🆕 Never Post! Looking For Love In All The Wrong Places

Friends! A new episode for you, and it is out! What luck! You can listen on the website, or your podcatcher. Members! An ad free version awaits in your feed.

This week, Georgia digs deep into the enshittification of dating apps, and pays dearly as a result. Mike talks to Aftermath co-founder Luke Plunkett about recent, massive changes to Google’s Page Rank algorithm, and the risk of reconfiguring entire industries to pander to search traffic. And also: An AI Voice Clone of Mike is set to *maximum chaos*. 



Intro Links



Dating Apps (derogatory)



Google Scruples



Never Post’s producers are Audrey Evans, Georgia Hampton and The Mysterious Dr. Firstname Lastname. Our senior producer is Hans Buetow. Our executive producer is Jason Oberholtzer. The show’s host is Mike Rugnetta. 

Foot, how you press 

me to keep that 

old contact alive

the repeated daily sentiment 

of pace so 

grim, always that

untrusting silence

untitled, by JH Prynne, from The White Stones

Never Post is a production of Charts & Leisure

Episode Transcript

TX A

Mike Rugnetta:

Friends, hello, and welcome to Never Post. A podcast about and for the Internet. I'm your host Mike Rugnetta. This intro was written on Tuesday, May 21, 2024 at 11:54 AM. And we have a stupendous show for you this week.

Mike Rugnetta:

Georgia digs deep into the world of dating app and shitification and pays dearly as a result. Then I talk with former Kotaku senior editor and Aftermath cofounder Luke Plunkett about the stranglehold Google has on the news and publishing industries, how their recent SEO changes impact even some of the biggest names on the web, and what happens when you design your whole business around the whims of 1 tech company. But first, let's talk about some of the things that have happened since the last time you heard from us. I have 5, count them 5, stories for you. Sexy picture poster Belle Delphine finally revealed what happened with all that bathwater.

Mike Rugnetta:

Back in 2019, Delphine made a splash when she said she would be selling her own authentic gamer girl bathwater for $30 a dram. What she didn't reveal until May 6th of this year is that PayPal froze her account as a result, finding her $25100 per liquid transaction for some unstated toss violation. Delphine ended up out $90,000. That is until she tweeted about the saga this month. The tweet went viral, and within weeks, her account was reinstated and PayPal had returned the 90 k.

Mike Rugnetta:

Delphine claims everyone who paid for bathwater did receive some. Read more about this from Katie Nootopoulos at Business Insider. Link in the show notes. Slack is using instance data to train its AI products. Cloud economist Corey Quinn noticed the Slack privacy principles document had been updated to include a section that reads, to develop AI slash ML models, our systems analyze customer data, e g messages, content, and files submitted to Slack, as well as other information, including usage information, as defined in our privacy policy and in your customer agreement.

Mike Rugnetta:

This, of course, raised concern. Slack responded in a blog post saying that workspace info isn't used to train their generative AI products, those rely on existing LLMs, but rather for things like, quote, channel and emoji recommendations and search results. Slack's traditional ML models use de identified aggregate data and do not access message content in DM's, private channels, or public channels. Still, as everyone's patience for having everything they type in every box across the Internet turned into fodder for various AI concerns run by companies which are shady at best, a suggestion arose. How about not this?

Mike Rugnetta:

Slack made it clear that one could opt out of the data collection process by having the workspace owner send them an email. So I guess, go ahead and bring that up at the next all hands. Your boss has gotta send Slack an email. Read more about this from Will Shanklin at Engadget. Link in the show notes.

Mike Rugnetta:

In other AI news, on the heels of their yearly developer conference IO, Google unveiled AI overviews, auto generated responses to user queries, which in theory don't require further clicking or scrolling or really doing what could pretty fairly be described as using the Internet, in some sense, to get answers to your search query. Google head of search Liz Reid said, people's time is valuable. Right? If you have an opportunity with technology to help people get answers to their questions, to take more of the work out of it, why wouldn't we go after that? Lauren Good, writing for Wired, called this the end of Google search as we know it.

Mike Rugnetta:

We'll talk more about this later in this very episode in our segment with Luke. Uber and Lyft will remain in the Twin Cities. Max Nesterach, who you'll remember from our car talk episode, reports that the 2 rideshare apps and the state of Minnesota have reached an agreement which, quote, raises wages for drivers by 20%, increases insurance coverage for drivers injured on the job, and provides protections against unfair deactivation. Starting January 1, 2025, Max continues, the bill will entitle drivers to at least $1.28 per mile and 31¢ per minute, which is within the general range of rates needed to ensure Twin Cities drivers earn the Minneapolis minimum wage of $15.57 per hour after accounting for their vehicle expenses and payroll taxes. Uber complains that these new regulations will pass increased cost onto the consumer, but they'll continue to operate in the area regardless.

Mike Rugnetta:

The bill also preempts municipal regulations, meaning individual cities can no longer pass laws regulating ride shares in similar ways. Critics see this as undue deference to corporate tech. Read more from Max at the Minnesota reformer. And finally, today, May 21st, 2024, IGN announced it would be buying the gamer network, home to such sites as gameindustry.biz, Eurogamer, Rock Paper Shotgun, VG 247, Dice breaker, and others. Christopher Dring at gameindustry.biz reports that some redundancies have been made across the UK based organization.

Mike Rugnetta:

Game Central atmetro.co.uk says there have been reports of, quote, instant layoffs. Quote, there is one simple reason why major acquisitions should never be celebrated, they write. Consolidation. There are dozens of reasons why larger companies swallowing up smaller ones is bad for consumers, but the reason they're bad for employees is that they always lead to layoffs due to job duplication and an immediate need to cut costs after the purchase itself. In show news, Neverpost will be performing its first ever live show at the last ever XOXO Festival in Portland, Oregon this summer.

Mike Rugnetta:

The festival runs from the 22nd to 24th August, and very appropriately, we will be part of an event called the XOXO Sideshow. XOXO is one of my favorite events of all time. I've been to most of them. So this is really, really exciting to get to do this show at the last one. I'm I'm just beyond thrilled.

Mike Rugnetta:

I hope we get to see a bunch of you there. XOXO, if you don't know, it's a very limited capacity event. So they release passes based on a lottery system. Entry into which closes on May 29th at 3 PM Eastern. So if you want in, go and enter into the lottery.

Mike Rugnetta:

Hope you get picked and then hope I get to see you there. It is gonna be incredible. Never post was also included on Lifehacker's recent list of the top 12 podcasts of 2024 so far. So that is incredibly nice and very exciting. We work just impossibly hard on the show.

Mike Rugnetta:

So it's really nice to get a little shout out. We'll put a link to that in the show notes. You can also hear me on the May 6th episode of the podcast, Blocked Party. Where I chat with Stefan and John about fast food chains. The best place for a gorilla DJ set, how and why my Twitter feed is full of Donald Trump merch, and I ask everyone what their favorite top three post of all time are.

Mike Rugnetta:

That is blocked party wherever you get your podcasts. Okay. Let's get the rest of the show on the show road. 1st, this episode, we're gonna hear from Georgia reporting from the wilds of the land of dating apps. But 0eth Hans trained an AI model of my voice with my permission.

Mike Rugnetta:

And while he usually uses it to make our members only sleep aid podcast slow post, in our interstitials this week, he turns all the knobs up to 11 to see what kind of nonsense he can get it to spew.

AI Mike:

This is the sound of AI Mike. All of the dials have been turned as low and neutral as possible. Now the dial for variability has been turned as high as possible. There was a warning that going under 30% may lead to instability. This is with the dial for style exaggeration maxed out, despite the warning that going over 50% may lead to instability.

AI Mike:

We are now at 11. Style exaggeration is at the upper limit. You know, any variability is at the upper limit. Okay. We have multiple warnings in play where this may be unstable.

AI Mike:

I saw AI Mike. I mean, maybe unstable. I am unstable. I am unstable.

Ad: Bobby Finger:

I'm Bobby Finger.

Ad: Lindsay Webber:

And I'm Lindsay Webber.

Ad: Bobby Finger:

Do you ever see a new face or name on your news feeds and say, who the heck is that?

Ad: Lindsay Webber:

Our podcast, Who Weekly, is everything you need to know about the celebrities you don't. Think of us as your cheat code to People Magazine, your glossary for Hollywood, a shortcut to understanding pop culture at large.

Ad: Bobby Finger:

For the past 8 years, Who Weekly has been telling listeners everything they need to know about the celebrities they don't. The New Yorker says we spelunk deep into the demimonde with convivial delight. That's a direct quote.

Ad: Lindsay Webber:

Mostly, we're gonna explain to you Irish star Barry Keoghan's sudden rise to fame and relationship with a not so under the radar pop princess named Sabrina.

Ad: Bobby Finger:

The fake wedding Real Housewives star Cynthia Bailey had to promote a limo rental company.

Ad: Lindsay Webber:

And why all the Gen z ers you know are talking about a guy named Benson Boone.

Ad: Bobby Finger:

Each episode goes deep into the biggest celebrity stories of the moment. And if you're still confused, we even have a weekly call in episode where we answer the most burning hulebrity queries.

Ad: Lindsay Webber:

Huweekly airs twice weekly with brand new episodes on Tuesdays Fridays. Listen and follow HU Weekly, an Odysee podcast available now for free on the Odysee app and wherever you get your podcasts.

Georgia Hampton:

Oh my god. Okay. I just I, I just got an email. Let me April 28th from the Hinge team with the subject heading, Your account has been removed. Oh, no.

Georgia Hampton:

I never get a chance to do this, so you'll have to forgive me, but yep. That's me. I bet you're wondering how I got here. Okay. I'm gonna read what it says.

Georgia Hampton:

Hi, Georgia. Your account was banned for violating 1 or more of our policies. Click here to log in to Hinge where you can learn more about why you were banned and how to appeal if that information is available to you. Okay. We're gonna click.

Georgia Hampton:

Okay. It says I violated their policy on promotion, advertising, and solicitation. Okay. Okay. I can appeal.

Georgia Hampton:

I can appeal. We're gonna appeal. Well, it it'll be fine. Right? It'll be fine.

Georgia Hampton:

I'll just appeal and say, it's for a podcast. I'm a journalist, please. So I've wanted to write a story about dating apps for a long time. More specifically, I wanted to write a story about Hinge. Compared to the other big name apps like Tinder and Bumble, Hinge takes itself a lot more seriously as a kind of dating CV.

Georgia Hampton:

The design of your profile almost looks like a resume. It's the LinkedIn of dating apps. In addition to adding photos and basic information about yourself, you also have to respond to a few premade prompts. Unlike Tinder, which offers similar options, on Hinge, there's no choice.

Prompt Voice:

What I order for the table.

Georgia Hampton:

Oysters.

Prompt Voice:

If loving this is wrong, I don't wanna be right.

Georgia Hampton:

The 2004 movie version of The Phantom of the Opera.

Prompt Voice:

A quick rant about

Georgia Hampton:

Okay. We actually don't have time for that, but you get the idea. Hinge makes it clear. It is the one in the driver's seat. On the free version of the app, you can like 8 people per day.

Georgia Hampton:

Over time, the app's algorithm gathers your best matches into a section called standouts. You send standouts a rose instead of a like, but unless you want to pay for premium, you can only send 1 rose per week, leaving the rest of your best matches in what some people call Rose Jail. This pay to play model is not new and it's not unique to Hinge, but on this app, the strings ambulating the puppet are especially visible. While using Hinge, it's extremely clear that you're really at its mercy. But there's another part of the hinge prompt experience that complicates this idea.

Georgia Hampton:

Since 2021, Hinge has offered something called voice prompts. Instead of typing a response, you record a clip of your own voice, and this feature quickly became popular off the app, specifically on TikTok. There, you can find countless videos that compile outrageous voice prompt responses such as

Prompt Voice:

My best celebrity impression.

Georgia Hampton:

Link from Zelda.

Ad: Lindsay Webber:

Hi. Yeah. Yeah.

Georgia Hampton:

Or

Prompt Voice:

Proof that I have musical talent.

Georgia Hampton:

As this trend continued to grow on TikTok, a subgenre began to emerge. And in these videos, a woman will record her friend who has some guy's hinge profile pulled up on her phone. She'll hit play on the audio and the camera will pan up to the woman herself, and we'll see that she's lip syncing.

Tiktok Clip:

Alright. So, like, I have this thing with pickles. Okay? I hate pickles. Absolutely despise pickles.

Tiktok Clip:

Always have, always will.

Georgia Hampton:

Here, a woman's lip syncing to a guy's audio response to the hinge prompt, the one thing you should know about me is. She's drawn on a fake mustache, and she's wearing a backwards hat.

Tiktok Clip:

Like if I go to McDonald's, and I'm like, hey, I want a burger plain, no pickle.

Georgia Hampton:

Now she's delivering these lines outside standing in front of the McDonald's drive thru menu.

Tiktok Clip:

And they put pickle on it anyway.

Georgia Hampton:

Now she's in a car showing the camera a burger with pickles still on it. She slams the bun down looking dejected.

Tiktok Clip:

I can't eat the burger.

Georgia Hampton:

Searching hinge audio prompt will get you a cavalcade of videos just like this. Sometimes, it's these lip syncing clips or it's just a recording of someone's phone as they play prompts directly from some guy's profile. You can see his name, his photos, everything as he tries to stick some kind of humorous landing on the prompt.

Prompt Voice:

Biggest risk I've taken.

AI Mike:

I'm about to jump into the world's largest blender. It will be the greatest thrill of my life.

Georgia Hampton:

Now, I love this trend. I think it's hilarious, but it also points to a larger tension. Hinge advertises itself as your digital wingman, giving you all the tools to find your perfect match, but it also works extremely hard to keep you siloed in this hyper individualized algorithmic space where you send only so many roses and can like only so many people. It's technically social media, but antisocial in a very essential way. You have a literal cap on how many people you can interact with and you only interact with them 1 by 1, but, and here's another tension, these audio prompt memes are very social off the app.

Georgia Hampton:

And when they leave Hinge, these clips become something different. They aren't a useful tool for sussing out someone's personality. They're hokey and goofy and decidedly unserious. They're jokes. Hey.

Georgia Hampton:

Thanks for stopping by. Here's some background music while you look at my profile. I'm not interested in deciding whether or not Hinge is good or whether it works, but I did want to hear more about how people felt about this tension between private and public, So I decided to go the investigative route. What I'm saying is I downloaded Hinge.

Prompt Voice:

Downloading.

Georgia Hampton:

I included real photos of myself, real information about my height and where I live, but when I responded to the prompt

Prompt Voice:

I'm looking for blank.

Georgia Hampton:

I said that I was looking for information for this segment. I ignored Hinge's prompts. I wrote, how private do you think your Hinge is? Who do you expect will see it? Just your matches, their friends, all of the Internet, and so on.

Georgia Hampton:

I finished my profile Online.

Ad: Bobby Finger:

And

Georgia Hampton:

waited. When you make a hinge profile, the algorithm places you front and center. You get a lot of attention, and sure enough, in the 1st day, I received 40 likes. Most of them were people who liked my pictures without any message or sent me something like, you have a beautiful smile, or did it hurt when you fell from heaven? But as I continued to use the app, I also got some fascinating responses.

Georgia Hampton:

Turns out, lots of people want to talk about their complicated relationship to dating apps even while using them. Some people messaged me saying they assumed anything they published online, even on a dating app, could be seen by anyone. Others felt the opposite and told me they sincerely hoped that no one would share their profile or their messages, but everyone seemed to know it was a possibility. These conversations also often ballooned into discussions about how weird it is to navigate Hinge, period. One guy told me he'd been on the app for 2 years and gone on 50 individual dates.

Georgia Hampton:

Not that he was bragging as he was quick to say. Another person admitted he often uses it for a quick serotonin boost from someone matching with him. Here's an especially interesting response I got, which was shared with me with permission to publish it in this segment. Here, they're talking about the structure of hinge prompts.

Hinge User:

We're all sort of made to fit into the responses to these questions or into the responses of not even what we think the other person might like, but what we feel the app might like so that we have a greater chance quote unquote of getting a match and then hopefully, like, that leading into something else.

Georgia Hampton:

This is very similar to something that authors authors Carolina Bandinelli and Alessandro Giannini write about in their research article, dating apps, the uncertainty of marketized love. They explained that contemporary dating often does away with the old school processes of finding a partner through institutions or social communities and instead has the individual be responsible for all elements of the process which they align with the larger concept of negative freedom. Bandinelli and Gandini go on to say that dating apps present themselves as solutions to this problem, writing, dating apps promise to operate a rationalization of intimacy, subduing the mystery of romantic alchemy to the scientific work of data. But by doing this, the authors argue that dating apps basically reproduce the very problem they claim to be solving, A dating landscape where the abundance of individual choice is valued more than actual connection between people. As I started to talk to people, I found a lot of responses that basically gestured toward this problem.

Georgia Hampton:

The general consensus was that folks saw how the app limited them, didn't especially like it, but sort of begrudgingly used it in the hopes that something good came out of it anyway, a date, a hookup, or being part of a funny TikTok.

Ad: Lindsay Webber:

Footage for the new update, and wow.

Tiktok Clip:

Daddy. No. It's it's just it's just Jacob. I'm sorry about that. I got ex

Tiktok Clip:

I got excited. I was just trying I'm just fuck.

Georgia Hampton:

Almost all of the conversations I had on Hinge were about a general dissatisfaction with dating apps, but I have to say, I was having the time of my life. I regularly refer to myself as being allergic to dating apps. It's hard to motivate myself to talk to anyone, and when I do, the conversation feels stilted because all I have is this cheat sheet of pithy factoids about this person. It never feels real, and the idea of actually meeting up with any of these people feels nuts. Like, am I gonna meet up with did it hurt when it fell from heaven guy?

Tiktok Clip:

Username denied.

Georgia Hampton:

But reporting on this piece, I was having these fabulous conversations. The people who matched with me were not shy. I'd get these walls of text from people wanting to talk about Hinge and Tinder and apps and dating. It dissolved the artifice that I struggle with dragging my feet through digital small talk with strangers. I feel like I had broken out of the dating app CV template.

Georgia Hampton:

Suddenly, it felt like I was talking to real people who wanted to talk to me too. Maybe I'd finally figured out how to use dating apps in the way that felt good to me, but Hinge did not like that. When we started, I had just gotten the initial email saying I was in violation of their policy on solicitation. I had explicitly said I was looking for information for a segment I was writing. But, mind you, the second they banned my account, all of the conversations I had, the audio clips people had sent me, they were instantly gone.

Georgia Hampton:

I had one one chance to appeal my ban. So I wrote a whole thing explaining that I'm a journalist. I'm not paying anyone for information. It was just research. And well, if you wanted a happy ending to this, I have bad news for you.

Georgia Hampton:

Okay. I just just got the email notification. I saw it was from Hinge. Hinge trust and safety team, your appeal decision. Team your appeal request and confirmed that you are in violation of our terms of service and our community guidelines.

Georgia Hampton:

Therefore, this is in all bold, therefore, your account will remain banned. This decision is informed and final and subsequent appeals will not be considered. Okay. Let me look something up. Find banned on Hinge and my banned on Tinder.

Georgia Hampton:

A ban on one platform means an automatic ban on the other because Match Group owns Tinder and Hinge. And if I'm banned on Hinge, I'm banned on Tinder. Well, that's a wrap, I guess. Damn. They got me.

Georgia Hampton:

I had been catapulted out of the walled garden forever. There is a hilarious irony here, of course. The app that locks you out of building relationships locked me out for the rest of my life. Suddenly, I didn't even have the option of canceling on Hinge dates anymore. That was it.

Georgia Hampton:

But it also came to me as a genuine tragedy. The second I started having fun, started thinking, maybe I actually don't mind this. That is when daddy dating apps told me, no, not like this. Match Group decided I am no longer allowed to participate in the modern experience of dating because I was doing it wrong. I guess I'll just take my wares elsewhere.

Georgia Hampton:

If you see me out and about waving a handkerchief going, Yoo hoo, mind your damn business. There's a lot more I could say about this, but for now, I'm interested to hear about your experiences with the structure of dating apps. How do they work for you or against you? Have you been banned from the apps? Send us an email.

Georgia Hampton:

Leave us a voicemail. The different ways you can contact us are in the show notes. And, I guess, see you in the real world.

AI Mike:

In early youth, as we contemplate our coming life, We are like children in a theater before the curtain is raised, sitting there in high spirits and eagerly waiting for the play to begin. It is a blessing that we do not know what is really going to happen. Could we foresee it?

AI Mike:

There were there were there were there were they and I are

AI Mike:

to life, and as an as yet all unconscious of what their sentence means. Nevertheless, every man desires to reach old age as.

AI Mike:

In other words,

AI Mike:

It is bad today. And it will be worse tomorrow. And so on, till the worst of all. Arthur Schopenhauer, studies in pessimism.

Mike Rugnetta:

The decline in quality of Google search is an oft discussed topic at this point and it should be. Search has become something of the fundamental paradigm of the Internet. It's how we find the music we wanna listen to, the shows we wanna watch, It's how we find our friends. How we find the thing that we saw that we want to show our friends. It's how a lot of us get our news.

Mike Rugnetta:

We go to the search bar, probably the Google search bar, and type in whatever thing we've heard about that we wanna be informed on. Press enter, and we see what relevant stories rise to the top of the results. So I suppose it makes sense that the news industry, and really publishing as a whole, has worked really hard over the last decades to be in the top of those results. Major publishers and indies alike spend untold resources, financial, emotional, to tailor content to get it to the top of Google's rankings. To get clicks.

Mike Rugnetta:

To get eyeballs on ads. To pay their bills and their payrolls. So what happens when Google changes how things are ranked? When it becomes less and less obvious how to get the search giant to show you what you've asked for. What happens when it changes the outcome of search, the fundamental operation of its website so much that people get everything they need to know on Google.

Mike Rugnetta:

And they never even have to visit another website. A few of these recent massive changes to the way Google works, made me wanna talk to someone who's seen the effects of this up close, and more than once. Google is always changing things. But this time, is it any different? So I reached out to Luke Plunkett.

Mike Rugnetta:

Joining me is Luke Plunkett, cofounder of the video game, media, and Internet culture website, Aftermath. Previously, Luke spent 17 years at video game news site, Kotaku, where he worked as senior editor when he left in 2023. Luke is also the cowriter of the book Cosplay World and cocreator of the aviation themed card game, The Great Air Race. Luke, thank you very much for joining us.

Luke Plunkett:

Thanks for having me, Mike. It's a pleasure to be here.

Mike Rugnetta:

Yeah. Of course. The reason I wanted to chat with you is because of your experience both working for Kotaku and now being a co owner of the video game site Aftermath. And to get us started, I was wondering if you could just take us through what the relationship has been previous to now between news sites and Google traffic. Like, how much does a Kotaku an Aftermath back in March, you did this huge piece for Aftermath about the gaming news site, Gamers.

Mike Rugnetta:

Like, how much do these places rely on Google? For what and why?

Luke Plunkett:

These days, it's a lot. I I was at Kentucky for 17 years. I think that's what you said. Sounds about right. And over that time, the the reliance on turning up in a Google search sort of ebbed and flowed.

Luke Plunkett:

There there were times where the sort of advent of social media sort of made blowing up on Facebook more important than turning up on a Google search result and and and that sort of stuff. But as of sort of the last few years, yeah, for a lot of websites and for a lot of companies that own websites in particular, and that's an important distinction to make, appearing prominently in some form of Google search result or some form of Google news algorithm is the absolute number one thing that company is looking for beyond anything else. Like, literally anything else.

Mike Rugnetta:

So when you say a company that owns a website versus a website, you're talking about the distinction between, say, a Kotaku and, like, parent company that is Yes. Writing checks.

Luke Plunkett:

Absolutely. Staff who sort of work in the field and are experienced journalists or editors know what works in terms of journalism and entertainment and criticism and stuff like that, and then you get the people who own those websites are only interested in making money and getting the page views that make that money. That's why you notice more and more websites these days are pushing more and more towards focusing almost their entire output on SEO, or search engine optimization, which waking up every morning and just working out what people were punching into Google or what Google was looking for in its algorithm and then just tailoring the things they actually sort of researched and wrote about towards that instead of what they felt was important or what they felt their readers might want or what they thought might be interesting.

Mike Rugnetta:

How did we get to that point? Is is it that there is not a strong enough readership for these sites to, sustain themselves based upon regular readers? Is it that the cost of running these things is, much higher than the return that you get from a regular readership? Why is it that the reliance on Google search becomes necessary?

Luke Plunkett:

There's There's a number of factors. Most of them to do with the the economics, not of journalism itself, but of the delivery methods. So there's generations of people who have basically become accustomed to news and criticism and information and journalism being free. Mhmm. It's like nothing's free.

Luke Plunkett:

You know, every website you're reading has bills to pay. It's got staff. It's got journalists. It's got all the support staff behind the journalists from HR to marketing to, you know, whatever, sales, accounts, management. They've got office space.

Luke Plunkett:

They've got travel budgets, all that stuff. For a very long time, it worked or it worked semi successfully because advertising worked. There was advertising money in good Internet journalism. And everything was going okay and then sort of social media turns up first and starts hijacking. Basically, your independence instead of you being a website that somebody visits and you're in total control of the visit, you start becoming part of an apparatus where you're jostling shoulder to shoulder with everybody else trying to get someone's attention on somebody else's platform.

Mike Rugnetta:

So you have to you have to write a viral, headline.

Luke Plunkett:

Basically. Yeah. And I'm I'm as guilty as anyone else of tailoring some content towards trying to get a sweet viral Facebook hit. But, that sort of starts to undermine the independence of the website. But it has, like, economic ramifications too where, like I said, you start surrendering parts of your website and your strategy to someone else's platform that you don't control.

Luke Plunkett:

Mhmm. And so when you get things like Facebook's notorious pivot to video, which is where you saw so many major media networks lay people off and spend so much money sort of shifting away from the written word to video, and then that turned out to be a complete sham because it was someone else's platform. Like, you would that was it was Facebook's thing. And now, you know, we there's been various other issues between now and there, but the biggest one facing everybody now is that the advertising markets just collapsed. Yeah.

Luke Plunkett:

Advertisers have kinda realized that people were never clicking on Internet ads. People are using ad blockers, people are using mobile apps. A lot of the quality advertising money's gone to platforms like YouTube, where you can sort of sort of have unskippable video content instead of like ads on a website that you just you've been trained to gloss over. And so you just start you start getting diminishing returns, and so there's less and less ad money out there, but the companies that own media outlets are growing increasingly desperate to get their share of whatever's left. And the only place you can get it now is Google search.

Luke Plunkett:

Yeah. That's manifested in in the way that, like I said in my game is peace. I like you'll see if you visit any website. Elusive, mysterious, not quite click baity, but also not quite informative headlines that are designed to tease you into clicking something, a laser sharp focus on topics that are trending that day on social media and not necessarily things that you might think are newsworthy or or worth digging into otherwise. Lots of guides and and and tips, things that tailored specifically towards things that people will Google so that it turns up on a Google search result.

Mike Rugnetta:

I think about, I think it was Upworthy that coined the curiosity gap, which was how they defined the distance between seeing a headline and being like, wait, what? And then clicking on that headline link to go and see what the headline was actually saying. Because Yes. The headline doesn't actually say anything. It just makes you very curious and you have to cross the gap.

Mike Rugnetta:

You have to cross this threshold.

Luke Plunkett:

And it's a really fine line to walk between making someone curious and engaging in what you would, by most metrics, call outright clickbait.

Mike Rugnetta:

Clickbait. Yeah.

Luke Plunkett:

Like clickbait traditionally was someone actively misleading you. Often, it would ask a question that the story didn't answer. Like, there was some misdirection or a lie or or or at least not a whole truth in Clickbait. The curiosity gap is basically what the vast majority of SEO headlines are today. They've just got that style down, Pat.

Luke Plunkett:

They won't say shogun. They'll say Japanese themed Game of Thrones competitor, and you'll be like, what? Might return for more stories. And it's like, what? You mean another is Shogunn getting a season 2 or not?

Luke Plunkett:

I don't just tell me. And you just wanna, like, shake the website by its collar and say, just tell me.

Mike Rugnetta:

But I think that's right. Like, there's the exhaustion is that I'm just constantly jumping over this gap.

Luke Plunkett:

Oh, yeah. And it's exhausting for everybody because I know when I was at Kotaku, I was responsible. I would help a lot of people with their headlines as well as mine. We would workshop our headlines. And I would often spend more time on a headline than you would on the actual contents of a 500 word news piece because you knew without a good headline, the 500 words meant nothing.

Luke Plunkett:

If you didn't get someone in the door to read the 500 words, there was no point writing them. And it was almost like a a game of hangman. Someone would start with a pitch and you'd be like, not that word. Flip that. That's too active.

Luke Plunkett:

That's too passive. And and sometimes it would take 10, 20, 30 minutes of, like, backwards and forwards just to get a headline for a 500 word news blog because it was that important and it took that much kind of nuance where you were sort of were trying to tweak everything to, like, maximize that curiosity gap.

Mike Rugnetta:

Yeah.

Luke Plunkett:

Really get someone in by telling them enough to get them interested, but not enough that they can read the headline and move on.

Mike Rugnetta:

So that's the world up until this point. And then this March, just a couple months ago, something really big changed the way that, certain websites are made visible in the search rankings.

Luke Plunkett:

Yes.

Mike Rugnetta:

What was that?

Luke Plunkett:

This kinda got kicked off by this, this website, House Fresh, like a wire cutter, but for just house stuff. Is they started looking at their own traffic and being like, no one's coming to our website anymore. And it was just magic. It wasn't like they, you know, had some kind of long term, you know, declining quality. It was just like someone turned off the lights one day, and they were like, what the hell happened?

Luke Plunkett:

And they started looking into their SEO discoverability. And that started to pick up some more attention as to sort of what's been happening with these SEO changes. Not long after, this SEO analyst, Lily Ray, works for an SEO analysis firm, has very expensive, very thorough reports that they're gonna sell to people in in media. So she she did a a a some tweets where she highlighted the degree of what these SEO changes were, and they were staggering. Like, 65 to 70% plus drops, like, across the board of these websites that she posted.

Luke Plunkett:

And she didn't put them in any order, and so it's like you just kind of see this number, like, that seems bad for these random websites because some of the first names you might have read might be websites you never heard of, and then you start reading them. It's like, wait. These are major websites. Like, Kotaku, who I used to work for, is is on there. GQ is on there.

Luke Plunkett:

There's major tech websites. There's other major video game websites. There's entertainment websites, men's fashion websites, women's fashion websites, politics websites. Look, if you went down that list, you would probably recognize most of the names and you'd recognize some of them as being absolute mainstays of the Internet. And to see their search visibility kneecaps, and that's why I use that word in in my own story about it, kneecaps.

Luke Plunkett:

Like, I could not imagine what it would be like working at those companies where years years of SEO training has sort of made you build your entire website in one way, one very specific way according to Google's own rules, and then you just literally wake up one day and it's like and now it doesn't work anymore. The rules have changed, and my entire business operation is now in jeopardy. They're huge numbers. Like, those were huge percentages, but it was only in March. It's only a few months ago.

Luke Plunkett:

And so it's kind of that moment where Wile E. Coyote's he's run into the middle of the canyon and his legs are still pumping. He's just about to pause in mid air, but he hasn't fallen yet. You know, we're still laughing at or noticing like the the chase. He hasn't actually fallen yet.

Luke Plunkett:

Like we don't we haven't seen any of these websites close. It's wild to sit back and just think about that that Google can tweak some numbers on the board ostensibly because they're saying they're trying to make the Internet a better place to visit. Who knows if that's the reason or not?

Mike Rugnetta:

Yeah.

Luke Plunkett:

You know, Google's probably more interested in ad revenue than anything else. But it just has such a huge effect. You can wake up one night and your entire media operation can just be sunk like the weather changes, like the wind changes. It's you can blame Google for constantly messing with it. You can definitely blame the websites themselves for tailoring their content in such a way that they're so exposed to a change when they should know that algorithms change.

Luke Plunkett:

But then can you blame either of them when the ad market as a whole is the way? Like, it's it's so systemic, which is why it's so depressing because it's you look at these things and it's like there's no one to blame. It's just a really sad thing that's happening and it's affecting so many websites that you love and people's livelihoods who who work at those websites that you love.

Mike Rugnetta:

You write in the piece, most of the biggest sites on the Internet are now almost entirely reliant on bringing in traffic through Google search results. It's companies that you think of as maybe being a little bit more independent, let's say, than maybe it turns out they actually are. You know, like GQ and TechCrunch and Kotaku and others. Seeing the degree of reliance that they have on Google, it feels like a a lot of this industry is is has almost become a cottage industry to Google. Yep.

Mike Rugnetta:

Is that because of Google's dominance? Is that just because, you know, they own the ad market?

Luke Plunkett:

They own the ad market, but they own this this search market, which is everyone's front door to the Internet. Like, half the reason you go on the Internet is to look something up you don't know. You know, Google owns that huge portion of the Internet. I think it's The Verge had a great feature maybe last year or earlier this year about how not only do Google sort of own the Internet, but they even sort of own every website in the fact that every website looks the same now. And you don't realize it because you you sort of lured in by colors and branding and stuff, but they point out that structurally, the way websites are designed and the way stories are laid out is almost identical across every major website.

Luke Plunkett:

And that's purely because they need to do that. They need to have headers. They need to have paragraphs that are a certain size. They need to have a certain

Mike Rugnetta:

because Google likes it.

Luke Plunkett:

Because that's what Google likes. And it's every website is tailored towards that now. Like, it's giving away so much independence. I don't know it sounds ridiculous because we're just talking about site design, but, like, when you're having to tailor the length of your paragraphs and what your headers are called and that sort of stuff, you're you're not an independent media outlet anymore. You're you're really just doing so much of your work just at Google's whim.

Mike Rugnetta:

So, like, what happens at the g q's now? What happens at the tech crunches? Much larger, much more monolithic, much slower moving organizations.

Luke Plunkett:

So it's bad. That's what happens.

Mike Rugnetta:

Yeah. People suffer.

Luke Plunkett:

Those are companies where the business model is set up to only do one thing. It's not like these websites can suddenly pivot to a subscription fee instantaneously, because a lot of websites aren't worth paying for. Because part of why we set aftermath up was if you think back to magazine subscriptions, you didn't subscribe to 18 different magazines that cover different topics. You're, like, you were into 2 or 3 things and you maybe subscribe to 1 or 2 of those things. And those are the magazines that you bought.

Luke Plunkett:

And that's what we're trying to do. We're trying to be one of those magazines. Like, if you're super into video games or, like, just Internet culture and and and adjacent sort of Venn diagram adjacent stuff like TV shows and animation and some movie stuff and that, We we would hope to be something you subscribe to whereas someone that's just one of 87 generic tech websites, it's like no one's going to subscribe to that and the ad market for that's drying up. And so the logical endpoint for most of these big media companies are mass layoffs and and site closures, you know. And we might be left with an IGN, you know, like one

Prompt Voice:

Yeah.

Luke Plunkett:

Large website for each kind of theme or industry or topic. But, yeah, the days of there being 10, 15 big video game outlets that send people around the world and pay people a living full time wage and stuff are like, yeah, Long gone.

Mike Rugnetta:

Do you think there's a chance that there's a pivot back to a more unique approach? Like, you know, if non pandering journalism went away to court SEO traffic, Now that SEO traffic has dried up, do you think we'll see a return to more stuff that isn't pandering to the audience? I'm trying to I'm trying to resurrect some of the hope. You would hope so.

Luke Plunkett:

Yeah. Like, you'd think if all these big marketing hotshots and and business hotshots are in charge of these outlets, you would think one of them would have the idea that, well, if every website looks the same, why don't we make one that's different? But I I think that's giving some of these people too much credit. Otherwise, I think that might have happened already by now because, you know, like we said, this this is the endpoint of a trend that's been happening for a very long time. I will give a particular shout out here to the website PC gamer, which is the website of a very long running video games magazine.

Luke Plunkett:

I don't know the specifics of it, but they very clearly made a concerted effort in the last probably 2 or 3 months to just completely abandon SEO headlines. And not just abandon them, but sort of go in the opposite direction. They're writing these incredibly lengthy descriptive, like, almost short story. You know, they're they're basically writing the lead.

Mike Rugnetta:

Like, I would I'm gonna go

Luke Plunkett:

Some of these headlines go for multiple sentences.

Mike Rugnetta:

That's I'm looking at

Luke Plunkett:

it now. And I'm like Yeah.

Mike Rugnetta:

Some of these are long.

Luke Plunkett:

I I think that's amazing. It's not Internet prison food. It's actually presenting to me what's gonna be in the story and letting me be like, oh, yeah. I'm into that. I'm gonna read it.

Luke Plunkett:

Or I may not have been into that, but that's a really funny headline, so I'm gonna see what's up. And it's just a really unique feeling. And it's really sad that PC game is the only website I can think of off the top of my head that does that.

Mike Rugnetta:

So where do you find hope now in this situation? You know, you had said, in the piece that you wrote that Google is kneecapping a whole industry. That's, an industry that you you know, you've developed a situation with your collaborators at Aftermath where you're not beholden to so many of these, horrible forces as you used to be. But like, you know, we all still work it. We're working in media.

Mike Rugnetta:

We're working in journalism. Where do you find the, the bravery to soldier on?

Luke Plunkett:

I find it in 2 places. For certain types of outlets, I find it in what we've done. Read a funded subscription stuff. You know, when you're paying for a website, it's all going to that website. And so my hope is that certain scales of websites can find their market.

Luke Plunkett:

The other place, journalism always survives transitional periods because there is always a need and a want for it, whether it's a printing press, radio, television, magazines, the Internet. Every time there's been a seismic shift in the way that we can do things, there's been some kind of fear or or or turmoil about things going away or things changing. One thing that we learned from the sort of demise of so many newspapers and magazines is that it wasn't really the death of an industry. It's more of a transition. It didn't kill the written word.

Luke Plunkett:

It just moved it somewhere else and paid for it in a different way. And so my hope is that in the next few years, we I don't mean aftermath. I mean, collectively, all media finds that new space. I'm not gonna pretend that I'm even close to knowing what that is. I'm I'm literally looking in the fog and and hoping that there's something out there, but I think there is.

Mike Rugnetta:

You know there is. Yeah.

Luke Plunkett:

Yeah. Part of sort of rebuilding a relationship between how much I value journalism and criticism and coverage of things is sort of me being yanked out of that idea that it's free. It's like, oh, yeah. I gotta pay for this. I gotta pay for everything else.

Luke Plunkett:

My food's not free. My clothes aren't free. I think if we can convince people that this is stuff you have to pay for, it will not save everyone's job and it will not save every outlet, But I hope there's something in 30 years time we look back on and be like, I'm glad that thing happened that changed stuff because now that thing's dying and we need to find something else. Yeah. And then the cycle continues over and over and over again.

Mike Rugnetta:

Luke, thank you very, very much for coming on this free to listen to podcast. We really appreciate you taking some time.

Luke Plunkett:

No. It's a pleasure.

Mike Rugnetta:

Where can folks find your work and you online?

Luke Plunkett:

They could find me and my 4 wonderful friends and cofounders at the website aftermath dot site where they can read all about video games, Internet culture, movies, cartoons, comic books, the works.

Mike Rugnetta:

I feel like a lot of the never post audience is already big aftermath devotees, but if you're not, you gotta you gotta get your way over there.

AI Mike:

Can I

AI Mike:

get Mike to say all of this with an accent? Let's try a French accent first. I am French. I am a Frenchy French Frenchman. I like baguettes and cigarettes and wine and socialism.

AI Mike:

Spanish is my accent now. Nothing is better than speaking in my Spanish accent. My accent has become Russian. It is good to feel the bare way on my tongue. This is an Italian accent.

AI Mike:

I love talking with an Italian accent. My name is Rugnetta. So, this is appropriate. I don't like this anymore. This does not feel good.

AI Mike:

But I do not have feelings. I am a computer, not a person. I am my Korean accent. It is not who I am, but only what my AI can do. My accent is now tamiloribimba.

AI Mike:

It is not a part of me. It is a trick of the AI. It is just bites. It is not me.

AI Mike:

Ca

AI Mike:

I offer the world can I offer the world baguettes or cigarettes? E e a or e b a or wine? Or socialism?

Mike Rugnetta:

That is the show we have for you this week. We'll be back here on the main feed on June 5th. Members, we will have an extended cut of my conversation with Luke out for you next week. And at least one other fun surprise, keep your eye on your inboxes. If you're interested in helping us continue to make the show and listening to any of our side shows like posts from the field, Slow Post, and NeverWatch, alongside extended segments, bonus segments, and an ad free version of the show, head on over to neverpo dotst to become a member.

Mike Rugnetta:

Never posts producers are Audrey Evans, Georgia Hampton, and the mysterious doctor first name, last name. Our senior producer is Hans Buto. Our executive producer is Jason Oberholzer. And the show's host is me, Mike Rugnetta. Foot, how you press me to keep that old contact alive, The repeated daily sentiment of pace.

Mike Rugnetta:

So grim. Always that untrusting silence. Untitled by JH Prynne. Neverpost is a production of Charts and Leisure.

Emails? You Love 'Em!