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AI Authors, Brand Equity, and the Ethics of "That Girl"

Updated: Jan 23

Since CNET and Bankrate got caught posting error-filled AI-generated finance articles a few weeks ago, there’s been a lot of talk about AI writing and what it means for the future of journalism.


In case you didn’t read the story, here’s what happened when CNET and Bankrate tried AI-generated content. And here’s what happened when CNET and Bankrate got caught.


As a professional writer of course I’m biased, but the issues raised go beyond good writing vs bad. As the first article points out, poor and inaccurate writing can hurt the very people it claims to inform. But also as the article points out, the goal of AI-generated content isn’t to inform or educate anyone – it’s to trick Google’s algorithms into listing it higher in the search results. And of course, to do so at the lowest possible cost. Conflicting goals to say the least.


Now Hiring Humans

Coincidentally, the day before I came across the CNET story I was prowling around my local craigslist and came across this ad under Writing Gigs: “Contract Writing (Technical) - Making Technical Language Familiar.” Check your local craigslist, I bet you’ll find it there, too. The ad, run by an AI developer (https://storytellers.ai/), wants a “contractor” to take their AI text and make it sound both more human and approachable. Among other skills, they want someone with ideally post-college/undergrad level English writing skills for which they’re willing to pay “per paragraph to an hourly rate that should amount to around $25/hour.”


So. Are they using humans to improve the quality of text for publication, or are they using humans to help train their AI to write more like humans so they don’t need humans? Either way, the pay seems inadequate for the skill level they're looking for.


AI is “That Girl”

It reminds me of an episode of That Girl, the old ‘70s series starring Marlo Thomas (Ann) and Ted Bessell (Don). In this episode, a publisher decides to hire Ann, knowing that she has no writing experience but her boyfriend Don is a professional writer. The publisher offers to pay Ann a penny a word for her article. When she reads her verbose and convoluted prose to Don, he decides he has to rewrite it for her before she turns it in, so the publisher ends up getting Don’s professional writing skills at a pittance of what it should have cost. The publisher gets the bargain he anticipated, Ann can now claim to be a by-lined writer, and as for Don, well, nice guys finish last.


Ethics and the Art of Brand Management


Personally, I don’t think it’s ethical to mislead the public with sloppy journalism, or underpay writers by claiming that all the hard work has already been done and they just need to polish things a little. Anyone who’s ever edited an entry-level writer knows that’s rarely true.


But beyond my personal qualms, I suspect this kind of writing has real effects on a brand. Sure, a monkey who spends an infinity at a typewriter could write Shakespeare, but you’re much more likely to end up with alphabet soup. And when your customers learn that's all you're serving, what will they think of you and the things you promote?


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