The tsunami of crap has arrived

Bring in the bots

We have unofficially entered the tsunami of crap phase of AI content, plus I spoke to BlueConic’s Patrick Crane about subscriptions as a “forever business,” and why vultures are the birds of the moment.

The Rebooting recently wrapped up a research project in collaboration with BlueConic. Patrick Crane, director of sales at BlueConic, joined me on The Rebooting Show to discuss the state of subscriptions at publishers and the maturation of the market. (Get the report here.)

“One of the reasons I call it a forever business is to call out the fact that there is going to be ongoing work,” Patrick told me, “but also that it sets you up to play a very sustainable game.”

Among the topics covered:

  • The shifting role of steep discounts in subscription programs
  • Why ad avoidance is really more bad UX avoidance
  • The wisdom of making subscription products for specific slices of your audience

Listen to the full episode on Apple, Spotify and other podcast platforms. Thanks to BlueConic for its support.

The AI tragedy of the commons

The “tsunami of crap” is upon us. Peter Kafka used this evocative phrase as a safe bet for the near term application of artificial intelligence tools in publishing.

The Arena Group is the latest publisher caught with its pants down by Future, which has decided to flood the zone over AI content mills. Arena, like many publishers, outsources much of its commerce operation to a specialist marketing agency, which used fake AI generated profile photos on content that sure reads in the distressingly dull default ChatGPT style, punctuated only by oddities like: “Volleyball can be a little tricky to get into, especially without an actual ball to practice with.”

It’s a parable of the currently sorry state of modern digital publishing. Publishers have long been big brands but small businesses. The late-stage existence of many magazine brands is to be harvested for their SEO juice and licensing power. You can rent out the logo and name to a gambling service.

Peter’s prediction was prescient because of course publishers would look to it to create more cheap content for algorithms. That’s what the scale playbook calls for. But that playbook has grown dog-eared. It’s hard to see how long it can be a competitive advantage to rent your site out to AdVon Commerce. Then again, using contractors for dirty work does provide the veneer of plausible deniability, a key feature of internet publishing since the start.

The story caught on more broadly than most of these face-palm moments because Sports Illustrated is still a brand with resonance. Middle-aged people remember it from childhood. This wasn’t some SEO chop shop ginned up to hawk mattresses. This was home to writing by Deford, Reilly, Faulkner.

In this way, it’s not like this hustler who bragged about pulling off an “SEO heist” of nearly 500,000 visitors in Google traffic by copying a competitor’s topics and having a bot write versions. But then, is it? The tragedy of the commons of digital publishing is the misaligned incentives.

OpenAI’s CEO-for-a-weekend noted these kinds of shenanigans are a direct result of the misaligned incentives set up by Google, which like it or not essentially sets the rules of open web discovery. Publishers have long adopted this “don’t hate the player, hate the game” mantra. After all, as Shear notes, Google is pretty good at finding counterfeit content on YouTube. Incentives are everything

SI has been through the wringer since its heyday, passed around from Time Inc to Meredith to what is now Arena Group while Authentic Brands Group milks the IP through “brand extensions” like a sportsbook, JCPenny swimsuits and hotels in Orlando.

Arena itself is now tied up with  the 5-Hour Energy founder who sees a similar opportunity in media as he did in gas stations, where he mocked up prime real estate near the register and lawyered up to protect the brand (and scare off competitors). Publishing needs new energy, ideas and approaches. Best to keep an open mind. Safe to say, this isn’t auspicious. Leave aside the questionable taste; it’s hard to see how an AI content farm is much of a long-term strategy, at least if a publisher wants to cling to the notion of premium.

SI is a premium brand mostly owing to its legacy. Too often publishers have leaned on legacy as a differentiator. Quality is subjective. I once asked YouTube’s longtime CEO Susan Wojicki about premium content, and she told me she focused instead on “premium audiences.” The digital meat grinder chews up brands.

Google will be loath to simply ban AI content from its index or even automatically downfall it. ChatGPT is the ultimate will or could tech: many of the results it produces now are uneven at best. And yes, it will improve. And perhaps SI’s partner just used the tools wrong. In the information space, anything and everything goes.

That means picking a lane and being clear about how you’ll win. It’s hard to pass yourself off as premium when you’re running bot nonsense that makes low-rent “contributor networks” look prestige. Not to be too snobbish, but when you’re outsourcing tye actual content as a publisher, you need to turn in the premium card. There are many premium brands in digital publishing that have long since passed into being stuffed with so much SEO gunk that on a page by page basis, it’s hard to say these brands are much different than the SEO sites, no matter who wrote for them a generation ago.

I’d like to think a new parallel web will emerge that’s less dominant but more artisanal. I fully expect the tsunami of crap will produce a counter reaction of artisanal content. I’d like to think there’s a place for the media version of the Japanese chef who “skewers the 1.2 inch-thick cut with rods made from piano strings and judges when the steak is done by listening to the pitch of sizzling and dripping.” Of course, the price of a steak at Aragawa is around $1,000.

In reality, more brands will go downmarket. There’s more money to be made there. Black Friday has been a reminder that for all the talk of premium, most are like Gap: the 50% off sale is around the corner.

I fully understand the short-term revenue choices publishers make the quarter. Long term brand concerns are easy to be seen as a luxury. But brands aren’t forever. Like going bankrupt, their decline can be gradually and then all at once.

Get the world talking about your work

80% of Webby Winners say more people talk about their work because of their win. When you enter The Webby Awards, you give your team and work the chance to stand out on a global stage. But you can only win if you enter by the The final entry deadline is on Friday, Dec. 15.


Bloomberg Media CEO Scott Havens is leaving to become the president of the Mets. I’ve always enjoyed talking to Scott, and the top job at Bloomberg is one of the last great media jobs with a rich owner who takes the long view. (Bloomberg)

Google is a for-profit company, so it shouldn’t be a surprise when it throws its weight around in ways big and small. Some publishers have found, surprisingly, that suing Google is a good way to get frozen out of post-third-party- cookie discussions. (Marketing Brew)

Musk is throwing in the towel on ads. I don’t like to play psychotherapist to billionaires. I also do not think Elon Musk is “crazy.” Whether he’s wrong is an open question. But it’s clear he’s tanking X’s ad business because he believes it does not align with what he sees as the mission for the company. That leaves the question of why he brought in as a CEO an executive who is known for her ad sales prowess. Never a great sign when the people you’re trying to sell to are urging you to quit. Expecting Musk to not say something outrageous that aggravates ad buyers is the definition of insanity. (Forbes)

Vultures are due to get a new look. Maybe TikTok can give a fair shake to the birds of prey, which are “masters of innovation.” They’re the perfect avatar of the post-ZIRP era. They’re patient and persistent, decisive and make a little go a long way. (NYT)

The digital ad supply chain starts with the publisher. Easily understand and visualize ad requests and bid responses for common ad tech services: Install HTL Debug from Hashtag Labs for free today. (Sponsored)

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