Synthetic September

Mar 7, 2024

If you're old enough, you may remember a time when you believed everything posted online, be it true or absolute horseshit, at least originated from another fellow human. That is no longer the case - the internet's quickest growing audience segment is now bots. That post to r/relationshipadvice? Fashion Tiktok? Those things you kind of instinctually assume is created by another human being is no longer a safe assumption. As the level of effort required to put things online comes down, your level of skepticism when viewing things online should rise accordingly.

As Bo Burnham excellently explained in Inside's Welcome to the Internet, there was a brief period before the modern internet, that consisted mostly of tinkerers and hobbyists putting things online because it was interesting. I won't say it was "better" because functionally, the internet was pretty dog shit. It was slow, unreliable, everything took forever, you had to know how to use it to access almost anything and to put anything online you had to know at least a little code. God forbid someone pick up the phone while you were online. However, that high barrier to entry ensured the people who participated cared about it enough to put the time and effort in.

Eternal September

As the barriers to entry came down, there was a corresponding drop in the level of thoughtfulness and intentionality online. The most famous example of this is Eternal September. In the early years of the internet, people joined slowly throughout the year, and because of the high barrier to entry, generally took the time to learn and abide by online norms. The exception to this rule was September, when new college students were all able to get online in larger groups. These larger groups of users, able to interact with one another more so than any other month, would often discard the norms, as more experienced users bemoaned September's influx of internet babies.

In the fall of 1993 Usenet, one of the first bulletin board style sites on the web, began to see a massive influx of new users, beyond the usual September surge, as more and more internet service providers (ISPs) brought customers online. Users quickly noted that the flood of new users was like a "September that never ended" as more and more internet babies signed online and continued to change online culture as they simply began to outnumber the fewer more experienced users. The following year AOL made internet access even more widely available, and we began entering what many refer to as the Web 1.0.

The Attention Economy

As the floodgates opened and the internet neophytes poured in, they brought their eyeballs, and wallets, with them. Which are, of course, great targets for businesses like media and advertisers, who invented whole new models to get their ads in front of users. Those of you who never have to deal with thinly guised adware like BonziBuddy, popups so aggressive they would crash your computer, or banners before the world of ad blockers don't know how lucky you are. Companies, already accustomed to media metrics from the likes of Neilson and Arbitron, were used to paying for impressions and frequency.

Which means online platforms were quickly conditioned to manufacture content that could drive up these engagement analytics. The content that did this best was content that got a reaction out of people. Content that made people angry, afraid, and anxious. And so, with time, the internet became a worse version of what many dreamed it would replace.

The Social Era

Before long, we saw the introduction of new conceptual ways to use the web, and hope again emerged in these novel approaches. Chat rooms that expanded into networks like AOL Instant Messenger and ICQ. Early social networks like the original MySpace and Facebook as well as early Reddit and Twitter. These new ways to use the internet were an exciting change, for a time. Eventually, these platforms again fell victim to the same cycle as Usenet - initially populated by highly invested hobbyists, as they became more and more accessible, a deluge of new users increased ad revenue and decreased the level of discourse.

Given their social nature, they were also quickly gamed by everything from creative individuals to entire industries using fake or alternative accounts meant to share whatever content their puppet-masters desired. Despite what Elon Musk claimed during the purchase of X (Twitter), these bots aren't as much of a concern to these platforms as you might think. Platforms are, largely, compensated based on engagement - fake users still generate engagement, and subsequently, dollars. Extreme fake accounts are only removed when they finally create problem on a scale large enough to outweigh the value they provide.

Fake users come in a variety of flavors, from accounts that are manually controlled by one or more people, some that are created en masse in call centers and click farms, to those that are programmatic in nature, bots, driven by code.

The Dead Internet Theory

As the bot count has grown, the Dead Internet Theory - which poses that less and less of the public activity on the web is actual humans managing their own authentic accounts, and more and more of it is being run by bots - is gaining renewed traction. Impreza's Bad Bot Report claims that 2022/23 saw the largest rise in bot traffic ever, with bots accounting for approximately 47% of all internet activity. With that grain of information, and the awareness of just how much more powerful artificial intelligence (AI) has become over the last several months, it is no wonder the Dead Internet Theory is being revived.

While programmatic bots were already difficult to deal with, the rise of AI makes it far easier to create more bots, that act more humanlike than ever, and operate on a larger scale than ever before. No longer are bots restricted to basic content outputs like overrunning sites like Amazon with fake reviews. AI bots can create multimedia outputs - fake voices, automated video, even synthetic personalities, enabling bots to churn out content for platforms across the web from Instagram to X, Tiktok to YouTube, and even LinkedIn or OnlyFans.

Synthetic September

Much like the Eternal September of Usenet over 30 years ago (that feels crazy to type) we're now in an era in which the number of bots online will only continue to grow. In the same way the new internet users of yesteryear quickly outnumbered the more experienced users, and subsequently forever altered the culture and structure of the internet, so too will these bots.

This time, however, the internet plays a more critical role in shaping our culture, society, and systems than ever before. Giving these bots the uncanny ability to shape culture in a way that has never before existed. Artificial users will continue to generate the vast majority of "public" internet content, which most humans will assume is being created by other people, and therefore is reflective of human stances and viewpoints. Actual human interaction is likely to continue to pull back into more walled gardens, as the Dead Internet Theory predicts, with people sharing content more directly with small groups of carefully curated contacts.

Saccharine Society

I have trouble envisioning a way this will ultimately be good for society. Rarely does altruism have the deepest pockets. It is unlikely that a bunch of good Samaritans are going to stand up bot farms to pump the internet full of accurate information and good vibes. (Though, if you are someone considering doing this, please do contact me. I am definitely on board.)

Perhaps, like many have speculated, this will simply become a new version of Photoshop, and we'll simply start to assume that anything we see online is false and draw back to using our social circles and communities as filters for news and information. Though based on my experience, I doubt it.

What feels more likely is twofold. The first layer being one motivated by profit. As long as attention pays, platforms and creators alike will continue to prey on our worst instincts and churn out content that acts as a super stimulus. This media form of artificial sugar keeps people's eyes on the screens, and subsequently keeps the ad dollars pouring in.

The Newest Agents of the Culture War

The second layer is more subtle, and more problematic. While likely overblown by heavy handed conspiracy theorists, there are ongoing international efforts to shape culture. These efforts are obvious in political discourse, in propaganda campaigns, or in undertakings like Russia's election meddling. Organizations operating on the scale of nation-states will soon be armed with the greatest weapons of mass distraction culture wars have ever known.

Much like missionaries have known for centuries, why kill your enemy when you can convert them? There are better ways to win over populations than violence, especially these days. The new battlefield is a screen, and the battle is for each of our hearts and minds. Every imperceptible shift in our beliefs and opinions is a victory or defeat for those pulling the strings behind the characters on our screens.

###

PS - A special nod to Where's Waldo which inspired the image for this article, representing the bots hiding among us.

Like it? Subscribe for other articles and stories in your inbox.

Like it? Subscribe for other articles and stories in your inbox.

Latest Articles

Chris Yoko

“However, I continue to try and I continue, indefatigably, to reach out. There’s no way I can single-handedly save the world, or perhaps, even make a perceptible difference… but how ashamed I would be to let a day pass without making one more effort.” - Isaac Asimov

© 2023 Chris Yoko - All rights reserved

Chris Yoko

“However, I continue to try and I continue, indefatigably, to reach out. There’s no way I can single-handedly save the world, or perhaps, even make a perceptible difference… but how ashamed I would be to let a day pass without making one more effort.” - Isaac Asimov

© 2023 Chris Yoko - All rights reserved

Chris Yoko

“However, I continue to try and I continue, indefatigably, to reach out. There’s no way I can single-handedly save the world, or perhaps, even make a perceptible difference… but how ashamed I would be to let a day pass without making one more effort.” - Isaac Asimov

© 2023 Chris Yoko - All rights reserved