The pony story, in its weirdness, suggests that there is a point where traditional news organizations, which target to a greater or lesser extent a mass audience with advertising to match, will always fail: that failure to meet the needs of someone, somewhere, is built into their business model. Consider: The Miami Herald usually runs a story about the Kentucky Derby. It might also run one about pony-rental businesses in South Florida, and if magazines like Ponies Illustrated and Children’s Parties Monthly existed, they might do something similar. But no publication could afford to devote regular space to topics such as pony rides without ponies. Besides, no writer could conceive of such a story and no editor would assign it, because nobody could anticipate the need.
This is the famous “long tail,” an example of what Shirky calls the “nichification” of the media landscape, unfeasible under the conditions of twentieth-century oligopoly but happening now before our eyes. I am pleased that people’s information needs are being met, but I hope they get met by someone else. The pony koan, along with some stories on strength training for sports, were among the few stories that truly engaged me during my forty hours working for Demand last July.
I was an unhappy camper from the start, when I realized my debut story, about the medicinal uses of the Thuja occidentalis plant, took three hours to research and write but earned me just $15. It was possibly wrong, since I spoke to no doctors, and my research consisted largely of sifting through a study sponsored by a German drug company that seemed to have cornered the world market in Thuja homeopathic remedies. It was also stunningly boring, the sort of writing that would sit comfortably on the side of a medicine bottle, which was exactly the point.
Soon, I began to search for topics that seemed easy and to stint on research. My triumph was a piece on Troy-Bilt lawnmower recalls, completed in about twenty minutes with probably no risk to the consuming public. That piece, like several others I wrote, was flagged for plagiarism by an automated detector whose workings I never understood. I never plagiarized—deliberately or inadvertently—but each time I got a “Flagged” notice I got heart palpitations.
The unpleasantness would be dispelled by the pony story, I hoped. Can a pony ride without a pony exist? It’s the rare metaphysical problem that can be resolved by just renting a pony, and my first draft relied on that strategy, drawing on material from the websites of several pony-rental firms. Several days passed and my draft was returned, with comments from an editor whose name and location I never learned. “I referred this draft to a DS editorial lead given your advice to rent ponies. The title specifies running a ride without a pony, and the editorial lead confirmed this.”
My next draft explored the possibilities of animatronic ponies, equine alternatives to ponies such as small horses, and yaks and dromedaries. From the editor: “Thank you for your efforts, but this article still lacks the authoritative views that would actually recommend hiring a yak (except in Mongolia), llama or a camel. The International Yak website notes all sorts of activities, and riding isn’t among them.”
At Demand, a story gets only two strikes before it is canned; I’d wasted another three hours. My Demand experience, which I conceived of partly as an experiment and partly as a way to make money, was earning me less than minimum wage (for my forty-plus hours, I earned $360) and revealing little about the particular kind of writing it required, except that I was bad at it. Also, I missed my old job.