Where Will Traffic Come From Now?
Here’s a very brief and incomplete history of web traffic: First, people shared articles with each other on early communication platforms like Usenet or email. Then came the first search engines. Largely automated ones we never talk about anymore like JumpStation started creating directories of all the webpages on the internet.
After that, Yahoo! arrived and brought with it the age of the consumer-friendly searchable directory. These search engines quickly started evolving into portals, offering users email addresses, and many cut deals with publishers for placement on their portals beyond the search bar. Then came the blogosphere, where independent publishers began creating their own networks of inter-linked content, pushed largely by search engines that were prioritizing websites that linked to other websites, which, in turn, made their search engines bigger.
Around the mid-2000s, we started to see the emergence of social news sites like Digg, Reddit, and StumbleUpon, followed by the monolithic social platforms we all still use today. The Facebook’s, the Twitter’s, the YouTube’s, etc. These platforms spent their early years amassing large amounts of users and, once smartphones condensed our online experience into a single feed at a time, they spent their later years locking those users behind walled gardens, hoping to create whole internets of their own.
A lot has changed since the Usenet days, particularly the role of online video and the devaluation of the hyperlink, but throughout this nearly 30 year history, there have essentially been two modes of web traffic — search and social. And up until very recently Google and Meta were kings of their respective domains. If you want to look something up, you go to Google. If you want to share something you use a Meta product.
And if you wanted to make money off publishing, via ads or new subscribers or Amazon affiliate links or whatever, you had to figure out how to show up within the ranking systems Google and Meta created and play by their rules. It wasn’t perfect, but it was somewhat stable for a time.
TikTok, though, with it’s hyper-addictive A.I. and machine-learning-powered recommendation feed, has quickly unseated Facebook when it comes to the public imagination, though the latter still has more users. But the short-form video app’s popularity has meant that every other social network is now, effectively, also TikTok. Half of the most viewed posts in the US in Facebook’s last widely viewed content report were videos. Instagram is aggressively pushing its Reels product. YouTube has shorts. And even Twitter, the last place you could reliably delude yourself into thinking someone might click your hyperlink, has become just another place to share short-form video content, literally copying TikTok’s “For You” page.
And OpenAI’s partnership with Microsoft, and the new A.I.-powered version of Bing has, similarly, spooked Google into announcing their own A.I.-assistant, Bard. According to screenshots of Bard shared by Google this week, it will sit at the top of the already-very cluttered Google home page. In their animated GIF demoing how Bard will work, you can literally watch the A.I. push human-generated content further down the feed. lol couldn’t have come up with a better metaphor than that!
The new A.I.-powered version of Bing is still invite-only, but if you go over there now, you can see how it’ll work. The A.I. result appears next to human-generated content and has citations for where it pulled its information. Slightly better than Google, I’d say, but I haven’t seen how it’ll look on mobile. And Microsoft seems to be very aware that they are the ones forcing Google to enter the A.I. arms race. “I want people to know that we made them dance,” Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella told The Verge recently. Well, Google danced so hard, so fast that its A.I. demo actually contained factual errors. lol whoops.
But let’s jump back to my initial question. If an A.I. arms race within social has turned every platform into a video platform and is turning our search engines into chatbots, how do you get people to look at your website? Not even just for little guys like me (lol), but even for big publishers.
There is simply no path forward for a news outlet of any meaningful size trying to support itself on social and search traffic. So what will be the A.I. platform publishing strategy? Well, I’m going to make a couple predictions and we’ll see how I do:
The conversational A.I. search results will get better and quickly make the human-generated results beneath them feel like the current second page of search results.
Chasing maximum mass appeal social traffic for over a decade stripped most digital media companies of any real discernible audience, which means they can’t really replace social traffic with paying subscribers. The traffic drop-off from the current pivot to video on social will back them further into a corner.
In an effort to not look as desperate as they are, a handful of big publishers will announce they’re partnering with either Bing or Google to feed the A.I. assistants directly to make the A.I. search results “better” and “more accurate”.
Reporters will protest and resign and unions will scramble to create anti-A.I. agreements, but it won’t be fast enough. There will be a whole new SEO but for supplying information quickly to an A.I. There’ll be all kinds of fights about what kind of politics the A.I. is learning. There will also probably be a custom chatbot fad similar to the iPad-optimized website craze and the Everyone Needs A News App era.
On the brand side, companies will pay for greater visibility in the A.I. recommendations. For instance, a car company might pay to be among the options listed for “the best mid-size sedan” by the A.I. for a financial quarter. There’ll be all kinds of fights about what is and isn’t an ad.
Google adsense-like programs for A.I. citations will roll out for smaller publishers and the last remaining bloggers, like the food writers who make the recipes the A.I.s are spitting out. There will also probably be some convoluted way to reformat your site to better feed the A.I. And I imagine Google will probably also figure out a way to shoehorn YouTube in there somehow.
And, finally, all of these initiatives will lead to a further arms race between A.I. platforms and individuals using A.I. tools of their own to game the system, which will further atrophy the non-A.I.-driven parts of the web.
I hope I’m wrong!
If You’re Considering Giving To An Turkish Emergency Relief Fund
My very close friends have family who have been directly impacted by the horrifying 7.8-magnitude earthquake in Türkiye and Syria this week. They’ve setup their own fundraiser for the Turkey Mozaik Foundation, which is one of several organizations coordinating international support for disaster relief in the region.
If you’re looking for a place to donate here’s a link.
Long Tweets Are Here And Someone’s Already Put The Bee Movie Script Into One
A few accounts appear to have access to the new 4,000-character tweet limit that’s supposedly on its way. And, of course, someone has already used it to post the opening from the script of Bee Movie. The 4,000 characters break in the feed, break in the embed, and is generally unpleasant to scroll through on your phone. Great work. Thank you. Twitter can now finally become the app that allows humanity to extend their reach beyond the stars, Elon.
Erykah Badu Retweeted One Of The 4chan Joe Biden Deepfakes
Alright, this is a bit of a mess, but let’s go slow. On Monday, I wrote about how audio A.I. company ElevenLabs launched a deepfake tool without any real community moderation. Very cool. 4chan users found it and started mass-producing deepfake audio of celebrities saying racist stuff and posted them to Twitter. There’s also a whole bunch of President Joe Biden talking about breaking into Area 51 to steal energy weapons and drink “space lean” with aliens.
One of the Joe Biden deepfakes, that ends with the line “I’m rap game Hitler,” was retweeted 12,000 times, including a retweet from Erykah Badu. The user who originally posted it, wrote, “Erykah Badu qrt'd my tweet like bro my MOM listens to her.”
Politically incorrect? Sure. Whatever. But most people, obviously, can immediately tell this is not real. And trolls have been making offensive photoshops and memes of presidents forever. The problem is that among the initial batch of Joe Biden deepfakes was also one of him reading a wildly hateful piece of transphobic copypasta from 4chan. Which was then, earlier this week, shared genuinely by George Peter Kaluma, a member of Kenya’s parliament.
The Ethics Of Posting Tiktok Girlies On Twitter
I’ve written about the pseudonymous Twitter user @coldhealing a few times now. If you’ve never seen the account, their whole deal is posting TikTok videos and screenshots largely without any commentary. The videos all tend to chronicle the same aesthetic — upper-middle class white people being basic and oblivious in ways that are at least somewhat capitalistic. @coldhealing posts TikTok content from men, as well as women, but the posts about women go the most viral.
If you’ve raged over a TikTok video of a Google employee vlogging their layoff or a Deloitte employee taking a tour of their “adult daycare” facility, chances are it was posted by @coldhealing first. And @coldhealing has written about the outrage cycle their account tends to create.
In a Substack post from January, they wrote, “A lot of these TikTok posts are by women because women are prettier and do better into the algorithm and also women like to share the details of their days. These posts do really well because they're just a slightly twisted form of reality; we all go to work, but it usually doesn't look quite so much like leisure. It's fiction but so are many jobs.”
Throughout the post, they maintain that they aren’t quite neutral when they share a TikTok, but are, at least, undecided in how they feel about the content when they post it. And, to be clear, I like @coldhealing and think the account is an interesting look inside TikTok culture. But I’m also not sure how long it can keep going as it is if its followers are just following it to see new videos of white women they can scream at.
Also, it’s important to note that it’s not just @coldhealing that is participating in the “getting angry about women on TikTok” content economy. There are a lot of accounts on Twitter farming TikTok for hate-likes. TikTok clips of comedian Danika Thibault go viral on Twitter like every other week, with overwhelmingly male users not seeming to understand that Thibault is doing an ironic bit.
Anyways, as I wrote in the weekend edition, I’m beginning to think that there’s nothing really that new or interesting happening here. Every generation of internet user finds a “new” type of young woman to hate. Myspace scene queens, Facebook moms, Christian girl autumn on Instagram, or, now the girlbosses of TikTok — it’s always the same thing. Just woman existing online. Sure, it’s dressed up in anticapitalist rhetoric now or some other political ideology, but making a random Deloitte consultant the main character of Twitter for a day because she posted a video about how she gets free lunch at work or whatever seems very off the mark to me.
Everything Is A YouTube Poop Now
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There’s a big TikTok trend right now that basically combines a Family Guy skit about Jamiroquai with a remix of the burger King Whopper jingle. It doesn’t make any sense and there’s no real need to try and make it make sense. Which I think is the notable thing here. It’s just random sensory information that is funny or entertaining.
RIP To A Real One
My buddy Bijan sent me this this morning. James Kaposztas, the man credited with creating the very first anime music video, or AMV, died this week. According to a Kotaku piece, Kaposztas created the video above in 1982 by literally connecting two different VCRs. Which is wild.
Hard to overstatement the cultural impact of the AMV. Not only can you see its influence in music, art, and fashion, but I know I’m not just speaking for myself when I say that a lot of internet creators got their start making AMVs. I, thankfully, don’t have a copies of any of my AMVs anymore, but, in honor of Kaposztas, I will tell you that at some point around 2002 or 2003, I used Windows Movie Maker to make an AMV of Kingdom Hearts cinematics set to Good Charlotte’s “Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous” and uploaded it Kazaa. And it ripped.
30 Rock Predicted All Of This
Some Stray Links
“Why are there so many of these AI-generated show intros on YouTube now?”
P.S. here’s Padma Lakshmi not knowing what Goatse is (SFW).
***Any typos in this email are on purpose actually***
Praying for your friends in the earthquake zone. The news out of there has just been heartbreaking this week.
Tough to hear about the amv guy. My first experience with amvs was in college, and they were pretty dope.
I liked your analysis of the ai cycle and how it will play out much like the other tech cycles and with content creators ending up likely getting less than they do now.
30 Rock jokes hold up (except for the racist ones). I'm sure it won't be the last time to read about them coming true from @ryanpornstar.
The problem with AI is, as you noted, that 90% of everything is already bullshit, so having a bullshit generator means we can now automate 90% of routine life. Which is OK I guess in the same way that we only use a small percent of our brains? I don't know, work with me here, people!