The semi-automated social network is coming

It makes sense that LinkedIn would be the first major social network to push AI-generated content to its users. The company owned by Microsoft is Strange. Of corporate. It’s full of job fluencer posts and engagement bait that vary in tone from bland management consultant to gleefully psychotic. Fortunately, this is the same emotional spectrum in which AI tends to operate.

LinkedIn isn’t yet filling its feed with AI chatbots, but last week it started sharing “AI conversation starters” with the express purpose of sparking conversation between users. These posts are “developed” with the help of LinkedIn’s editorial team and paired with experts who can then offer their thoughts on topics such as “how to create a consistent brand voice on social media” and “how to follow online scope of your writing.” So far, so anodyne — like the contents of an r/askmckinsey subreddit.

The semi-automated social network is an engagement machine

However, this project is a milestone and may herald the start of a wider revolution for the web. It’s the first time – to my knowledge – that a major social media platform has served users directly with AI-generated content to keep them engaged. And in an age of social media stagnation, from Twitter’s multiple struggles to Meta’s desperate bid for paid subscriptions, it could point to the industry’s future: the semi-automated social network.

It’s true, of course, that social media has been directing user attention using artificial intelligence ever since algorithmic streaming was invented. As soon as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc. began to rank user content using opaque metrics, became human-machine hybrids — shaping our actions to motivate and engage us. But there is a difference between this kind of intervention and the direct sharing of AI-generated content, mainly because companies now have the opportunity to flood the zone with this material in a way that simply wasn’t possible even before some years. “Generative AI” may be the most entertaining trend of 2023, but it’s not without good reason. We now have AI tools that can generate endless reels of images, videos, music and text, and social networking sites have all the user data they need to train these systems. Why not link one to the other?

It is not difficult to imagine how a semi-automated social network might work. In addition to providing AI-generated content to users, you can create fake users in the form of AI chatbots to nurture, nurture and nurture your user base. Perhaps, initially, you develop bots just to contain problematic users: a concept known as paradise, in which trolls can only interact with chatbots who soften them up by agreeing with everything they say. (The idea was coined by Twitter user @nearcyan.) But then, maybe when monthly user numbers start to drop and quarterly earnings don’t look so good, you’ll decide to let more bots connect with the general population. “It’s a proven way to increase positive interactions between users!” you write in your press release. “We give people what they want: quality personalized content at scale. Never be bored in our AI playpen.”

And hey, he might be popular too. There is no need to think about people will not enjoy a social network full of bots. (They like Twitter, after all.) Many of us already treat social media like a game. forming alliances, bridging enemies and racking up points in the metric of our choice. It can be reassuring to know that the bot-assisted pile-on you started targets only another computer program, whose live stream analysis is, you’re assured, purely AI generated. And why bother cultivating human friendships online when the corresponding chatbot offers more leniency and less friction? If digital relationships are equivalent to IRL, does it matter if your friends are bots? And look, if I sign up for the BotFriend+ package, I even get random Amazon gifts in the mail!

That’s one possible future, anyway. Chances are, any automation will be more subtle than this. As these changes take place, however, it will be the end of social media as it was originally designed—as a place to share news and thoughts with real people—and the beginning of a new form of online entertainment.

Arguably, this transition is already happening. One of the most popular uses of consumer AI is the creation of chatbots based on fictional characters on platforms such as Character.AI and NovelAI. Users spend hours honing AI versions of their favorite superheroes or video game characters and then just… chat with them, for hours at a time. another form of fandom. The ability of these systems to keep users engaged is also undeniable. Just look at what happened when Microsoft released the Bing chatbot. The bot lied to people, insulted them, manipulated them and liked them. Or there was the case of virtual companion chatbot Replika. When the company behind the bot removed its ability to engage in romantic role-playing games — a feature touted as a replacement for human relationships — moderators on the app’s subreddit had to pin links to mental health resources to help troubled users . For a more unscrupulous company, this kind of commitment would be an opportunity.

Today’s giants of the online world have already noticed this shift. Just last month, Snap released its ChatGPT-powered My AI chatbot, and yesterday, Discord said it would use ChatGPT to improve the chatbot’s Clyde chatbot. Meta, too, appears to be developing similar features, with Mark Zuckerberg promising in February that the company is exploring creating “AI faces that can help people in a variety of ways.” What this means is unclear, but Facebook already runs a simulated version of its site populated by AI users in order to model and predict the behavior of their human counterparts.

But the introduction of chatbots to these platforms could also be their death. I recently read a blog post by musician and author Damon Krukowski in which he compared Spotify’s AI DJ feature to the rise of digital projectors in movie theaters: a tool that was supposed to automate human work but instead led to a drop in screen quality and suggests Krukowski, declining cinema attendance. “Abolish work,” he writes, “and you end up eliminating the places for which those jobs were created.” Maybe if we eliminate the work involved in social networking – which is the work of posting, always post — our role on these platforms will also disappear. Let the AIs argue, then. I will announce my retirement on LinkedIn.

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