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March 30, 2023, 1:24 p.m.
Reporting & Production

Are BuzzFeed’s AI-generated travel articles bad in a scary new way — or a familiar old way?

I was Buzzy once.

BuzzFeed said in January that it would start using AI to write quizzes and other content — and now we’re seeing some of what the “other” content might look like.

Specifically, it looks a lot like the SEO-driven, human-written, meh content that you’ll find all over the rest of the internet. As Noor Al-Sibai and Jon Christian reported for Futurism on Thursday:

The 40 or so articles, all of which appear to be SEO-driven travel guides, are comically bland and similar to one another. Check out these almost-copied lines:

  • “Now, I know what you’re thinking – ‘Cape May? What is that, some kind of mayonnaise brand?'” in an article about Cape May, in New Jersey.
  • “Now I know what you’re thinking – ‘but Caribbean destinations are all just crowded resorts, right?'” in an article about St Maarten, in the Caribbean.
  • “Now, I know what you’re thinking. Puerto Rico? Isn’t that where all the cruise ships go?” in an article about San Juan, in Puerto Rico.
  • “Now, I know what you’re thinking- bigger isn’t always better,” in an article about Providence, in Rhode Island.
  • “Now, I know what you’re probably thinking. Nepal? The Himalayas? Haven’t we all heard of that already?” in an article about Khumbu, in Nepal.
  • “Now, I know what you’re probably thinking. “Brewster? Never heard of it,” in an article about Brewster, in Massachusetts.
  • “I know what you’re thinking: isn’t Stockholm that freezing, gloomy city up in the north that nobody cares about?” in an article about Stockholm, in Sweden.

That’s not the bot’s only lazy trope. On review, almost everything the bot has published contains at least one line about a “hidden gem.”

You can see all the articles (THAT WE KNOW OF) here; they’re bylined “As Told to Buzzy,” a winking bow-tied robot with the bio “Articles written with the help of Buzzy the Robot (aka our Creative AI Assistant) but powered by human ideas.” Forty-four of them were published this month.

The articles are pretty bad.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: The concern isn’t that these specific articles are going to win any awards, it’s that AI’s future potential is so great that this is simply the tip of the iceberg and human writers will soon be replaced by a sentient, independent Buzzy.

Maybe. But another way to look at it is that a lot of the human-written content that Buzzy’s articles are competing with are also pretty bad — “essentially human-made AI”:

A BuzzFeed spokesperson told Futurism that the company is using Buzzy + a human editor “to unlock the creative potential of UGC so we can broaden the range of ideas and perspectives that we publish,” with people picking the topics (in this case, specific cities) and Buzzy doing the, um, generating.

It’s not that different from a freelance assignment I did in my twenties: A human editor assigned me to write some articles about the promise of 5G — a topic about which I knew nothing — and I googled 5G, read other content mill-ish articles about it, and compiled them into my “own” article. The content I created wasn’t really meant to be read by humans who actually needed to know anything about 5G, in the same way that anybody who is planning a trip to Morocco probably shouldn’t get their recommendations from Buzzy. (Its recommendations are: Go to Marrakesh, the mountains, and the desert. It’s far away. Bye!)

In the 5G case, I was basically Buzzy, except I was getting paid. Buzzy works for free. You know, for now.

Laura Hazard Owen is the editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (laura_owen@harvard.edu) or Twitter DM (@laurahazardowen).
POSTED     March 30, 2023, 1:24 p.m.
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