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Last week, I was awakened from my slumber after reading an interesting passage in Aziz Ansari’s outstanding book Modern Romance, in which he describes how he is “obsessed” with doing research on the internet to find the best place to eat (and best products). I assume that plenty of people also use the internet for the same purpose, which I guess you could say that I knew theoretically, but not in actual practice (until I read the book).
It’s fair to say that I don’t live a very conventional life. Offline, my life is scarcely different than any regular Moldovan – I elbow my way through crowds, I haggle over the price of fresh dill at the market, and I stand in frustrating lines (UK: queues) at the bank just to pay my stupid bills. It’s a world where I use Romanian (and occasionally a few words of the evil Russian language), where nothing is digital, nothing is online, and very few businesses even have websites, or apps, or even appear on Google Maps.
There is no checking Twitter for weather info, no push notifications that my bus is coming, no ordering dinner on an app, no restaurant reviews, and no shopping online whatsoever. Here, it’s cash and pieces of paper with handwriting on them, and English is only used for “cool” nonsense slogans on T-shirts.
But then I arrive home, and plug in to the internet, and suddenly I’m transported to another world, where people do fuss and fight over things like restaurant reviews and which product on Amazon has the most stars. It’s a world built for people like Aziz Ansari, and millions of others just like him.
A lot of people have asked me if I work for the CIA. The answer is most definitely no, I certainly do not work for those scumbags. What I actually do “for a living” can be read about in somewhat more detail here, but if you want the ultra short TLDR version, here it is:
For every 999,999 people who consume content on the internet, 1 person must create it. Although few people know my name, I AM the internet.
Ideally, I’d pen a few articles for the website (the one you’re reading now), and then spend the rest of the time working on my books. I’d take the dog for a lazy walk and then go speak at conferences about semiotics and the intersection of mixed media messages with post-modern values (or other highfalutin stuff like that).
And of course I actually do those things (minus the high-brow conferences) but they don’t really pay the bills. For that, I have to prostitute myself. In some senses, I feel like a Formula 1 driver forced to drive a city bus all day. Yeah, I’m still “behind the wheel” but it’s a real fucking grind sometimes. The funny thing though is there’s still room for some creative “driving”, which is why I am writing this article.
The truth is that some actual geniuses, most of whom live in California, have created a fabulous network (the internet). It’s a little bit like some brilliant architectural and engineering firms building an awesome city. The problem is that it’d be a ghost city without me – almost entirely empty.
If you’re reading this and have bought something online in the past year (whether a physical item, or an app, etc), did you rate it? Did you read a book and review it online? Did you eat out and rate/review the restaurant? Probably not. And if you did, you probably left one comment/review/rating for every 99 times you didn’t. And this creates a vacuum, in which everything from teachers to lawyers have beautiful structures to rate and review their services, but almost no one ever actually uses them. The same goes for books, (non-Hollywood) movies, restaurants, juice machines, snowblowers, and billions of other things, products, and services.
Script kiddies and coders already have stepped into the vacuum to artificially inflate sites like Facebook and Twitter with billions of fake likes, followers, and stars (or hearts, or whatever the “me likey” symbol is). But supremely talented engineers at Google created two products called Penguin and Panda (far less famous than Maps and Gmail) that prevent scripts, so-called “spinning” software, and other computer programs from generating writing that purports to be from humans.
In other words, I can’t blast a restaurant with 50 positive reviews written by a computer because Google’s computers will rapidly sniff out that they were written by a computer. The solution, then, is to hire people like me, part of a dwindling number of people who can actually construct comprehensive and meaningful structures from the byzantine grammar and idiomatic rules of English, and write genuine content. And, for someone like me, who types over 100 words a minute, well…
To give you an idea of the scale of it, on this website (the one you’re reading now) it took me over four years to write 1,000 articles, whereas in the last six months alone, I have written 1,000 fake reviews, academic papers, essays, articles, tips, biographies, pamphlets, pieces of medical advice, analyses, screenplays, letters, CVs (resumes), and advisories. I’d have to be sick in the bed not to pump out at least 3,000 words a day, and on many days it’s far more than that.
I regularly make that shitty Chinese-made plastic product sound like a work of art, and the greasy rice at X restaurant sound like it’s a chef’s masterpiece. I put the shine on a whole lot of turds, and occasionally give some needed sparkle to some otherwise-unlooked great products and works of art.
It’s a weird way of making a living, I admit it, and sometimes particularly grating to know that 99.9% of my work is out there bearing someone else’s name (and it all started long before the internet existed). What’s really interesting though is not my personal story (guy making a few bucks to feed his family, etc) but just how few other people are doing what I do.
At the bottom of the pile are a few thousand foreigners, mostly residents of countries like The Philippines and India, where English is a common second language. These are the “one star” writers who do things like flood newspaper articles with comments (including the infamous Putinbots) and spam up Twitter with odd “on-theme” messages.
In the middle are about 10,000 “standard” English-speakers, mostly American but plenty from Australia, Canada, Jamaica, and the other dozens of countries where English is the predominant tongue. Most of these are educated, and probably quite cohesive when speaking aloud, but in general are lousy writers. These are the people writing articles for most newspapers, blogs, journals, and other “quality” publications, even though their writing is meandering, lazy, and full of cliches, poor punctuation, and slang. It’s good enough for the likes of a New York Times bestselling book (9 out of 10 of which are pieces of crap), Pando article, or a restaurant review.
But at the top are just a hundred or so elite writers, people who actually know how to fucking write. And, just like telegraph operators of old, each with their own distinctive “fist”, I see their work everywhere. We rarely have cause to socialize together, but it’s kind of fun to be in a weird fraternity (or sorority, to be more accurate) that is behind the wheel of the fucking internet itself. Pretty cool!
Whereas there simply aren’t enough readers to make quality writing a profitable business unto itself, it is ironically Google algorithms (Mr. Panda and Mrs. Penguin) that recognize the quality, and bump it up in the search results, which leads to more traffic, and hence to more profitability.
Which is why, after five and a half years of writing about Romania using genuine, high-quality English, that my little jimmy of a blog now comes up so high when a random stranger starts searching for information about Romania. It isn’t that my content is better (it isn’t), but that every last one of my articles was written by me (and not a computer). I started out this blog with a few fun and amusing anecdotes about Romania, and then rapidly dove down the rabbit hole, using Romania as a lampshade to teach myself history and pontificate on issues as diverse as Markov chains and FX margin calls.
If real people determined what was of value on the internet, I’d be rightfully near the bottom of the list (when it comes to Romania) because if you really want to read a fun, tourist-friendly website about Romania, you should visit Bucharest Life instead of sticking around here, reading jeremiads about advertising and uncovering the dirty truths about history. But some engineers at Google determined that quantity plus quality trumps quality (alone), and so it goes.
Philosophers have been debating for centuries over whether or not reality is comprehensible, or just a shared illusion. I can’t answer that question, but I can tell you that the internet is one giant Potemkin village, built by a few serfs like Yours Truly to separate digital consumers and their money.
And the reason I am confessing all of this? Well, it’s because it’s almost the end of the year, and after 5 and a half years of writing here, I’m ready for a big change. I have an idea, and an ambitious plan for this website, and I want all of you to know what’s going on now before we move forward. But you’ll have to wait for the next article to learn the details.