Will AI break the internet?

Simon stood underneath an umbrella and the words "The AI storm is coming" asking the question will AI break the internet?

AI is flooding the internet with content; most of it really bad and some of it so good we can’t tell it’s been created by AI.

The irony is that some of the world’s biggest brands and AI promoters – Google, Meta, TikTok, X – all rely on user-generated content to earn their billions. And yet AI is destroying their business model.

A lot of businesses also rely on this business model, placing their advertising in among the content and search results. There’s endless marketing advice on how to get your Ads seen on these now-threatened platforms.

What happens when AI content gets better, more real and, eventually, indistinguishable from human-created content? If the big platforms and their business model go the way of Myspace, print newspapers and terrestrial TV, then what happens to all the content you (and I) make?

Will AI destroy marketing as well as the internet?

Where we’re at right now

At the moment, AI output doesn’t need to be very good. Blog posts, news articles, emails, summarising documents… none of this work is critical. After all, most of what is already being done by humans is frankly pretty average anyway. So it’s easy for AI to show up and match it or even be slightly better.

The point is, a lot of internet content doesn’t need to be “good” or engaging or even make sense to be effective. Social media posts, blogs, and articles all feed into search engines and AI algorithms and give them something to index. Filler content is designed for one thing, to perform well in Google search results. People click on it and then see an Ad. Often, an Ad that Google itself places on that website.

This is what SEO is all about.

The more you show up in searches, the more visitors you get to your webpage, the more revenue you make from showing Ads. It doesn’t matter if the visitor reads the content or not; the ‘view’ just has to register to get the revenue from the Ads provider.

Up until around two years ago, this process took time and human toil to create. With AI, content can be created on an industrial scale, and search engines have become flooded with spam content that is hard to distinguish from human-made content.

And it’s not just written content; there are TikTok videos of random footage with an AI voice reading text from Reddit and nonsense videos on YouTube for kids.

As Ezra Klein says, “The internet has felt like it is in a state of decay for a while. Google search results, YouTube, X, all of it felt more human, more delightful, more spontaneous more real a few years ago.”

Goodbye to quality

So what is happening to the huge gatekeepers like Google, Facebook and YouTube that built their empires on user-generated content as they are bombarded by AI content? How do they adjust when they themselves are often the ones creating the AI bots that make the content that is destroying their own business model?

The platform business model relies on users finding and interacting with the best content so that their recommendation engines can then show that to more people – giving the impression of delivering the right thing to you at just the right time (be that content or answers to search queries). The aim is to keep people scrolling. The longer they’re in the app, the more opportunities there are to place Ads in among the content, leading to a transaction such as a form fill or purchase.

Add AI into the mix, creating a potentially infinite amount of content, and the model breaks down.

We already had more supply than demand. More content being made than is ever consumed. With AI, the system can’t keep up.

And the platforms can’t stop this from happening. Google or Meta stock prices now depends on developing AI models that can create content, answer questions and chat with humans. They have to build and funnel money into the very thing that is destroying their business model.

Be you. Stand out

At the moment, AI content is, at best, ok. But what about when it’s not? What about when it improves?

AI can already fool most people on a phone screen. In chat messages, it’s almost impossible to tell apart from a human. Content-wise, there is still a way to go. But that’s where the investment and the money are right now.

And let’s face it, the bar to beat is not that high. Most internet content is mediocre. AI only has to be a little better than that.

The underlying question for me is whether it matters if content is made by a human or an AI.

I believe that content made by a content farm or a bot, stuffed full of Ads and not really serving anyone, is one of the worst aspects of the internet.

What AI is not good at, and might never be as good as humans at, is new ideas. If you look at TikTok, dances or video styles that become popular are copied because AI is optimising for videos like this. The result? It all starts to look the same. The more AI makes your content, the more homogenous and it becomes. When everything looks the same, nothing stands out.

The key to standing out – to attracting attention – is having a new idea and starting something new.

That’s where showing up as yourself, not copying others, and sharing your own ideas and concepts very simply sets you apart.

I just want to hide in a cave and wait for all this to blow over.

Understandable, and yet… probably not practical.

The need to be different, to be original, is both scary and exciting. But I believe the key is humans finding and seeking connection with other humans. If you try and make content that replicates what the AI wants you to replicate, you’re just going to be the same as everybody else. Show up in a human way, doing your own thing, and sharing your ideas generously will set you apart. You will attract those humans seeking connection with other humans.

Dive deeper into this thinking

This blog was inspired by and referenced in part from the podcast: Will AI Break the Internet? Or Save it? – The Ezra Klein Show

“The internet is in decay. Do a Google search and there are so many websites now filled with slapdash content contorted just to rank highly in the algorithm. Facebook, YouTube, X and TikTok all used to feel more fun and surprising. And all these once-great media companies have been folding or shedding staff members, unable to find a business model that works.

And into this weakened internet came the flood of AI-generated junk. There’s been a surge of spammy news sites filled with AI-generated articles. TikTok videos of AI-generated voices reading text pulled from Reddit can be churned out in seconds. And self-published AI-authored books are polluting Amazon listings.

According to my guest today, Nilay Patel, this isn’t just a blip, as the big platforms figure out how to manage this. He believes that AI content will break the internet as we know it.

What happens when we don’t know if there is a person on the other end of what we’re seeing, reading or hearing? Should we care? What if that content is better, what if we prefer it?”