Wednesday, March 6, 2024

AI: The Biggest Existential Threat to Medium and Other Content-Driven Platforms

Alenoach, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Whenever someone claps for one of my stories, comments, or follows me, I check out their profile and consider following them. It used to be that almost all of them passed my lenient screening.

I was pleased to be noticed in the sea of stories and didn’t set a high bar. You basically had to have a pulse and be attempting to write something. It didn’t have to be very good for me to support you as you’d just done for me. You never know what might lead to an interesting connection, I reasoned.

Nowadays, less than half make the cut. So what’s changed?

It’s simply that after reading their profiles, I’m not buying that many of them are real. Or maybe they’re real, but their beyond-bad writing surely couldn’t be.

I’m no expert at spotting AI-generated content, but a lot of what I read sounds strangely detached to me. I also find it odd that some of these profiles are only a few days old, yet they’re publishing prolifically.

Am I to believe someone saved up thirty of these painful-to-wade-through articles and dumped them on the platform all at once? I almost admire someone who’s that awful at something yet persists with it.

But that’s not what’s going on here.

I’m talking multiple stories a day on all kinds of topics. Whether they can write a lick or not, no one is an expert on Bitcoin, relationships, vegetable gardening, stuffed animal restoration, cigar box guitars, Texas Hold ’em, and content marketing.

It’s not just on Medium that I’ve been noticing this, either. Something’s off about a lot of the content in my Google newsfeed, too.

Several online stories published by Sports Illustrated that showed up in my 2024 feed have been a mess. They ended abruptly in the middle of half-baked thoughts, included obvious run-on and incomplete sentences, and flowed like blood through clogged arteries.

Was an editor even glancing at this stuff? It was as un-SI-like as Amazon’s horrid The Rings of Power was un-Tolkein-like.

This was a few weeks before news broke that SI had been deceiving us all by running AI-generated content and attributing it to real authors. With that little transgression, a reputation built on decades of impeccable writing and reporting was ruined overnight.

To think this is the same publication that legendary writers of my youth like Paul Zimmerman called home. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

“Motivated by the preachings of a noble mama and propelled by his mighty legs, Earl Campbell has left plank-shack poverty far behind.”

Dr. Z didn’t write that. A fellow named Bruce Newman did.

Either way, AI had no hand in that magical lead sentence from the cover story on my favorite football player from the September 3, 1979, issue of SI. How about the alliteration of the “p” sound to punctuate (see what I did there?) the sentence’s impact?

As a ten-year-old boy from a middle-class white family, I had only a vague idea of what “plank-shack poverty” was, but the one-of-a-kind phrasing made me admire Earl even more than I already did. I’ve remembered it all these years and strive to pen something so succinctly descriptive every time I sit down to write. You might provide a quick dopamine hit, AI, but your tired rehashings will never create that kind of lasting impression.

Whether SI’s AI misconduct was willful or a careless oversight matters little. The damage is done, and given the widespread layoffs that followed, it’s no exaggeration to say it may never recover its esteemed position in the sports writing world.

Take heed of this cautionary tale, Medium, or any other platform that depends on high-quality written content. Identifying and eliminating AI-generated garbage is the biggest existential challenge you face over the next few years.

Otherwise, the Discouraged and Displaced humans may Disappear, relegated to Dark Ages tools like pen and paper that can’t be stolen for AI butchering. Not bad, right?

Maybe that’s the destiny of the entire AI-era Internet — a wasteland of parasitic chatbots drowning in their own drivel.

Is it wrong of me to hope so?