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May 16, 2024

Will gen AI ruin the joy of web surfing?

Some observers say it’s the end of the endless scroll—and the bond between content creators and consumers.

In the news

It’s the end of the web as we know it—at least that’s the argument of an intriguing article from The Atlantic. The authors, both fellows at Harvard, warn of the eventual demise of how we experience “the complex online ecosystem that allows writers, artists and other creators to reach human audiences.”

The culprit: generative AI. The weapon: large language model optimization (LLMO).

The authors trace the phenomenal expansion of content on the internet and note the importance of search engines—especially Google, of course—and search engine optimization in shaping the content we see. In their place, the authors argue, LLMOs will turn the experience of seemingly endless, all-consuming and unexpected discovery of clearly authored content into one that gives the impression that all content stems from a generic, omniscient source.

Ultimately, they say, this new way of getting answers to our most pressing questions (or morbid curiosity) will sever the relationship between content creator and content consumer.

The article makes some valid, thought-provoking points. The reason people create is to connect with other humans, it notes, and search engines, for all their faults, reflect this dynamic: We ask a question, and we can clearly see the entity or individual behind the answer. To generative AI, by contrast, everything from a Mazda parts catalog to a blog post by an anguished 14-year-old is merely “digestible raw material,” there to be made use of next time a query pops up. Thus, creators lose the human connection that motivated them in the first place (not to mention compensation for what they created).

It's endearing, though—nearly quaint—that the article equates SEO to the “good old days” of the web (as if today’s web were a Victorian gentleman’s library lined with authoritative tomes). In certain ways, the piece fails to make a strong case that LLMO will be any worse than SEO—which is, after all, rife with problems, from unreliable “sponsored” product reviews to the silo-ification of the way consumers get their news.

Still, it’s worth thinking about the article’s prediction of the death of the wild and woolly internet with which we all have a love-hate relationship, replaced by walled-off content made for select audiences. 

The Cognizant take

Duncan Roberts, a Senior Manager at Cognizant Research, is intrigued by the idea of generative AI changing the internet. For one thing, he says, it “could make the web much smaller—for individual users, that is. You’re less likely to go down a rabbit hole, more likely to get pertinent information right off the bat.”

Generally speaking, he adds, this direct delivery of pertinent information reflects consumer demand. “People don’t always want to spend time searching, refining and scrolling,” he points out—though they often do, and browsing can be one of the web’s great pleasures. “Sometimes, when they have something specific in mind, they simply want top results with minimal effort.”

This will affect myriad aspects of commercial life. Maybe, for instance, business websites will cease to be mandatory in the future, supplanted by the LLM-enabled web’s pinpoint answers.

While all this will certainly affect marketing, advertising and the customer journey in general, it’s too early to say exactly how, he adds. “At this stage, so much generative AI activity is experimental.” The Googles, Microsofts and OpenAIs of the world are trying various engagement and monetization tactics, trying to learn what consumers want—and what and where they’ll pay for it, whether that’s subscriptions, ads or something else altogether.     

Will the internet sacrifice some of its dynamism and personality as generative AI gains traction? Perhaps, Roberts says, but that’s hardly a new phenomenon. “Web 1.0 was kooky, and Web 2.0 is far slicker—more commercial, less rebellious. I think it’ll be interesting to see how people react to this next phase. Consumer behavior will drive the changes, and for business, the challenge will remain: How do you leverage that behavior to create a fascinating experience?”

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