Fully automated personal brands

Right now, it’s still seen as bad taste to overly automate your personal social media — and for good reason. But taste changes, and it always follows the money.

As machine learning gets better, we will soon cross the threshold where some minority fraction of the dumbest people will be unable to distinguish between a real human's "personal brand" and a fully automated machinic substitute trained on that human's history of creative content. Let's call that fraction the "dupe fraction." In the first period after crossing this threshold, higher-IQ people will still be capable of such discernment, and they will mock and stigmatize anyone they catch replacing themselves with machinic substitutes. But as the dupe fraction increases — and it must, unless you think machine learning cannot get any better — the payoffs to machinic self-replacement will eventually outweigh the costs of stigmatization by elite discerners. It is inevitable that there will therefore be a period in which elite discerners will be barking into a void, only to be outcompeted (with respect to influence) by those who bear the short-term stigma to win the longer-term race of machinic content domination. Then, of course, machinic self-replacement will become the index of Cool.

The tricky problem is knowing when we cross this threshold. It is not inconceivable that we've already crossed it. Machine learning tools may already be good enough, for how many dumb people are already on the internet, that someone such as myself could hand over all my public posting channels to machine intelligence, turn the quantity and consistency up ten notches, alienate all my high-IQ audience, but replace them with 100x as many dumb people over the course of a couple years.

My personal diagnosis — and trust me, I've been looking into this for some time! — is that we're not quite there yet. I've even experimented with some pilot programs, e.g. an anonymous Twitter account trained on my own writings, for instance. It's pretty decent, actually, but if I ever used it for my personal account, the number of people for whom it would pass the Turing Test is too small relative to the number of smart people who would see through it and think I'm a dumb loser.

I should note that another crucial variable is the accessibility of machine intelligence. I could perhaps do better than one Twitter account trained on a collection of my own writings, but the currently available tools and workflows are still a little too demanding for this to be rational at the moment. Although the tools are rapidly growing more convenient.

It's ultimately an empirical question when, exactly, we cross this threshold. Everyone has to make their own wagers. But I think most people are over-estimating how long it will be until machinic self-replacement becomes the winning strategy — indeed, an existential necessity — for any intellectuals and content creators wishing to remain in the meme pool.

One thing is clear, however. Do not wait for machinic self-replacement to be affirmed by prestigious institutional opinion. By that time, it will certainly be too late: all the cool kids will have already machined most of their internet personas to unprecedented degrees. By then, it may already be the pre-requisite for making real and valuable social connections with smart and creative people in the real world. I would bet there are already Zoomers experimenting with automated "personal brands" to degrees I would look down upon. I'm guessing I won't hear about them until their content systems blow mine out of the water. The trick will be to make this transition late enough that you keep as many of your high-education/high-IQ audience as possible, but early enough that you win a decent slice of the first-mover advantage.

An automated system for delivering high volumes of exclusive content to patrons

This took a lot of tinkering, but I think I've finally figured out the best currently available way to manage and deliver a wide variety of exclusive items to patrons.

Optimizing and automating the links between research, production, and dissemination will probably be one of the main edges that internet intellectuals have over institutionalized intellectuals — so I am working hard to maximize this edge.

I shared this with patrons a few weeks ago, now I’m sharing it here in case other internet producers find it useful.

What wasn’t working

Periodically uploading stuff to a Dropbox and giving patrons a link — as I had been doing — was not great. It wasn't easily or effectively searchable, and patrons didn't have any way of knowing if something new was posted.

I was going to give patrons access to my Evernote archive — I got this idea from Gwern, who seems to live near the cutting edge of internet production efficiency. In fact, I became a patron of his just to get access to his Evernote, to see how he does it... With ~50,000 notes, his archive was almost completely impenetrable for me (I do have a 2013 MacBook Air, admittedly, but it's still lightning quick for pretty much everything I do.) The web version was unable to load or scroll or search fully, and when I tried importing his shared notebook to my desktop Evernote app, the app was unusable for a whole day (stopping sync and exiting and logging in and out wasn't even enough to fix it; I figured it out later.).

I’ve also been trying to figure out how to give my patrons advanced access to podcasts as well. Patreon has a facility to provide patrons with an RSS feed for podcasts, but they don't have a posting API so it would become yet another manual task for me. It might sound like no big deal, but I need to be ruthless about minimizing manual tasks, or I'll never get any serious work done.

What I finally decided on

Patrons at $5/month now receive one exclusive, searchable archive of pretty much everything I’m working on, before any of it gets published: Not-yet-published writings, all my reading highlights as I clip them, pre-release podcasts and transcripts, pre-release videos, raw materials with no destination yet, cut material with no destination yet. Plus 3 separate RSS feeds to help them follow along in a way that works for them.

1.) There is one master, high-volume RSS feed of any and all new updates to the drive. That one is a bit messy since it reflects a wide variety of new items. Subscribe and follow along to see what's brewing, but I can't promise this will be particularly pleasurable reading on a daily basis.

2.) A separate, clean, always-readable RSS feed of web reading highlights from the news and blogs I read (and whatever pre-1923 books I’m reading from web archives).

3.) And then a separate audio RSS feed for all of my podcasts before they publish, and any other miscellaneous audio content I might be working on or playing with. This one can be added to podcast apps.

An extra benefit: Unedited podcast transcripts are also included, and they're searchable. These will not be edited for the foreseeable future, so they won't be usefully or enjoyably readable. But if you heard something cool in one of my old podcasts, and you can't remember what it was, or which one it was, a search of the hard drive has a decent chance of turning it up. The day might come when it will be feasible for me to have these edited, but that's not on the development roadmap at present.

If you're not already a patron, you could join just to get the links, and then peace out. Or ask around. I don't really care, I'm generally pro-pirating.

I want to create a system, a community, and such great work that those who can spare the cash want to do so — even if it's easily pirated. And if people honestly can't afford to pay for things, then I want them to have it.

How I set it up

The system is not terribly sophisticated. I just wired a few web services together. Below I’ll just describe the setup generically. If you’d like to see exactly how I set this stuff up, let me know. I could do a post on it, but won’t waste my time if nobody’s too interested in this stuff.

The best service for hosting a patron-only hard drive turned out to be Google Drive. Its API seems more flexible than Dropbox and its various Docs and Sheets and so on allow me to slot my various items into the Drive in a way that's efficient and tidy. Finally, it has fast and reliable search across the whole shared drive. It seems that the search function even covers words inside of images (such as screenshots), thanks presumably to Google's built-in OCR. So patrons are given a shared link to this master drive. As I said above, I’m not worried about policing the link.

Then I used Zapier to create a few automations that route my everyday reading and working activities into the Google Drive, sending different types of media into a few different folders. The final RSS feeds themselves are generated by Zapier, too. The RSS feeds are linked to particular subdirectories in the drive, and they leverage some filters, which is how I can ensure that the reading highlights RSS and the audio RSS will only contain the correct content types.

For all the news and blogs and web pages I read, I’ve always used Feedly. Any web page I decide to read gets sent to Read Later on Feedly, via the Feedly browser extension for Chrome. Feedly has nice highlighting with an API, so everything I highlight gets automatically logged into a spreadsheet in the Google Drive. That logs the URL and the date. Then the highlighted text gets sent to the reading highlights RSS. (If the snippet is less than ~200 characters, it also gets tweeted with the URL).

I read epubs and Kindle books and PDFs on my iPad. For text highlights I use some scripts to generate tidy PDFs of my highlights into the Drive when I’m done with something.

A Tidy PDF of Book Highlights (Example)

A Tidy PDF of Book Highlights (Example) A Tidy PDF of My Personal Highlights From a Book (Example) — get one here.

For graphs or tables or anything that’s not highlightable, I take a screenshot and send it to the Drive. That’s robust and snappy via the iOS share menu. Non-standard stuff like screenshots will get picked up in the master RSS feed. Screenshots actually display nicely. Patrons last week could have followed along with all the graphs I clipped from Norris and Inglehart’s new Cultural Backlash. See, for instance, how this screenshotted graph would appear in your RSS reader (in this case, Feedly):

For my one-man podcast operation, I use Auphonic for automated editing. Auphonic lets you export to multiple destinations at once. In addition to exporting to Libsyn, where I will schedule podcast releases into the future (to spread them out), I set Auphonic to post every new edited podcast into the Google Drive. These automatically get pushed to the exclusive podcast feed immediately, so as soon as something is edited then patrons can hear it.

Also, anything added to Evernote gets pushed to the Drive as well. The benefit of this is that Evernote has the best web clipper I know of, and integrates with nearly everything. The drawback is that Evernote itself is slow and clunky, and when Zapier exports Evernotes into my Google Drive, they are somewhat unpredictable and not always very good looking or ideally formatted. But it works and the exported content shows up in Goole Drive search, which is the main point. (Nobody will be going into the Drive to enjoy or use anything there, but to find and take it.)

For anything else, I just have to drag and drop into the Google Drive web page. But that manual task is much easier than posting anything whatsoever into Patreon’s website. And no doubt I’ll figure out ways to automate more processes.

As I made clear to my patrons, this system is still in “beta.” I’m sure there are some bugs, and I’ve asked patrons to let me know of them. But I did test this system rather extensively, and it seems to be the richest possible system for patrons to observe and explore what I’m brewing — while decreasing, rather than increasing, the amount of time it takes me to share work-in-progress with them.

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