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It’s crap all the way down

I’ve never been helped by a Wix, Godaddy, or Squarespace website, and they have never given me any useful information. In my line of work, I can instantly tell these sites by their templated aesthetic. This approach is similar to Canva, where everything produced by these services in the name of ease or convenience drowns in a sea of sameness.

But their veneer is only half the issue. When you visit these sites, you’re probably trying to get information from some small business or group, like a neighborhood association or a festival. Make no mistake: These websites were set up in an afternoon or maybe a weekend, tweaked once or twice, and abandoned ever since.

This is not inherently the organization’s fault, but it is their problem. Someone who set the site up will tell you, “Yeah, I spent a ton of time working on this.” In the same way people spend a lot of time assembling Billy bookcases from IKEA. It does not make them great. They’re just cheap and barely serviceable to the cause. Time invested does not count for much in really anything. My Photoshop students frequently tell me, “I spent over three hours on this!” To which I have to reply, “Yeah, well, you still chopped off this lady’s hand.”

If you’ve ever stood outside a restaurant wondering what their menu is, been near a festival and wondered what kind of food vendors are there, or gone looking for information in your neighborhood about recycling day only to come away empty-handed, you’ve been looking at a Wix/Squarespace/GoDaddy site.

This is because good sites — the kinds that are fun, helpful, friendly, and useful — require a lot of thought. The information people put on these small sites is banal, uninteresting, and unhelpful. It’s about how they’re passionate about this, can’t wait to see you for that, or if you have any questions, “Just give us a call.”

AI does nothing to help these people or you as a visitor, because AI is completely unaware of anything about them. AI does not know when your neighborhood’s recycling day is. Or that your favorite taco truck is going to be at the festival. Even the people in charge of these organizations seem unaware of anything about themselves. These sites say nothing and, to some, that’s a feature, not a bug.

Then there are the big information clearinghouses on the web that write about everything breathlessly. It’s why chocolate chip cookie recipes are 3,500 words long. AI didn’t do that, but the economics of the web and the Google algorithm did. AI threatens to simultaneously upend the need for these kinds of sites while simultaneously pumping a hellish amount of AI-generated slop onto the web in volumes we can’t even fathom.

Why read a 3,500-word recipe when Google just gives you an answer? Then, why write it in the first place if Google just gives the answer without crediting a source? Surely, some people will give up, and others will use AI to generate 6,500-word recipes that no one wants to read.

The Internet is being dragged to two extremes: websites that say little and are unhelpful, and websites that say a lot and are still unhelpful. Like the U.S. middle class, there is little room for an in-between.

If I had to make a bet on what will happen, I suspect we’ll see more of the AI slop.

I’m already getting things from clients who send me AI-generated text that, I think, they assume I don’t believe to be AI. But I teach undergraduates, and I’ve gotten pretty good at spotting AI’s “punny phrase: specific keyword regurgitation” and “keyword regurgitation: repeated keyphrase” format. If they couldn’t bother to care, why would a reader? And there I go, trying to make it sound more palatable, operating off a prompt that didn’t say anything to begin with.

I’ve read a lot about the state of the web, AI slop — the en-vogue term for whatever ChatGPT spews from its fingerless keyboard — and Google’s changing search presence.

DHH:

“…imagine the delight some CEO might feel when they start typing out the announcement to lay off 30% of the workforce, and Slack autocompletes the text with the most anodyne distillation from five competitors doing the same? All you have to do is edit out, say, Asana in your layoff completion, and voila, you’ll have saved at least 8 minutes typing out the corporate slop yourself.”

Paul Ford:

What I love, more than anything, is the quality that makes AI such a disaster: If it sees a space, it will fill it—with nonsense, with imagined fact, with links to fake websites. It possesses an absolute willingness to spout foolishness, balanced only by its carefree attitude toward plagiarism. AI is, very simply, a totally shameless technology.

Molly White:

Social networks have become “the web” for many people who rarely venture outside of their tall and increasingly reinforced walls. As Tom Eastman once put it, the web has rotted into “five giant websites, each filled with screenshots of the other four”. Within those enclosures, the character limits, neutered subset of web functionality, and constant push to satisfy the enigmatic desires of an algorithm tuned to keeping eyeballs on the platform encourage sameness, vapid engagement farming, and rage bait while stifling creativity.

Liz Reid, Google’s Head of Search:

As AI has come for search, products like Perplexity and Arc have come under scrutiny for combing and summarizing the web without directing users to the actual sources of information. Reid says it’s a tricky but important balance to strike and that one way Google is trying to do the right thing is by simply not triggering overviews on certain things. But she’s also convinced and says early data shows that this new way of searching will actually lead to more clicks to the open web. Sure, it may undercut low-value content, she says, but “if you think about [links] as digging deeper, websites that do a great job of providing perspective or color or experience or expertise — people still want that.” She notes that young users in particular are always looking for a human perspective on their query and says it’s still Google’s job to give that to them.

It has long been my opinion that much of the Internet is spam. SEO people have turned the web into a rambling run-on sentence about the best air filters and best places to retire.

In class this semester, I asked, “Are you doing SEO or spam?” Now I suspect I need to ask, “Are you doing SEO, spam, or slop?” Because it’s all one-in-the-same for most people.

Like those useless Wix and GoDaddy sites that say nothing helpful and make you close a tab in frustration to go back to your Yelp or Google search, all this AI/web/SEO stuff is trying to avoid the harsh reality that will always be truth: it is hard work to prepare things for people that are worth reading or watching.

You can only do one of two things one of two ways on the Internet: you either read or watch something, and you do it either to learn about something or be entertained.

There are edge cases with podcasts (listening), images (still video, really), and shopping (which usually requires learning first). But that’s all the Internet is: a machine for learning or entertaining, done through reading or watching. And just like organizing a festival or some kind of party, no one will care to attend if it’s boring, lacks humanity, or is generated purely from start to finish with AI slop.

Communicating is hard, and it is human. AI is not humane as a means of cranking out a veneer or a series of words to say only that someone has a document to attach. Like fast food, many people will seem to like it, but only because they either are ignorant of its consequences to their health or lack the ability or curiosity to seek out healthy food. Either way, it’s still going to be a health crisis that a lot of people are going to have to try hard to opt out of. Like when you’re out with friends and they sincerely suggest going to Arby’s. It’s crap start to finish, all the way down because it’s designed to be that way.

No. Let’s be better.


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About JUSTIN HARTER

Justin has been around the Internet long enough to remember when people started saying “content is king”.

He has worked for some of Indiana’s largest companies, state government, taught college-level courses, and about 1.1M people see his work every year.

You’ll probably see him around Indianapolis on a bicycle.

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