Last week I attended the Brighton SEO conference, which was basically a gathering of people who work in Search Engine Optimisation, online marketing, web content creation and PR (with the odd journalist thrown in for good measure). Amongst the inspiring talks during the day, a particular statistic from Philip Sheldrake’s Future SEO Vistas discussion really stood out for me. What he calls ‘machined media’ involves online content being written by non-humans – yup, computers, machines, robots, whatever you want to call these things, are producing articles. Scary stuff.
As a journalist myself, and being a bit of a skeptic, I couldn’t help feeling daunted by this development, particularly when it turns out that plenty of Olympic pieces on the BBC will have been written without the human touch. Apparently one standard procedure is for one lucky homo sapien to add in some chunks of emotive language where they’re needed and give the words some edge, but otherwise it’s up to the machine. With the sheer size of sports coverage required during the Olympics or, in Sheldrake’s other example of football reportage, it does seem sensible to have a reliable source of facts and figures to try and avoid clumsy mistakes, but there is something undeniably soulless about this practice that deserves mentioning.
Of course, it’s not just the Beeb using this initiative or a similar one, and Sheldrake points out that Twitter’s trending topics are gathered in the same way. But I think there’s something radically different between knowing that yet another Justin Bieber hashtag is in demand and writing a detailed football report with insight into the match, the team spirit and the juicy highlights, such as when someone nearly scored a goal but it didn’t quite materialise. I really do believe that instances such as this deserve a little more care and attention, for the sake of the readers.
Perhaps it’s because the BBC is regarded as a friendly, welcoming face in the public eye – its nickname is Auntie – and not a cluster of circuit boards that this feels wrong; perhaps it’s because the whole institution is founded on journalism and entertainment and not the latest lazy shortcut to cracking out the headlines. Call me crazy, but perhaps it’s because I remember the state of unemployment in this country and the fact that there are media-savvy people with reporting skills and a willingness to learn and they’re crying out for jobs, internships or freelance positions, but Auntie would rather add a non-human to the team. Either way, I can safely say that this progression doesn’t seem like a giant leap forward, more like a slight shift sideways.
What do you think about machined media? And would you like organisations to be more transparent about using it? Let me know.