Navigating the Shallows: The Internet, AI, and the Quest for Depth
How AI is changing content consumption and publishing behaviors
In the sprawling world of the Internet, the oceanic metaphor seems apt. Yet, if you're expecting a Mariana Trench of profundity, brace yourself for a surprise. We are, in fact, wading in the shallows — particularly when compared to the depth found in a traditional book. The Internet, the great democratizer of publishing, requires no literary agents, editors, or publishing houses. Anyone can broadcast their thoughts, as I am doing right now.
In the middle of the 2010s, there was a brief period when the quality of Internet content reached a zenith. Spam became manageable, and it felt like we were on an unbroken upward trajectory. Around 2016, many publications, including the Associated Press and The New York Times, decided to use the lowercase "internet,” which was also around the time when the world got exposed to the unsavory revelation: the weaponization of information online and the internet.
The mechanics of this weaponization are simple yet insidious: produce the most cost-effective and engaging content. This boils down to a few types:
Clickbait: A headline and body with little relation, crafted to provoke clicks and shares.
Memes: Images or ideas repurposed to various ends, from harmless humor to hate speech. Consider Pepe the Frog's transformation from an innocuous cartoon to the symbol of hate, then recently a meme coin.
Prank or challenge videos: As seen on TikTok, these social phenomena shape our behavior in ways we're only beginning to understand and witness.
Gossip and tabloid content: The digital version of supermarket checkout fodder.
In this Internet era, the gatekeepers — the agents, editors, and publishing houses — have been superseded by algorithms. These AI entities rank and present content based on human behavior. Yet our engagement with platforms like social media is sporadic at best. Short-form content, therefore, garners the highest engagement. It's the snack between meals, providing momentary dopamine hits without the satisfaction of deeper understanding.
Conversely, long-form content like podcasts and lengthy YouTube videos offer a more satiating experience, albeit in a passive format. Short content might be likened to junk food for the mind — momentarily satisfying but ultimately lacking in sustenance.
Indeed, the very concept of this article germinated from the ceaseless parade of short, attention-grabbing posts — often touting the latest AI tools. The so-called AI revolution often seems more hype than substance, a shallow wave to be surfed for attention and clicks.
And yet, AI may hold the solution to the very problem it exacerbates through the flood of content it’s currently helping create. Where the traditional short-term reward circuit leaves us wanting, chatbot AI interactions may offer a more substantial, book-like experience. These interactions, unlike a headline or meme, encourage follow-up. Each response is an invitation to delve deeper, to engage further.
Consider AI agents like ChatGPT or Claude, each interaction a new branch on an ever-expanding knowledge tree. Or Pi, an AI companion that evolves with you, learning your preferences, connections, and world.
This shift could offer a counterweight to the prevalence of low-quality content. As AI vies for our attention, platforms may be compelled to compete by promoting higher-quality content. Paradoxically, traditional content platforms could become the defacto publishers on the Internet, their curation guided by AI.
We stand on the precipice of a fascinating future where AI might pull us from the shallows and lead us back into the depths of meaningful, engaging content and mind quests.