Journalism : 2010 :: Food : 1910
There is a certain watershed moment in the evolution of most consumer web entrepreneurs. In this moment, entrepreneurs recognize that they do not understand the way most people think about and interact with the internet. They recognize that if you are going to market to "Normals", you have to leave your intuition of user behavior on the web behind. People who are successful at marketing and serving content to Normals recognize that most internet users can't distinguish between platform and app, content and ad, "good" content and "bad" content. Normals need a different level of clarity than savvier users, and if something isn't immediately apparent, they'll leave. Normals type URLs into Google, Microsoft Word or their email search bar. Each Normal is unique, and there are many different categories of Normals, but they all interact with the web in different ways than us ("early adopters", "techies", "bleeding edge", etc), ways that may or may not be predictable to even the most seasoned designers and entrepreneurs.
Take journalism, for instance.
Old-line journalists regularly equate newspapers with journalism and blogs with something lesser and dirtier. In truth, there are a significant number of blogs that do far better journalism than newspapers have ever done. But there are many, many more that are simply content factories that benefit from a deep understanding of Google's ranking algorithm that smaller (and journalistically superior) players don't have. Demand Media, for instance, built a massive business by understanding that Normals have difficulty distinguishing quality, well-researched content from content that was generated by an Indian freelancer paid half a penny per word.
So what does any of this have to do with food? Well, the core problem with American food production in the early 20th century was informational: normal people didn't have sufficient knowledge of their food's origins and quality and were thus unable to distinguish between "good" food (e.g., meat processed in a clean environment) and "bad" food (e.g., meat processed in filthy sweatshop-slaughterhouses). In an economic environment in which buyers cannot distinguish between high quality and low quality products, all producers will move to solely creating low-quality products. High-quality producers will simply be priced out of the market.
Today's content production industry is in the midst of that phase shift. As the vast majority of consumers cannot distinguish between good and bad content, mass-produced low-quality content is slowly pushing high-quality, journalistic online content deeper and deeper into niches.
Created in 1906, the FDA set out to solve this informational asymmetry in the food production industry by introducing basic hygiene standards coupled with labeling, inspections and reporting. This is analogous to what Google claims to be doing today for content -- decreasing our informational asymmetries around content by calculating the "authority" of various content sources and offering content to users accordingly.
But I don't think Google is doing a particularly good job. Google's inability to effectively determine and communicate the value of content is, after all, why Demand Media and its kin can exist as businesses. It is why searches for high-value keywords ("online degrees", for instance) return a bunch of affiliate honeypots and garbage content size wholly focused on acquiring users via SEO. And if you've ever ranked well for a particular search term, you know well that those are low-value users as opposed to users acquired via other channels. Web search has become a dramatically inferior way to discover anything online.
But unlike the FDA, Google is not a government agency. It's a private company with private competitors. Competitors that may -- no, will -- eventually unseat Google as the king of search.
So who is going to write The Jungle of content?