Imagine a sci-fi universe in which every letter, word and sentence is a commodity. Companies make money off chunks of language. Bosses drive writers to make more words faster and for less pay. Readers then pay for exposure to these cheaply made words in the precious currency of their attention.

You can get a glimpse of that world on the Web right now. Just take a sunny summer tour of a content farm like Associated Content or Answerbag. You can find these content farms in some quarters of the CNN and AOL sites, too.

Content farms, which have flourished on the Web in the past 18 months, are massive news sites that use headlines, keywords and other tricks to lure Web-users into looking at ads. These sites confound and embarrass Google by gaming its ranking system. As a business proposition, they once seemed exciting. Last year, The Economist admiringly described Associated Content and Demand Media as cleverly cynical operations that “aim to produce content at a price so low that even meager advertising revenue can support it.”

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