Earlier this year, when BuzzFeed announced plans to start publishing AI-assisted content, its CEO Jonah Peretti promised the tech would be held to a high standard.
"I think that there are two paths for AI in digital media," Peretti told CNN. "One path is the obvious path that a lot of people will do — but it's a depressing path — using the technology for cost savings and spamming out a bunch of SEO articles that are lower quality than what a journalist could do, but a tenth of the cost."
"Even if there are a lot of bad actors who try to use AI to make content farms, it won't win in the long run," he added. "I think the content farm model of AI will feel very depressing and dystopian."
Indeed, the first AI content BuzzFeed published — a series of quizzes that turned user input into customized responses — were an interesting experiment, avoiding many of the missteps that other publishers have made with the tech.
It doesn't seem like that commitment to quality has held up, though. This month, we noticed that with none of the fanfare of Peretti's multiple interviews about the quizzes, BuzzFeed quietly started publishing fully AI-generated articles that are produced by non-editorial staff — and they sound a lot like the content mill model that Peretti had promised to avoid.
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."
Amelia Island, Florida is a "hidden gem of beaches," Carmel-By-The-Sea, California is a "hidden gem of California's coast," West Virginia is a "hidden gem of a state," Saugerties, New York is a "hidden gem where small town charm meets big city cool," Stanley, Idaho is a "hidden gem nestled right in the heart of the Sawtooth Mountains," Brewster, Massachusetts is "Cape Cod's hidden gem," Calistoga, California is a "hidden gem," June Lake, California is a "hidden gem," Mammoth Mountain, California is a "hidden gem," Providence, Rhode Island is a "hidden gem," Charleston, South Carolina is a "hidden gem," Connecticut is a "hidden gem," Aruba is a "hidden gem" and "truly a gem," Prague is a "hidden gem," the Cook Islands are a "hidden gem," Saint Maarten is a "hidden gem," South Dakota is both a "glorious gem of a state" and a "criminally underrated travel gem," Cape May, New Jersey is a "gem worth visiting," Arizona is a "desert gem," Ecuador is an "absolute gem," Bruges, Belgium is a "secret gem," and a "Belgium gem," Montreal, Canada is a "travel gem," and Alberta, Canada is a "Canadian gem." Sevilla, Spain is just a "gem."
If that incredibly hackneyed writing doesn't sound quite up to the standard of BuzzFeed's award-winning staff, there might be a reason for that.
Back when he was announcing the use of AI at BuzzFeed, Peretti told CNN it would be "more personalized, more creative, more dynamic — where really talented people who work at our company are able to use AI together and entertain and personalize more than you could ever do without AI."
"Put more simply," the interview read, "Peretti said he envisions artificial intelligence being used to enhance the work of his employees, not replace them."
While the AI quizzes each carry two bylines — a human journalist in addition to "Buzzy the Robot" — the travel guides are attributed more strangely. The only byline on them is Buzzy, though a note on the top says they were "collaboratively written" with a human employee.
Are those human employees BuzzFeed journalists? No. Instead, they're non-editorial employees who work in domains like client partnerships, account management, and product management.
A BuzzFeed spokesperson told us that the AI-generated pieces are part of an "experiment" the company is doing to see how well its AI writing assistance incorporates statements from non-writers.
The scientific method went as follows, they said. First, BuzzFeed sent an internal questionnaire to staffers outside its editorial departments that asked them what to write about their favorite underrated travel picks. Then the responses were fed into the company's AI software, and the results were published both in a giant listicle masterpost and in individual off-shoot posts.
"We're continuing to experiment with AI to 'enhance human creativity' and are trying new formats that allow anyone (with or without a formal background in writing or content creation) to contribute their ideas and unique perspectives on our site," the spokesperson said. "This new creative tool enables a collaborative writing process in partnership with AI, and a human editor, to unlock the creative potential of UGC [user-generated content] so we can broaden the range of ideas and perspectives that we publish."
"As we iterate, future formats will continue to have built-in ways for humans to be in the loop as co-collaborators and editors," they added.
We asked the spokesperson if the travel guide pieces were advertisements or sponsored content, since many were written by people on that side of the business, and they said they were not.
Perusing the memo Peretti sent to BuzzFeed staffers back in January, it's hard to trace his sunny verbiage to these dismal, SEO-bait travel guides. In it, Peretti also took pains to suggest that human writers wouldn't be replaced, saying instead that AI will work in tandem with "creative humans like us."
"To be clear, we see the breakthroughs in AI opening up a new era of creativity that will allow humans to harness creativity in new ways with endless opportunities and applications for good," Peretti wrote, using the term "creativity" twice in one sentence.
While the quizzes seemed more or less true to that spirit — instead of using AI to generate articles wholesale, they used it as a tool for human staff to produce custom results for readers, which is an interesting idea even if the execution was choppy — these wretched travel guides clearly aren't.
Instead, they read like a proof of concept for exactly the type of content mill Peretti said in January that he was trying to avoid. That dreary reality, combined with the fact that they were produced by non-editorial staff, makes them feel very much like an experiment to see whether AI is already mature enough to replace BuzzFeed's human writers.
But who knows. Maybe there are some hidden gems in the AI's work that we're missing.
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