How the Techbros disrupted (and killed) their own business - and the internet; and how it's all going to change now, perhaps for the better
The internet is no longer democratized but commodified. Yet there's a silver lining in how technology is being disrupted right now.
The undemocratizing of the web has finally arrived in full glory. It started with social media and now finally comes with search, all thanks to A.I.
It lands with news this week from Google which has finally announced its plans for A.I. search. This announcement shows us that the techbros have effectively taken their attitude of disrupt and “move fast and break things” so far that actually, now, they have broken their own business.
How Google’s search will work (so far)
Google’s plans for A.I. in search is what it calls a “Search Generative Experience”. It’s still in testing. Basically, it does what you would expect—you search for something and it gives you an A.I. generated summary scraped from (who knows how many) websites on the web, with a handful of links (three, to be exact) where you can go digging for more.
Sounds useful, right? Not really.
The trouble is, who is actually going to click on those links? Who is going to go looking for more links? Many will, no doubt, at least in the beginning when A.I.’s answers are less than fully satisfactory. As A.I. gets better and we also learn to just ask it to tell us more rather than look for more ourselves, how many people will really go looking at the original sources?
Despite the obvious problems with misinformation (another topic to discuss), you can see the problem publishers have already noted—and the ethical questions. Up until now, publishers and Google had a symbiotic relationship. Publishers make the content (with all its costs) and take the risks associated. Google gets people to find it. Simple enough. But now that will change as people spend more time at Google just asking it questions. Publishers realize now that they’re giving Google content for free and it’s scraping all that and will use it to keep people on Google.
What do publishers then really get out of it? What do you and I get out of it when we want to promote our businesses? Is the internet really still a bright place of opportunity?
As the CNBC article above correctly notes, it’s no wonder Google was slow to incorporate A.I. into search. This completely changes their business—and it was a good business. The techbros might have disrupted their very own businesses this time!
This would completely change the nature of the web. But I think there may be a silver lining.
It started with social media
Let’s just backtrack a bit so you can see why I say that. Back in the early web days (late 90s, early 2000s) it became cheaper and easier for ordinary people to set up their own web pages. Platforms like Wordpress and Blogger allowed for something new as well—the ability for you, too, to own your own publication; your own weblog—a ‘blog’. It was touted as a big revolution because now anyone could have a voice. And everyone practically did. Blogs popped up everywhere. I loved it. I learned so much and met so many interesting people.
Every company then started running its own blog as PR agencies caught up with the opportunity. Citizen journalism was going to be ‘the thing’. The press began to feel this ‘democratizing’ of information the most.
Then social media came along and made it even bigger. With social media, you could update your friends with your latest blog, your latest thoughts, your latest photos. Professional bloggers started arriving on the scene—you no longer needed a publication to be a voice. With enough savvy, strength in writing, and knowledge on search engine optimization (SEO), and a charismatic personality on social media, you could run independently and ‘be your own brand’. Eventually, you didn’t even need a blog, you could just be an ‘influencer’ on social media.
Then a curious thing happened with blogs. Organizations like Patheos realized that if they provided the platform and the audience, people would blog there rather than on their own websites or at much more decentralized platforms like Blogger or Wordpress. Patheos, for its part, set itself up as an ‘elite’ platform—only the best could blog there. Many others followed the same trend and traditional publishers hired bloggers to write for them.
In the meantime, social media needed to monetize, and so it did by incorporating advertising into the platform. Advertising now moved from publishers to social media. Publishers, for their part, needed to adapt by being on social media and driving traffic through it, so that it could also retain its advertising. Companies like Buzzfeed were early adopters of this model and achieved great success from it. The funnel was from social media to their website, and it worked.
Until, of course, it didn’t. Buzzfeed shut down its news division in April and continues to have tremendous challenges, along with many other publishers that adopted this model. Why?
Social media became just media
Over time, social media became just like the traditional media it upended. It realized that people needed to stay on its platform as this created better value for advertisers, and kept revenue up. So Facebook tinkered with its algorithm and began to ensure that outbound links would get less eyeballs than posts which remained on the platform. This was of course never announced (so far as I remember) and denied. But it seemed to be going on and it’s obvious now when you look at your own stats. And the incorporation of video and other media ensured this could happen.
Social media has become the commodifying of speech, not the democratizing of it.
It tried to encourage publishers to publish purely on Facebook (News Partnerships and Business Pages) and would reward them if they did. Most publishers realized by now that Facebook could change its algorithm whenever it wanted to, but some tried to partner nevertheless, perhaps hoping for the best. Last year, Meta announced it would no longer pay publishers for news on its News Tab. Why? To focus on “A.I.-based video experiences”. So it never worked.
Social media has become the commodifying of speech, not the democratizing of it. Facebook is merely indicative of how all social media has pivoted. While Elon Musk claims to be a big free speech advocate, the reality is Twitter’s goal is to commodify the speech on its platform—and wants you to talk there rather than anywhere else, including your own blog or podcast. It has to so it can stay in business, which is why it throttled Substack links (it has changed tack on how it does this, but does still seem to be doing so in some manner). The point is to note that traditional media’s aim was always to keep you on their channel (on TV) or publication. With advertising being the main revenue model, social media encountered the same problems they did and has eventually adopted the same practices, including (now) playing to a specific market (BlueStack, a new Twitter alternative, appeals to leftists; Twitter currently appeals to those on the Right).
Social media has moved into curation. In my opinion, they are no longer platforms but media houses—operating on the same principles as traditional media. I predicted in 2019 that social media peaked and only had three to five years or so before this become evident. I’m kind of proud of myself as last year it did become evident.
The centralizing of it all
This is all part of an increased centralization of the internet. For awhile now, Google has been rolling out products and adjusting search in a way that encourages users to stay on their platform. Even search has incorporated some methods to do this (a small info box on the right for certain searches, etc.). It happened with blogging, it happened with social media, it’s happening with podcasts, and it’s happening now with search.
If it goes this way (and I believe it will, in some form) it will change everything in the publishing and media landscape. I want to just briefly speak about music to showcase why I think this might be a good thing.
The music industry has had enough
Universal Music Group (UMG) has been quick to threaten litigation of A.I. generated music, and for good reason. It’s seen what has already happened to the visual art and graphic design world. So it’s urged streaming platforms to not allow A.I. to scrape music and has threated action if they do so. This week, Spotify took down thousands of A.I generated songs and the bots that were ‘listening’ to it (a trick to drive up royalty rates for the ‘artist’ releasing the songs).
Can you see the trend? The tech industry came in and upended businesses. Most of those businesses had no idea what was going on until it was too late. They had to capitulate and adjust, first (in the case with music) with Apple iTunes and then with streaming. Streaming has not worked out for artists. Now the record companies are awake and seeing it all happening again. On the publishing side, many thought social media was a wonderful new avenue to get people to read or watch their media. Wrong again. Social media has not only upended their businesses, but has now swallowed their businesses up and become them.
Search will be the last straw. And therein the silver lining.
The silver lining
I think most publishers (news, music and otherwise) will act swiftly and purposefully this time around. Google knows this, which is why it’s trying to tread slowly. But the damage has been done.
Publishers are now beginning to demand a slice of Google’s revenue if things go this way. If Google is scraping their content, why are they not getting paid? If A.I. generated music and art is using the content of others for its dataset, why are those artists and publishers not getting paid for it? The lawsuits are starting to pile up and I think they should.
In addition to the publishers and record companies, artists—writers, musicians, visual artists, and now even actors—are also quite frankly fed up. This is a big point of contention in the current Writers Guild of America strike.
I don’t think its a sustainable model to ask for shared revenue with Google or social media companies, or whoever else. The music streaming model has proved it’s not. Artists do not get paid well at all through streaming—the model is just not realistic—and it’s now reached its zenith. There is no longer trust between traditional publishers, artists and “new media”. Here’s what might happen next:
Record companies may finally innovate on a new technology like they used to—perhaps a physical technology. Heck, even analogue tapes are making a comeback. All it needs to do is hype up rarity—imagine if you could only get Taylor Swift’s latest album on a physical medium. That would have been a joke ten years ago but I think the market may actually be ready for it now, surprisingly. Even if not, I think streaming as it is is not going to work.
Publishers may jump ship from Google and also innovate. I’ve always thought the e-reader was a fantastic device newspapers could make use of. Who knows? Maybe print will even make a comeback? I think, more likely, some upstart may begin a search engine that makes use of traditional search algorithms—a platform that aims to re-democratize the web. Maybe DuckDuckGo? Websites can shut Google’s access off. If enough people do it, it can be done. I think enough people are fed up enough to do it.
The book market will remain strong. Good news for me as a ghostwriter and author! Books remain a closed system. The book publishing market has been relentless at keeping it this way. Google tried to do what it usually does and own a piece of this market (and eventually probably take it over) by scanning books in the name of doing everyone a public service and creating a ‘library’, but legal battles with authors and publishers prevented them from going ahead; Internet Archive tried the same and lost the case. This was, in my opinion, a good thing.
The silver lining is that we might actually see innovation, the return of some physical feature products that will get us off the internet and back into real life again (digital minimalism for the win), and the abuse of artists in this system may finally come to an end. I don’t know if any of my predictions will come true, but I am convinced change is going to come, and quickly. We’re going to see a very different world in as little as five years when it comes to media, and I don’t think it’s going to be the A.I. centralized dystopian hellscape the techbros have been dreaming of.
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