Stirling engine fueled by the world’s unceasing desire to know how to grow avocado trees from pits or how to throw an Atlanta Braves-themed birthday party. It is a database of human needs, and if you haven’t stumbled on a Demand video or article yet, you soon will. By next summer, according to founder and CEO Richard Rosenblatt, Demand will be publishing 1 million items a month, the equivalent of four English-language Wikipedias a year. Demand is already one of the largest suppliers of content to YouTube, where its 170,000 videos make up more than twice the content of CBS, the Associated Press, Al Jazeera English, Universal Music Group, CollegeHumor, and Soulja Boy combined. Demand also posts its material to its network of 45 B-list sites — ranging from eHow and Livestrong.com to the little-known doggy-photo site TheDailyPuppy.com — that manage to pull in more traffic than ESPN, NBC Universal, and Time Warner’s online properties (excluding AOL) put together. To appreciate the impact Demand is poised to have on the Web, imagine a classroom where one kid raises his hand after every question and screams out the answer. He may not be smart or even right, but he makes it difficult to hear anybody else.
The result is a factory stamping out moneymaking content. “I call them the Henry Ford of online video,” says Jordan Hoffner, director of content partnerships at YouTube. Media companies like The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, AOL, and USA Today have either hired Demand or studied its innovations. This year, the privately held Demand is expected to bring in about $200 million in revenue; its most recent round of financing by blue-chip investors valued the company at $1 billion.
In this industrial model of content creation, Muñoz-Donoso is working the conveyor belt — being paid very little for cranking out an endless supply of material. He admits that the results are not particularly rewarding, but work is work, and Demand’s is steady and pays on time. Plus, he says, “this is the future.” He has shot more than 40,000 videos for Demand, filming yo-yo whizzes, pole dancers, and fly fishermen. But ask him to pick a favorite and he’s stumped. “I can’t really remember most of them,” he says.
In an era overwhelmed by FlickrYouTubeWikipedia-BloggerFacebookTwitter-borne logorrhea, it’s hard to argue that the world needs another massive online content company. But what Demand has realized is that the Internet gets only half of the simplest economic formula right: It has the supply part down but ignores demand. Give a million monkeys a million WordPress accounts and you still might never get a seven-point tutorial on how to keep wasps away from a swimming pool. Yet that’s what people want to know. Ask Byron Reese.
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
Posted by Jim Gay at 1:14 PM