Problems with the Content Consumption Ecosystem

I’ve hand written this blog post in my spare time three times over and still haven’t gotten it as concise as this comment chain I read on Hacker News yesterday. Note the exceptional level of engagement – over 2,700 comments as of the writing of this post!

It’s clear that this has struck a nerve with the denizens of the internet.

Search Engines’ Role in the Degradation of Content Quality

What I have to add to the discussion is sort of tangential. I browse the web looking for high-quality point sources of information, something I might define as blog posts by experts, technical papers, instructional content, documentation, etc. I’m not really looking to purchase a product in most cases, although if I am, I’m searching for as much information about the product as I can.

I think that’s why when I read the comments in the HN article I knew I needed to pivot from what I’d written before.

See, the way in which I consume content is, I would argue, being poisoned by a couple of factors including the prevalence of SEO optimization and advertising over quality long-form content in search engines. I see this trend bleeding over into other forms of content aggregation including social media and traditional content aggregation sites like Reddit and others. In today’s internet, if you can’t reach it on the first page of a search engine like Google, you’ve got a vanishingly small chance of ever seeing a body of work unless someone else just stumbles upon it.

Speaking of StumbleUpon

As I was looking into my own habits in searching for reading material, my thoughts came to StumbleUpon, a site on which you would select your content preferences by genre and be served interesting semi-random content within those preferences. You’d traverse one site at a time, either up- or down-voting it to show SU’s algorithm what you liked or didn’t like. I used this quite a bit back in the day.

It was a great way to see interesting and unique content because oftentimes these would be those rare gems that people came across but weren’t necessarily tied to a product or aggressively optimized for search engines.

As of a few years ago it looks like it’s been moved to and almost completely gutted from what made it great (in my mind). There are some alternatives like URLRoulette, Discuvver, and perhaps my favorite of the bunch,

I’m sure StumbleUpon’s demise was related to the popularity of the next item, content aggregators and Reddit.

Content Aggregators and Forums

Another decent way to get interesting content is through content aggregation sites. You have to be careful with these because you introduce the echo chamber effect – that is, that if you create a community for a niche interest, the opinions of that community will become increasingly polarized over time.

General-interest content aggregation like Reddit is a good example of the effect in action and just goes to show if you get a small subreddit you can potentially either see a lot of very high-quality content or on the other end of the spectrum a very polarized and potentially hostile community.

The same effects are seen in forums, which were the precursor to true content aggregation and was the place in which I first started browsing the web, spending hours upon hours reading posts.

Social Media

I would be remiss without mentioning social media. While it’s objectively a terrible place to go looking for any in-depth information (and many times actively hostile and dishonest in providing it), it does ripple out effects into the content ecosystem as a whole. We can all agree that the influence of social media has spread across the internet in the last 10 years.

It does so by amplifying low-effort but high-reward content.

In becoming as popular and pervasive as it is, this means that it bleeds over into higher-quality sources of information and effectively poisons the stock. We also see the same issues with SEO optimization and ad-first mentality to an extreme extent due to the fact that most social media feeds will reward higher-voted content with prized places at the top of the feed.

The Solution

I’m not sure there is one. At least, not an easy one (is there ever?).

There’s a real feedback loop happening here where social media and search engines reward a specific type of (relatively) low-quality content; thus, all new content is gradually being lowered to the new standard. I don’t see an easy way to break that cycle en masse considering the entities making the social media sites as well as search engines are basically the same group.

As of now, I think the only option is to affect change on a local level and hope for the best. For me, I’ve started really focusing on curating high-quality RSS feeds and email newsletters from intelligent and experienced sources. While I thoroughly enjoy consuming great content and it’s much easier to read than to create, I do try to contribute a few articles a month about topics I’m interested in. I’m happy to share that a few of them have been relatively popular and I hope to continue the trend in the future.

That’s all for now. Thanks for reading!