Thoughts on Content Aggregation

TL;DR – ChatGPT is the last occurrence of a long trend for content aggregation and using other people’s content without linking the source. Reasoning:

Aggregated content is worth money

The modern human generates content all the time. It’s very clear that we do it when we post photos on Facebook or write lengthy text on our personal blogs but it’s not just that. Our browser history is content, our search history is content, and our cookies are worth something to the advertisers. We generate content by clicking the TV remote, and most likely by even speaking in the presence of a smart device with a microphone. We generate content every time we click on our phones beyond the password screen. This content is aggregated and transformed to be used by whoever can convert it to revenue with some privacy-related exceptions.

Once an engine has a database of aggregated content, it can attempt to monetize it by finding consumers looking for parts of that content, or ideally by monopolizing an audience in a specific area. Big data, stored in a way that allows quick access is like a black hole, curls the space around it and makes things happen that would otherwise be impossible. This doesn’t change this content’s nature – it’s aggregated from external sources and can’t exist without these sources. Google, for example, produces very little public content.

For the majority of the existence of the Web, the market for such aggregation was dominated by tools that would also link to the information source and share the traffic or the profit so the information source survives. Wikipedia demands a source for everything and the sources are part of each article. Google links to websites. Foursquare would link to that nice restaurant’s website. Some services would directly share revenue. We grew up with this approach and it sounds fair. But it seems like it is going to be challenged again.

Aggregators are becoming the source of truth

I observed some questionable developments around aggregation over the last 5-10 years. Google, for example, has been motivated to keep clicks within the service and it shows. They built an information source called Knol, developed a mechanism for hosting the entire web called AMP, built Google Maps, and integrated summaries in the search results. I can now learn everything about my favorite actors, for example, and see their photos without ever leaving Google. I can make 10-15-20 content-related clicks and still never hit one that leads outside of Google.

When individuals do that very same thing, it raises eyebrows. People would copy/paste and do slight modifications for homework, write a paper, trick crawlers, farm Karma on Reddit, or who knows what else. Other people have tried and succeeded in authoring books with slightly modified content from other sources. Rewording text, translating it from a foreign language, and editing photos can make them hard to trace back to the author has been a practice that’s frowned upon and sometimes challenged with legal actions.

Now that ChatGPT appeared, “AI” is the new big thing. It does not look like an intelligent bot to me, though. It looks like the ultimate copy/paste engine, no wonder it’s so good at writing homework. It has no own knowledge but it appears like it knows everything. It successfully uses other people’s creative efforts and then shares it like it just knows it out of nowhere, not citing the sources or sometimes citing without providing links. It has the knowledge, just chooses not to share, unless asked. I’ve not checked how many people work on it, I would assume thousands, but I doubt any of them are content creators. Expert scrapers – probably, experts in aggregation – likely, big data – most certainly, experts in human language processing – absolutely.

Consequences of this trend

In case ChatGPT completely replaces Google, the traffic to the original creators will decrease, although thanks to Google’s tactics, it might not decrease by much. Why should a visitor read a lengthy blog post if a bot can present a brief summary of that effort without even mentioning who created it? The aggregators and the consumer are both benefitting, it’s just that the content creator is now turned into a free “trainer” of someone’s bot. We’ll all start consuming AI-rewritten text until that breaks too. Given that AI’s text has no creativity, will, or its own ideas, every time one of us consumes it, it diverts thought and effort away from the actual creation effort.

The trend is concerning but I doubt we can do much about it. Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come. ChatGPT is part of the negative trend of aggregators claiming ownership of people’s content but it may also be convenient. It’s convenient in the same way as The Pirate Bay – it has most movies created with that small issue that the service disregards the will of the people who created the movies. Just like The Pirate Bay, Google, Bing, and ChatGPT can’t exist without the people who created the underlying content they use to generate all these clicks.

I personally hope that people will push back against AI’s content rewrites and focus on services that are fair. I also hope that the disruption that’s coming will crack the near-monopoly over search. Some good things might grow in the cracks, or may not.

Superhero movies

I’ve been reading /r/comicbooks and found this gem that made me laugh and think

Two superheroes I’ve never heard of happened in a well-known superhero universe and, of course, they saved Earth.

I wonder, what makes people like superheroes so much? Most of them are so overpowered that it takes a major leap of the imagination to find them worthy opponents and make the shows. And why would there be any opponents anyway? The superheroes are so willingly fighting each other that each of these superhero universes (Marvel, DC, etc) should just naturally reduce itself to a state with 1 superhero overlord and no opposition like a natural Squid game.

The supervillains are also way too easy in the sense that the entire evil is focused on one person or a person and their handful of helpers. The modern-day great evil is usually living in the shape of ideas that poison people’s minds. “My country is better than your country, and half of your country used to be part of my country” – as an example, but there have been plenty of variations. Bulgaria on three seas. Кримнаш. There’s no way to personalize the rot when it’s an idea, even if the idea has been spread by carefully organized propaganda. This makes the supervillains and superheroes boring.

Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.

Victor Hugo

Poor Man’s Bitcoin

The communism withdrew from Bulgaria in 1989 and when the political police became unemployed, all sort of weird new things popped up to fill the gap. Grocery stores and supermarkets. New TV channels. More than one kind of ice cream. Fortune tellers. Horoscopes. Insurance racket. Chainmail too – you rewrite this letter 5 times and put it in 5 mailboxes and you’ll live a long and happy life. You don’t and you’ll die in pain. Multiple testimonials included.

One kind of chain mail had a price tag and wasn’t supposed to work, but worked for a while. Let’s call it The Poor Man’s Bitcoin. Here is roughly how it worked, excuse my faint memories for any inaccuracies.

There’s a sheet of paper, cut from a notebook, handwritten by a person who we can call “The Seller”. That sheet of paper contains the rules of the chainmail and 6 home addresses or PO boxes. Rules are as follows:

  • You need to send 2 Leva to the last 5 people in the chain, and also 2 Leva to the person who invented it (the number varied)
  • The way you prepare new copies is by rewriting the sheet and filling your name at the bottom of the list of 5 people in the chain, removing the first one
  • It contains terrible curses that will reach you if you violate the rules, sell more or less than 5 sheets of paper, or don’t mail money to the people in the chain
  • In order to get your money back, you need to temporarily become “The Seller”.

If you follow the rules closely, you should quickly get your money back – just find 5 people to buy your sheet of paper and letters with money would start flowing. Does it sound familiar?

  • It inflated algorithmically
  • Its intrinsic value was zero
  • The only things that kept it living for some time were people’s feelings and beliefs, mostly greed and fear of missing out
  • Some people loved it and were willing to fight that they’ll become rich once they get back their thousands of letters
  • It worked because people didn’t really understand how it works and look past the first 5 or 25 people who would give them money
  • Each transaction benefitted the author of the scheme + the regular system that guaranteed money transfer (the post)
  • Everyone could start their own chain letter

Once most of us were exposed to it, the number of letters turned out to be disappointing, and most people realized that these curses that guarantee the distribution don’t work, it vanished to be replaced years later by lottery tickets. Same feelings but no need to be able to write.

I find it amusing that so many people consider Bitcoin a form of investment while it’s pretty much like the chainmail from the 90s. At least this is how I see things. I do not understand how it works.

If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.

Active Listening

A colleague is talking. Their case is important and the more they say, the more I’m eager to add to their point or present arguments against. At some point, they need to take a breath and I feel like it’s my turn with all these things I wanted to say. I shoot and feel like something is not right.

Listening is Hard

In our culture, the opposite of talking is more like waiting to interrupt.

Verbal Judo: The Gentle Art of Persuasion

There are many problems with the waiting to interrupt approach, for example:

  • People are not great at expressing themselves and often don’t say what they mean so replying to what they say is pointless because they don’t mean it.
  • Our brain stack is limited, we can barely remember last 2-3 things we wanted to say and if we don’t get the chance, we might feel frustration or other negative emotions. This is especially true if it’s a group discussion and 2-3 people are more vocal than others and better in interrupting.
  • We are biased when interrupting and don’t give equal chance to everyone to speak.

Verify What We Heard

The main takeaway from Verbal Judo is that we need to listen with the goal to understand the meaning first, not with the goal to say these 3 or 5 things that came to our minds. We need to verify the meaning and an easy way to do that is by paraphrasing and asking for confirmation or clarification. “So you say (paraphrase here)?”. Note that according to other sources, this will not lead to the best outcome if we expect a tip 🙂 In that case paraphrasing should be more like a direct repetition of what we heard.

My ex-boss 8 years ago loved to stop by my desk and start asking for immediate changes to the e-commerce website we were developing. He usually had a point for these changes but it was super critical to understand what result he wanted, not what change he wanted. What he said might be “move this text from here to here”, while what he meant would be “users don’t see this cool new feature, we need a way to promote it”. Knowing the service better I was often able to suggest other approaches to achieve that same result that worked better if I managed to decode the intent of the request.

Hangouts and Meetings

Radical Candor has an entire chapter dedicated to how we can survive hangouts with the best possible outcome, which would be that all ideas are heard, challenged, and discussed, and decisions are made. The main takeaway for me is:

Give the quiet ones a voice.

— Kim Scott, Radical Candor

Without that, we’ll only listen to those 3-4 loudest people over and over, not that they’re not good. But others might be better. I’ve experienced a situation in which the two loudest people reached a quick agreement for a decision for which other people had important information but had not expressed it. Challenging a decision instead of an idea can be taken personally and hard words started flying. That’s a failure in communication that could’ve been avoided early by listening.

If all goes well, we listen, we verify and clarify the meaning of what is said. It’s our turn now to talk.

Our Turn

Chris Voss thinks that we should push for our beliefs and I somewhat agree.

Remember, pushing hard for what you believe is not selfish. It is not bullying. It is not just helping you. Your amygdala, the part of the brain that processes fear, will try to convince you to give up, to flee, because the other guy is right, or you’re being cruel.

Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It.

I’ve seen so many times how a single person with a voice and a good idea can change, well, almost anything.


Some of the best thoughts on listening I’ve read come from Fantasy. The author is Ursula Le Guin and the quotes are said by her characters Ged and Ogion.

For a word to be spoken, there must be silence. Before, and after.

To hear, one must be silent.

Thanks for reading!

On Forgetting Books

There’s a common wisdom that partners only do their best until they get married. This might be true or not but I’ve noticed similar things in various areas – diets, sport, alcohol consumption. An injury, a stressful situation, or just a long series of small transgressions and we are back to our worse selves but less hopeful. I think some of that is happening to my efforts to learn about Psychology and Marketing.

Yesterday I finished a book, called “To Sell is Human” by Daniel Pink. It covered areas of which I expected to be knowledgeable – engaging in conversations, noticing communication failures, active listening. The book is citing many others I’ve already read and even a research I’ve been aware of. Many takeaways, however, felt new. I checked my notes from “Verbal Judo” and “Crucial Conversations”. It was eye-opening. It felt like I forgot much of the content without ever using it. Then I checked a couple of other related books I read 2-3 years ago – I had no notes whatsoever.

Dale Carnegie suggested somewhere [citation needed] that his “How to Win Friends and Influence People” needs to be re-read, and I think also in another book suggested a slow pace of reading (no more than 1 chapter per day). All of that is so that the information sticks. The goal of reading non-fiction, after all, is not filling my home with books but learning skills and becoming a better human. Re-reading sounds a bit too much for me but read and forget is not a good strategy either (well, maybe it is, for “A Song of Fire and Ice”).

Here is what I plan to do:

– Write notes and keep highlights when I read non-fiction and self-help
– Write resumes with key takeaways so that I can go back and remind myself what was it all about when I need it.

I hope this makes my new year in reading more productive.

The Sense of Purpose and Performance

Having purpose is the key to survival, according to Victor Frankl. When facing loss, grief, and hardship, it can be the slim difference between staying afloat and sinking to despair. Victor Frankl’s extraordinary work – Man’s Search of Meaning – had a big impact on my understanding of life, although it’s just a piece of a large puzzle (good summary here).

Today, I read there’s a correlation between having purpose and performance reviews, which amazed me. According to “The Power of Moments”, the top 20 percentile of highest performers in any organization are people who are both passionate and have a sense of purpose for what they do. Also, the sense of purpose beats passion to the dust.

What is Purpose

The purpose is the feeling that what we do gives back to the society, that it has meaning beyond being paid or making a profit. The book gives examples of radiologists, lifeguards, and janitors – how a simple motivational effort focused on the impact of their work highly increased their efforts. That’s not hard for lifeguards, they save lives. Radiologists were shown photos of the people whose scans they were reading and that increased their efforts. Chip Heath and Dan Heath managed to find a research on an overperforming hospital janitor who knew that the purpose of his work is to help people recover. He would not only keep the place clean but talk to patients who have no visitors.

What about building entirely for-profit systems like Google Adwords? How would something like that give back to society when it is clearly focused on making shareholders rich and in many ways makes the world a worse place? Or about a project that’s obviously pointless like the infamous “Ship Your Enemies Glitter”?

Cultivating the Sense of Purpose

The Power of Moments suggests that the sense of purpose can be cultivated. This throws the ball for work performance deep into the manager’s field. Books like “Managing Humans” advice to nurture productivity by positive feedback, noticing things, and treating people well. “Radical Candor” is a research in quality of feedback that I found nice. The difference between books like that and the sense of purpose idea is on what’s being communicated and how.

A person knowing the purpose of things can go above and beyond completing a task. A task for a developer is something like “Build a form to collect this and that information”. That developer can end the year thinking of themselves: “I had a good year. I built 23 forms that collect information.” Unfortunately, that point of view is highly unlikely. Building 23 forms is nobody’s dream. To reach a level where any of that makes sense they may need to complete the Five Whys and ask why until purpose is discovered, somewhere far away from the data collection. A software engineer knowing that these 23 forms make education better and help kids have a successful life could suggest a radical 233 forms approach that’s infinitely better 🙂

“The Power of Moments” provides tools in how to share that purpose so that it has an impact on people. For software engineers, it might be as simple as communicating the company’s goals in specially built moments. Think about Elon Musk, a giant hall full of ‘Ship your enemy glitter’ employees, a carefully crafted event for maximum impact on everyone. There’s electricity in the air.

In 2020 we ship glitter to Mars

— Elon Musk

That’s purpose.

Is Purpose Enough

Most certainly, no, neither is passion. The last quotation was not good enough so I found this, to counter everything I wrote above.

By any normal measure, our growth was great, but it quickly became clear it could be a lot better if we operated less like a soccer team of seven-year-olds: all of us chasing the ball, none of us in position.

— Kim Scott. Radical Candor