Paul Butzi |||

The Death of the WWW

I’ve been slowly realizing that the era of the world wide web having much utility seems drawing to a close. Partly this seems to be an effect of social media like Facebook hoovering up much of the functionality that was once supplied with personal websites and personal blogs.

And partly it seems to be an effect of a lot of content on the WWW being generated by bots. Search for a review of some item - pretty much any item - and you’ll find that the top few pages of results will be a ton of The ten best of 2022’, and all of those articles seem to have been generated by scraping comments off items on Amazon and then running the comments through a word blender and an AI to generate text which is almost but not quite like what an actual human would have generated. And the business model for these articles seems to be that revenue is generated through affiliate links to Amazon or some other vendor with some affiliate program.

Of course Gresham’s Law applies, so these crappy reviews have driven out all the quality reviews of pretty much anything. The battle between humans and robots has already happened, and the robots have won, or at least almost won.

The real review content is now on Youtube, and perhaps on Instagram, where communities of people interested in various things have formed. Interested in knives? There’s a whole community of people doing knife related videos on youtube, and it’s fantastically informative. Amateur radio - same thing, although with somewhat diminished actual useful information.

The problem I see is that this shift from text to video/photo based sharing has ceded the text battlefield to the bots and won the battle in the video space. But that victory is short lived, because it’s only a matter of time before the bots start generating videos. I’m already seeing reviews on Youtube which are generic marketing footage, with marketing copy that’s being voiced by some voice to text software that lends a uncanny valley quality to the whole affair.

I suspect that before long the only consumers of this AI generated content will be bots browsing the content to create the appearance of human attention so that ad revenue can be generated.

But the human desire to share knowledge (and receive knowledge from humans) is not going to go away. I just wonder where it will find the next outlet. Moving from individual islands of knowledge embedded in individual websites to centrally controlled social media was a mistake.

There’s some weird effect where the information flow keeps moving from the old medium to the next new medium. Phones were great, until the utility of telephones was destroyed by people who exploited the ability to capture your attention for free to try to sell you aluminum siding, or timeshare condos. And then email was great, right up until it was destroyed when people realized they could capture the attention of a million people at zero cost by spamming. No sooner did personal blogs become high utility than the email spammers started destroying the content of blog comments. Even books have been tainted, as many books on Amazon now appear to be bot generated nonsense packaged as expert opinion. If generating such a book is essentially free, Gresham’s law tells us that they will drive human generated books out of the marketplace.

And now the spammers have figured out how to destroy the utility of internet search engines in the same way.

It’s the same problem all the way through. Zero cost attention grabs will always drive out content generated by humans who must invest time and effort. It doesn’t seem to matter that the zero cost content is worthless, it displaces quality content every time.

Long ago I suggested that telephones could be made useful again by setting it up so that to call someone, you must pay a fee set by the person who you are calling. I could, for instance, impose a fee of $100 - everyone who wanted to call my phone would have to front $100. And then the back end solution to making the cost of most phone calls to friends or family would be an easy way for the recipient of the call decline the fee. Your mother calls you, you push the button, and she doesn’t pay the fee. But the person calling to tell you you just won a free vacation can’t ring your phone without paying the ante and risking that you won’t decline it.

Email and micropayments could provide an even easier solution - don’t bother with the refund mechanism (because the reply email will carry it back to you). And you can set the fee quite low, because all you need to do is make the cost of sending a million emails be more than the anticipated revenue from those emails. At a penny per email, sending a million emails would jump from zero to $10k, and that’s plenty high enough to put an end to spam.

I don’t know what the solution to the web search problem might be. You want some sort of reverse of the CAPTCHA thing, where a page needs to prove it was human generated before the search engine will index it.

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