Jul 5, 2023 - Technology

Public web unravels in AI-driven storm

Illustration: Gabriella Turrisi/Axios

The old web is coming apart at the seams faster than efforts to shape a new one can fill the gap.

Driving the news: Over the long holiday weekend, Elon Musk shut down public access to Twitter, requiring users to be logged in to read anything anyone has ever said in the ostensible "global town square." (That access has since been restored, and related rate limits lifted.)

  • In a three-week civil war between Reddit management and volunteer moderators, many of the discussion site's sub-communities have "gone dark," restricting public access in a protest over the company's plan to charge outside developers for access. Those charges kicked in July 1.

Why it matters: Any site that depends on contributions from the public — text messages, product reviews, photo or video uploads — is preparing to be swamped with AI-generated input that will make finding signal in the noise even harder for human users.

  • At the same time, these sites are trying to shut their technical gates so others can't gobble up troves of data for AI models to study.

The big picture: The tech world has built 30 years of growth on the ideals of the open web — but the emergence of ChatGPT and other AI tools trained on this stockpile of human expression, along with a financial downturn that's made firms scramble for revenue, has imperiled the old ideal of the web as a public resource.

The lines of conflict touch nearly every corner of the user-generated internet.

  • The community that maintains Wikipedia is divided over how to deal with the inevitable influx of AI-created contributions.
  • Stack Overflow, the hugely popular coding-help site, banned all AI-generated content in December — then reversed itself in May, leading to a protest by community moderators.
  • Sites dependent on Google search traffic fear that if Google shifts to serving users chat summaries instead of lists of links, their businesses will strangle.

Anything you touch or that touches you in the new AI-saturated online world begs the question, was this made by a human or a machine?

  • Any text or image might be produced by generative AI.
  • Any other user might be an AI facsimile or a bot.
  • The moderators who interpret the rules? That work is also increasingly being handled by AI, particularly on the largest services, like Facebook.

Zoom out: ChatGPT has been with us a little over six months and we've already arrived at this threshold.

  • At this rate, in six years the web is likely to be unrecognizable.

Be smart: Companies want to get paid when their platforms' data is used for AI training.

  • Musk said his move to limit Twitter access was a response to "data pillaging" by other companies aggressively scraping its pages.
  • "The Reddit corpus of data is really valuable ... But we don't need to give all of that value to some of the largest companies in the world for free," Reddit CEO Steve Huffman told the New York Times in April. The company is readying an IPO to sell shares to the public.

Yes, but: Many of the users and volunteer moderators who contributed all that valuable data to these sites are chiming in, too, to say, "Hold on, we created all that value for your company — we should have a say in how it gets used, and maybe a share of the profit."

The other side: Industry optimists see AI as a boon that will transform education with individualized instruction, boost medicine with genetically personalized breakthrough cures, and relieve humanity of drudge work.

The bottom line: Maybe we'll make it to that paradise, but there's likely to be a lot of pain along the way.

  • And whatever happens, the online world is going to end up with less commons and more silos.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to note that Twitter's limits have been lifted.

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