Content Mills Are Online Versions of Clothing Sweatshops

I don’t often like to bitch and moan about the sorry state of life as a writer – at least not online – but there are some instances when it is warranted.

When I started my career as an online content writer in 2009, things were very different. I learned Search Engine Optimization (SEO), and took pride in acquiring a valuable skill that enhanced my ability to write well. Back then, however, you could get away with disseminating keyword-stuffed gibberish, but since Google got hip to the practice of keyword stuffing, you now run the risk of getting metaphorically tasered if you persist.

About a year-and-a-half later, I latched onto a content mill and wrote for it for over a year. It got to the point where I wrote so many articles, I started “recycling” my work by re-using stuff I’d already written by simply editing out the old keywords and plugging in new ones. No one was the wiser, and I found it somewhat amusing that it was never noticed.

Fast forward a few years. I didn’t think I’d be writing for another content mill, but after a cancer diagnosis and hocking everything there was left to hock, here I am doing it again. The difference now is that I am doing a slow burn about the state of my “career” instead of taking it in stride. Back then, it was all I could think about just making the rent, the bills, and dealing with the fallout from a few foolhardy life choices. The work kept me busy, and kept my mind off the mistakes I’d made.

Coming face-to-face with your mortality, and taking the necessary steps to overcome what it does to you isn’t fun. Granted, I didn’t have to file bankruptcy the way many people do, nor am I living in a refrigerator box under an overpass. In that sense, I am very lucky. As far as being a successful writer, it’s gotten to the point where I am contemplating finding something else to do.

Considering finding an alternate occupation is a blight on my psyche. After all, I busted my ass getting an education after my first go-round as a nondescript corporate lackey, and I have no desire to revisit that. The problem is, the entire world thinks it can write, so there is an unprecedented glut of “writers” out there. Moreover, independent contractors are  the driving force behind our present economy, so I could very easily make a decent living as an Uber or Postmates driver rather than as a scribe. To be blunt, a clean driver’s license and a new(ish) car is more valuable in our world today than an educated individual who can string together words into graceful sentences. That’s why I’m calling bullshit on content mills; they are indeed the written equivalent of buying your clothes at places like Zara, H&M and Top Shop. You pay next to nothing for them, and you just chuck them when you tire of them or they fall apart – whichever comes first.

We have become such a selfish society that we cannot be bothered with the fallout from our choices. Fast fashion has done wonders to perpetuate the sweatshop industry, which employs garment workers for shamefully low wages, and tasks them with churning out ridiculous amounts of cheap clothing for our blind consumption. This makes it okay for content mills to do the same thing by asking so-called writers to churn out thousands upon thousands of words of poorly written copy for less than one penny per word. Yes, you read that correctly – less than one penny per word.

When you plug “content mill” into the search box, they don’t all magically appear as if you typed in, say – “car dealership”, or “dry cleaner”. Oh, no – these outfits are decidedly much more low-key than that. What you get instead are blogs and articles written by writers who tell harrowing tales of what it’s like to work for one. Some even go so far as to tell you how to avoid the pitfalls of writing for content mills, claiming they are in possession of the advice you’ve been searching high and low for to get all those great-paying writing jobs. Shame on them. What they are actually giving you is a pitch for their mentoring services, links to their e-books, and other materials they have written and want you to buy. Those are not writers. Those are salespeople; and they are just as guilty as the content mills for exploiting people who think they can write.

Content mills are just one in a long line of unethical businesses that were born as a result of technological advancement. They’ve made it much more difficult for highly qualified people like myself to get paid a decent wage for our knowledge and talent. You know what you need to get all those “great paying” writing jobs? Luck. You don’t need to read another middling writer’s e-book or blog, or pay someone to teach you how it’s done. To riff on that most famous Star Trek line: “Dammit Jim, I’m a writer, not a life coach!”

The world has become more cutthroat and dog-eat-dog than I think any of us ever imaged it could become. “Every man for himself” is no longer a cliché, it is a reality we must all live with. That’s why I don’t give a damn about your writing journey. I only care about my own. I couldn’t give two shits about what your favorite apps or products are, or how passionate you are about helping other writers succeed. We share space, but we don’t have to share our experiences. Keep your tips to yourself. And don’t for a second think you will single-handedly rid the world of content mills or save other writers from working for them. Real writers do what they need to do to survive.

I am standing at the precipice. Whether or not something pulls me back remains to be seen. I could just as easily go over the edge. Don’t worry; I’m not suicidal. I am onboarding with Postmates next week, unless of course the writing job of my dreams magically appears before then.

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