Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Welcome to the Content Factory.

Recently, I came across a Craigslist ad "seeking writers for a series of web- based healthcare question and answer sets (Q&As)."

For each question, the company needed a long and short answer, plus 5-10 keywords. The pay for this work would be $5 per question and answer set.

$5 per question? Hardly seems worth the work, does it? But the ad helpfully pointed out that after churning out enough of these, you'd get so fast that you'd be able to do up to 5 an hour. If you think of it that way, that's $25 an hour, which is at least -- well -- inoffensive as pay goes, isn't it?

I thought about it a little more. Thanks to some recent health issues, my natural curiosity and a tendency to imagine doomsday scenarios, I'm usually on MayoClinic.com many times a day anyway. Why not make a little extra money doing it? I'd learn a few things, too.

So I applied, writing two sample questions (a $10 value) as requested. It was interesting doing the research, and I thought I did a pretty good job.

A few days later, I got two form e-mails from the company. One was a link to an extranet with a contract for me to sign. The other was a W9 form. I guess that meant I'd been hired?

I signed the contract electronically and then waited, thinking I'd follow up on the e-mails if I didn't get any assignments. A few days went by.

On Monday afternoon, I got an e-mail.

Good Afternoon,

Over the weekend you received an e-mail that gave you instructions on how to proceed in freelancing for the Q&A writing project. That e-mail gave you an initial, 3 Q&A writing assignment that was due this morning. As of right now, I have not received your assignment in the database.

Please let me know when we can be expecting your 3 Q&A sample. Or, if you no longer intend to write for this project, please indicate that as well.

Thank you,

Wow. Not only had I been hired, I was already screwing up the job! That was fast.

I had no idea what this person was talking about, so I went through my inbox in search of clues. Nothing there. Then I checked my spam folder. Here it was! My assignment, sent on Saturday at 12:24 PM, with a deadline of Monday at 9:00 AM.

The implication here is that if you've given up your right to a reasonable fee for writing about serious medical topics, you've given up your right to a weekend as well.

I wrote back to L___, explaining the spam issue and the fact that I was not inclined to turn around deadline assignments on weekends. We agreed to a new weekday deadline for my maiden three questions. My topic: Atypical Neuralgia. Great!

Except: My search for "atypical neuralgia" turned up some confusing results. Nearly all were for trigeminal neuralgia. And what is trigeminal neuralgia, you ask? Well, I can tell you, because that's one of the answer sets I wrote.

Trigeminal neuralgia is a pain condition affecting the trigeminal nerve, which transmits sensory messages from the face to the brain. The condition causes short, stabbing bursts of pain in the lower part of the face, including the gums, teeth and lips. The pain is usually triggered by touch or an activity such as brushing the teeth.

I couldn't find more than a line or two on the topic of atypical trigeminal neuralgia among the Company's "approved sources." I figured it would be better to turn in something accurate, so I changed "atypical" to "trigeminal" and turned in my work with a note to the editor about the issue.

The scope of the work, of course, was more meticulous and time-consuming than the ad had implied. In addition to the two answers and the keywords, they required meta descriptions (which could NOT be the same as the other text) and two sources listed in MLA style for each question. I figured that if I really worked at it, I'd ultimately be able to do four of these (or $20) per hour -- maybe.

L____ wrote back promptly with feedback on my three first tries, saying I did a "good job overall," but my word change was a big no-no. "Atypical neuralgia IS your topic," she insisted, lack of sources be damned. The Company's advice: "Use the basic information about trigeminal neuralgia for most of your background information (after all, since it's a form of the disease, it should be accurate) and then add the information about what makes atypical neuralgia different from the regular version."

Check out that amazingly optimistic parenthetical comment. Sure, many of the things I'd written for the larger disorder could have applied to the atypical version. But the symptoms and treatment are significantly different, and all the "approved sources" called it Type 2 trigeminal neuralgia, not "atypical." I felt uneasy about writing ultimately 20 answers on something that didn't have more than a few sentences of differentiating information from a trusted source, and wasn't even referred to by the same name.

But hey, why get stuck on these finer points? After all, it's only health information. It's only pain, suffering, money, loved ones, losses, survival. Why get technical?

I was also told to watch my wording on the above answer. The Company wanted us to be very careful about not plagiarizing, perhaps because we were doing the next best thing to plagiarizing, which is lifting information from very few sources and rewriting it so that this lifting was not too apparent. I was told that I had retained too many of the original words ("stabbing," "lower part of the face") when I rewrote the source material.

"For example," the editor wrote, "instead of your second sentence, you could say 'The primary marker of this condition is the severe facial pain it causes, which occurs in brief but intense spurts.' In this way, the structure of the sentence is completely different and original."

In other words, I needed to spend more time on making my sentences less clear, in order to make it more clear that we were not plagiarizing.

None of this had to be a dealbreaker for me. I could easily have gone with "atypical neuralgia" as directed, made my sentences more convoluted, and continued with the assignment.

Instead I thanked them for the opportunity and took my leave. I received no reply to my withdrawal message.

Eventually, those 20 questions on atypical neuralgia will get written. And when some 55-year-old woman suffering from excruciating pain in her face wants help figuring out what the hell is going on, she'll have one more search link to sift through for the same (or less) information. And the Company will have served one more ad.

I don't think those editors at the Company are bad people. They are just editorial people lucky enough to get a staff spot with benefits at one of the content factories, and it's their job to make sure that the less lucky information laborers give them the best possible search-friendly content in the least possible time at the least possible expense to the Company.

And if my financial situation were more precarious, I would have had to think a lot harder about declining further work with the Company. Judging by the Company's lack of response when I "quit," plenty of people are willing to take my place on the content assembly line, making text widgets for an unknown audience for an unseen content machine, working for supervisors they will never meet.

We are all just part of the general trend toward producing more words with less substance for less pay. The idea makes sense -- in some ways, it's like the long tail as applied to media rather than retailing. But does it really serve anyone? Anyone at all?

Ironically, this approach gets tied in with attempts to "save" journalism. But I believe (or, I hope) that the news business may eventually evolve the way the music business did in the wake of its original revenue source being completely razed by online file sharing. The novelty of being able to get free music wore off (at least, for me) after so many stalled downloads, bogus files and spyware. The consistency, ease and quality of iTunes made it feel worth paying for most stuff. Less hassle. Could media just be in its Napster phase?

There's a ton of free content out there -- hey look, I'm writing some right now -- but how much of it is actually worth anything to you? Would you pay for stories if it meant that they were created by people who are invested in giving you well-written, quality information? Maybe you would. But maybe we've irrevocably crossed a line. As long as people are willing to click on text that someone was paid a mere $5 or $10 to write, the virus of mediocrity will keep spreading.

Music: "Hell Bent"


  1. Don't sell yourself short. This post was worth every penny.

  2. Ugh, sounds like an awful experience! And it sounds like those people were probably responsible for this "helpful" site I found while looking for info on my current condition: http://www.walkingpneumonia.org/

    It's like it was written by a ghost. A poorly-paid one.

  3. Hans, thanks! Whoops, never mind. Deborah, that page is laughable. I like the part at the end where it tells you you should be glad you don't have traditional pneumonia. Glad, I say!

  4. Would you like my Master's degree? You've earned it!

  5. Are you kidding me? Damn! I should have known this before! this is a very good way to make easy and fast money without the risk to going to jail.
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