Being a creator in the AI swamp – a way forward

If you work in the creative industries (writing, editing), artificial intelligence looms like a tsunami over you. My thoughts on a way forward…

Just over a year ago, I wrote a post about ChatGPT and its possible effect on content creators. 

My conclusion then remains my conclusion now:

The days of churning out “content” based on internet “research” are over (as, I suspect, are the days of writing news stories based on what people said on Twitter). ChatGPT and its like, and the better iterations that are no doubt on the way, are going to do that work far better than any human could.

Writers, journalists, bloggers… They’re all going to have to do proper research (perhaps even read the academic papers on the subject). They’ll need to interview real people. They’re going to have to bring their whole selves to the project, using their life experience to enrich their writing. They are going to have to offer readers a real connection to real issues or thinking.

Because that’s always been the way I approach writing (and editing), the advent of easily accessible AI writing tools has not changed in the way in which I write and edit: I sometimes use ChatGPT for generating ideas, or thinking through the possible topics I might research. But every word you’re reading here is being typed by my own (safe) hands, based on my own heart and brain and research.

(See my AI policy).

Fast forward a year…

In the past year I have kept an eye on trends in the Great Big AI Content Farm. Two articles that appeared in my email newsletter treasure trove caught my eye over the last week or two.  

First is the ever-incisive Adam Tinworth, who writes about big tech and SEO and AI from the point of view of news and other publishers. He points out that the tech industry is thinking of AI as the next big thing – as are many in the publishing industry. He says:

Sites and publishers using AI to generate articles are seeing a sudden and dramatic brutalisation of their search traffic, as Google tries to push back against AI-generated text clogging search results pages.

And goes on to say:

In an age where everyone has access to cheap generative AI, it confers no competitive advantage.

The question of competitive advantage is laid out in the clearest way I’ve yet seen in an article by strategy guru Roger Martin, writing on Medium (you may find that you need to create an account to read it, but Martin does not paywall his content). 

It is a dense and philosophically oriented article, which I have now read twice. I recommend you read it too – but here’s my summary of the thought path that caught my eye. Martin uses the concept of the Knowledge Funnel to explain how knowledge progresses from mysteries (why do objects fall to the ground) to heuristics (the theory of gravity) to algorithms (mathematical models that describe gravitational pull). Large language model-based generative AI (LLM/AI), as exemplified by ChatGPT, accelerates this process by scouring large databases, inferring heuristics and then creating algorithms.

In that process, however, writes Martin:

“the LLM/AI does not ask: what is unique or outstanding? It asks: what is most? LLM/AI democratises heuristics — but it makes them average. LLM/AI will find the mean/median/modal representation of the heuristic in the domain it is asked to search. It won’t find the right tail of the distribution because it isn’t set up to do so — it won’t even try.” (his emphasis)

Applying that mental image to my own field of endeavour, if we think of content quality as a bell curve, with dreadful on the left, and average in the middle, it’s evident from search results near all of us that LLM/AI Is capable of writing both dreadful and average content. It’s not good at creating good content, on the right hand side of the curve, though.

So where does that leave content creators?

Martin’s central argument is this:

“To have a great career in the modern economy, the only path is to have an above average heuristic for creating value in the specific domain of your job. LLM/AI won’t find your heuristic because that is not what it is looking for if your heuristic is out on the right tail of the distribution. Creating an above average heuristic is a high bar — but will increasingly be reality in the LLM/AI economy.”

This is pretty much the conclusion I came to a year ago, more elegantly expressed.

For people in the creative industries, it’s clear that the way to distinguish oneself from battery-farmed content is to be “free range”: to deliver quality. There are some questions to consider, though.

First question: is there a market for quality content? 

Perhaps not, or not a big market anyway. My 21-year-old son points out that everyone consumes bad or fake content on the Internet all the time, and has done for years. We are all slaves to our phones and to social media, to a greater or lesser extent. And most people probably don’t care all that much if marketing content in particular is written by AI as long as it accurately tells them what product they are getting (see this Forbes article before you get on your high horse: Humans Prefer AI-Generated Content, New Research Suggests). Jack and I agreed though that there are at least some people and at least some businesses that do care about quality, accuracy and truth. (I am setting aside here the political and social implications of fake journalism: that’s a topic for another day.)

How do content creators find people and businesses that care about quality?

Let’s look at the sea we are sailing in. Vice reports that researchers at the Amazon Web Services AI lab found that over half of the sentences on the web have been translated into two or more languages, often with increasingly worse quality due to poor machine translation, which they said raised “serious concerns” about the training of large language models. And as of March 18, 2024, NewsGuard, an organisation tracking misinformation, has found 766 AI-generated news and information sites operating with little to no human oversight. 

Mashable points out that companies and users alike are leveraging generative AI to crank out high volumes of content.

“While the initial concern is the abundance of content containing inaccuracies, gibberish, and misinformation, the long-term effect is complete degradation of web content into useless garbage. If you’re thinking, the internet already contains a bunch of useless garbage, that’s true, but this is different. ‘There’s a lot of garbage out there… but it has an insane amount of variety and diversity,’ said Nader Henein, a VP analyst for management consulting firm Gartner. As LLMs feed off each other’s content, the quality gets worse and more vague, like a photocopy of a photocopy of an image.”

In this scenario, it seems to me that traditional content marketing (at least the kind where social media and SEO are used to leverage content to boost sales) are increasingly compromised – particularly if you are a content creator trying to persuade a particular market segment that you are not like the rest of the Internet.

There may be something else we can do though. When I did a survey of all my marketing efforts over the last eight years, I found that all my good work (the well paid jobs, with people I like working with) came from the network of people I established when I worked full-time in journalism. The human connection has proved to be my key marketing channel.

My son tells me he found a job by going on Google Maps, finding all the small businesses in our area and emailing them to ask them if they needed help. That’s what you need, he said: direct approaches. Internet marketing may be dodgy as hell now – but we can still talk to each other.


ChatGPT has killed content, and that’s a good thing | Safe Hands

What makes an email newsletter worth reading? | Safe Hands

Main picture: Lyman Hansel Gerona, Unsplash

How to reach me

Contact me if you would like to chat about how I can help with all your communication needs (writing, editing, coaching and training, social media). I also help small businesses and organisations with project and operational management. 

I write a post every week, some about my professional life and work, and some about broader issues. You can get either of those, or both, in your email, by subscribing here.  

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