2 Mar 2010 6:50 am   //   Filed under: Media, Technology

Robots talking to robots

I’m beginning to wonder how many of the words I see every day are written by robots.

  • There’s stuff like Demand Media’s eHow, where articles are carefully engineered to produce as much incoming search engine traffic as possible for as little expense as possible. It’s about serving customer needs, kind of, but only in so far as a customer is a disembodied server request generated by Google’s software.
  • Facebook ads target us based on demographics, preferences and keywords. These ads make sense in theory, but in practice seem oddly tone-deaf and unambitious, as if they were written by interns, or maybe children. Or algorithms.
  • Twitter is overrun by robots programmed to follow and unfollow people and retweet posts based on predictable user behaviors. It’s so easy to do you wouldn’t believe it.
  • Online display advertising is falling victim to oversupply and automation — a combination that’s driving prices down so fast that even a Huffington Post exec was quoted on the record sounding scared.
  • Blogging has evolved from a fun hobby into a precise science of writing lists optimized for search engines and social media propagation—a.k.a. linkbait. Old-fashioned notions of quality and clarity of writing, design craftsmanship, and copyright ownership have been squeezed out of the equation as too inefficient.

If Internet media is a pure democracy, it follows that content creators must be evaluated by output volume and popularity. If you’re a writer, artist, musician, or filmmaker, this might sound like a dystopian nightmare. I am here to tell you: Do not despair.

We are at a weird hiccup in the history of communication where we have sophisticated media culture colliding with an Internet culture still relying on primitive ways to measure performance. Of what significance are impressions when any computer whiz can program a bot that creates an infinite number of them?

This is all going to come into clearer focus in the next few years as consumers decide how they’re going to view, read and interact with content using handheld devices and cloud computing. At the same time, companies will develop better methods to measure what influences customers’ online spending behavior (which will, inevitably, have to pay for this all).

I’ll probably be returning to this theme more often on this blog. How do we actually build useful stuff on the Internet, stuff we’re proud of, instead of churning out noise? How can we get behind stuff that’s honestly good and resist gaming the numbers, yet still keep a competitive edge?

More urgently: How do we keep the greatest information network ever designed from being overtaken by blabbering robots?