Monthly Archives: April 2016

Writing for Web Bots Exercises My Creative Muscle But Creates Ethical Considerations

galaxyAfter several months of writing three articles a day containing three hundred to five hundred words on topics of which I have very little knowledge and even less interest which are specifically designed for web bots’ consumption, I have noticed my creative muscle has strengthened. My creative muscle has strengthened because I use it every day and it has in turn adapted to this daily usage. When I use the term “creative muscle” I refer to my brain’s ability to create content for these articles. I think the term muscle is an especially apt metaphor in this context because like a muscle, my brain’s ability to create content improves with exercise.

On a related note, I am a member of a local Toastmasters chapter which is another activity I take part in on a regular basis. Part of the meeting consists of an activity called “Table Topics” where a member selected to be the week’s “Topics Master” devises a series of questions to ask randomly selected people attending the meeting. The person who is asked the question then has to come up with a one to two minute response to the question. This exercise exercises the person’s ability to speak off the cuff in front of a group of people on a subject of which they may or may not have any knowledge. At first I intensely disliked this portion of the meet because it made physically uncomfortable to sit with the anticipation of being called upon. I have never grow comfortable with the experience however, overtime I have noticed that my ability to devise a response has improved.

The more I think about it the more I realize these two activities are in fact very similar. They are similar for all the obvious reasons. That is, they both develop the creative muscle of the mind to generate content in the moment without preparation. However, they are also similar on a more technical level. Specifically, I found that both exercises have strengthened my creative muscle to devise content that reads and sounds meaningful but may or may not contain any real meaning at all. Intrinsic to this skill is the ability to make the content have the appearance of actual content intended to inform its intended audience. This aspect is crucial because if the content appears to be obvious spam or verbal diarrhea then it will repel its intended audience. But content with the appearance of actual content will draw its intended audience in. Regardless of whether the employment of this skill is ethical there is no denying its importance, value and power.

But it is important to consider the ethical implications of developing this skill. On the one hand there is a certain level of deception going on. It could be argued that giving a person or a web bot representing the interests of a person the illusion of relevant, useful content without actually giving them anything relevant or useful is dishonest and therefore morally wrong. I think this argument is not without merit however, I also think that the intention behind the illusion also factors significantly to color this ethical analysis. For example, sometimes illusion can be entertaining and if this is the illusion’s intended purpose then I see nothing morally wrong with the illusion even if the recipient of the illusion does not fully grasp this intention. Obviously, if the illusion is intended to deceive another person for the purposes of theft then it falls more towards the morally wrong end of this spectrum.

The question then presents itself: is designing content intended to give web bots the illusion of content a morally wrong act? Clearly designing a Table Topics response to sound like actual content in the moment when called upon randomly to do so within the context of a Toastmasters meeting falls more towards the entertainment (and therefore morally good or at least neutral) end of the spectrum. Misdirecting web bots, however, is a little less clear I suppose because ultimately there are economic interests at stake and obtaining money from another person through false pretenses smacks of fraud. As discussed in my previous blog post the content I write (as a side profession) is intended to optimize a website my content links to in a search engine’s listings which are responsive to specific keywords. This in turn will work to increase the amount of traffic that finds its way to that website because the people using specific keywords in a search engine will see that website list closer to the top of the list of websites generated by the search engine in response to those keywords. An increase in web traffic (hopefully) will result in more sales and profit for the business that employs that particular website.

The reader will appreciate that the complex nature of the language required to explain this process demonstrates the muddy ethical water in which this sort of activity swims. Clearly it is not on the same ethical level as murder. But nor is it on the same ethical level of altruistically nursing a waylaid stranger found along the side of the road back to health. In the end, I think it is sufficient to say that the practice of creating content intended to misdirect web bots is ethically ambiguous at best and perhaps for the purposes of this blog post I can leave it at that. There is, however, a certain power to the ability to do it as I discussed and I suppose this power is deserving of respect. This power (for better or worse) is something I a developing daily by writing content for web bots and weekly by attending Toastmasters meetings. I must admit that I enjoy the process and will therefore continue to do it. Of course all this describes an exposure to something new that I am exploring and learning more about as I do it. I have not yet reached an ethical impasse but I suppose what I am trying to articulate is that I do recognize the possibility of that event.

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I Write Content for Web Bots

galaxyI get paid to write content for web bots. Actually I am not entirely sure about this but I think it is true. Some months ago some guy in Salt Lake City running an SEO company hired me through Freelancer.com to write 300 to 500 word articles for him at $7.50 a piece. There are several different business clients of his for whom I write these articles. One is a house cleaning service in Salt Lake City, Utah. Another is a podiatrist in Boise, Idaho. There are others and each seems equally random from my perspective.

He was not my first employer on Freelancer.com, however. My first employer was a gentleman from Bangladesh who hired me to write fifteen 500 word articles for his health and fitness blog. He paid me $15 total but he agreed to give me a five-star rating if I completed the task. He gave me the subject and keywords for each article and I completed the task over the course of five days writing three articles a day. The job was a little more difficult than I anticipated at first. Much of the difficulty had to do with the fact that I found it hard to motivate myself to spend the time and effort to write when my compensation was so low. To exacerbate matters my Bangladeshi employer kept texting me with knit picky problems he kept finding with my work product. I was, however, able to power through with the understanding that my eventual five-star rating would attract other higher paying employers. When I finished he proved true to his word and paid me the $15 he promised me along with giving me the infinitely more valuable five-star rating.

I need not go into too much detail regarding my second employer through Freelancer.com. He was some guy who offered me $500 to ghostwrite a 10,000 word e-book on memory. He did not have any rating at all which should have raised alarm bells but I was motivated to earn a bigger purse with this job so I agreed. He gave me a weekend to finish the job which I did. At 5:00am on the day the project was due he texted me asking if I had completed the task. I told him I did and sent him a copy of my work. I never heard from him again. Lesson learned: do not conduct business with someone who has no rating on Freelancer unless it is for a smaller amount of money and effort.

Before I go any further I should point out that a big part of how I was able to land these jobs without a rating was that I could point these potential employers to my blog (the one you are reading right now) and my two published e-books Shame and Internet Trolling (a book about the connection between shame and internet trolls) and The Book of Bud (the story of a man writing a novel in 30 days) which are available on Amazon.com. These writing samples gave me enough credibility to get my foot in the door. But once I had a five-star rating I started to attract more legitimate and higher paying employers like my guy in Salt Lake City with the SEO business.

At first he wanted to know what topics I felt comfortable writing about. I told him I could write about anything. He asked me how many articles I could write a week. I got the impression that he was paid a certain amount by his customers for every article I wrote from which I was given a cut. Each article had to contain two links back to the customer’s website and contain whatever keywords were required. At first I did not question the reason he hired me to write these articles. But after a while I noticed that none of the articles I had written received views or comments. Then one day my employer informed me that it did not matter whether the article was grammatically correct so long as the keywords appeared in the article exactly as assigned. I could not figure out why someone would pay him to pay me to write grammatically incorrect articles that no one would read.

After discussing this issue with some friends of mine who are more tech savvy than I am we came up with the following theory. When people use search engines they input keywords into the browser which then displays a list of websites which match the keywords. The websites are listed in an order determined by the web browser’s algorithm. Obviously, the higher up in the list a link appears the more likely a web surfer will click it. One of the criteria which prioritizes a website’s place in the list is whether there are links to that website from third-party websites. That seems to be the desired function of the articles I write. That is, to create third-party links to websites in order to have the websites appear higher up in the search engine listings. If true, this means that the articles I write are not intended to be read by humans but rather by the web bots the search engines use to look for this type of thing. Of course this sort of tactic is a bit of a cheat because search engines prioritize websites that have other websites linking to them presumably under the assumption that these outside links demonstrate how popular and relevant the original website is.

There are many layers of misdirection at work here. The original business owns a website. The business hires my employer to increase the traffic to their website. My employer hires me to write fake articles. These fake articles when published list some other person as the author in order to appear to be written by an objective third-party. It does not matter what the content of the articles actually is so long as it has the right number of words, contains the keywords, contains two links to the business’s website and does not appear to be obvious spam to the web bot who reads it.

Obviously this is not the most satisfying work in terms of content creation. But I am intrigued by the amount of progress I have made. In just a matter of months I went from one dollar an article to $7.50 an article. Moreover, I find my creative ability to come up with something to say about any topic to be getting stronger. The trajectory seems positive and encouraging.

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The Argument Against Shame

BridgeShame is the feeling that you have done something wrong. But more deeply, shame is the feeling that you are wrong as a person fundamentally. As a society we tend to think that shame is necessary and even a force for good because it keeps people in line and prevents them from acting badly. It is my contention that shame is completely unnecessary, often harmful and is in no way a moralizing principle.

It is supremely unfortunate that our society feels that shame is a moralizing principle. Imagine a kid caught stealing a pack of gum from a store. When he is caught he is made to feel ashamed of himself by whatever authority figure caught him. Our society feels that it is then appropriate to shame this kid because it punishes him for the crime committed. Moreover shame also prevents him from stealing gum in the future because he will not want to feel the shame of getting caught a second time. But this is not morality. Morality would be choosing not to steal the gum in the first place because he knew in his heart that stealing was wrong. It is not moral to refrain from stealing merely out of a fear of being punished.

Our society also tends to feel that feeling shame is connected to being responsible. The argument goes that if the kid did not feel shame after stealing gum then he would go around stealing gum all the time unhindered. But this is not responsibility. In fact the argument assumes the kid is intrinsically irresponsible and requires shame to make him act responsibly.

Our society also tends to feel that shame is a just punishment for the crime. The kid steals the gum, gets caught and feels shame. We clearly see the crime and the punishment. This would be fine if this is where it ended but shame tends to linger far longer than it is useful for the purpose of punishment. To illustrate the point, how many people reading this post feel regret and embarrassment to this day for situations that occurred years and years ago? Do you honestly feel that punishment fits what ever crime you committed so long ago?

In truth, shame is a virus. I say it is a virus because it spreads from person to person as people who feel ashamed of themselves tend to want to make other people feel ashamed of themselves. Consider the following example. A boss yells at his employee for making a mistake at work. That employee feels ashamed and frustrated. He goes home and sees that his house is a mess and yells at his son for not cleaning up after himself. His son feels ashamed and frustrated. He then finds his younger brother and yells at him for taking his book without asking permission. The younger brother feels ashamed of himself and because he has no one smaller than him to shame at home, he goes to school the next day and bullies a smaller kid. This is how shame operates. Notice how none of the crimes committed were the real reason why one person chose to shame another in this chain. Notice also that shame tends to be cowardly looking for weaker victims upon which to vent. This illustrates the deceptive nature of shame to both the shamor and the shamed. Each shamor cloaked his shame with the veneer of morality by accusing the shamed of a crime. From the perspective of the shamed, he will operate under the belief that if only he did the right thing he would not have to feel ashamed anymore. But even a little bit of thought about shame will confirm that this belief is false. Shame lingers as long as a person buys into the notion that shame is a legitimate moralizing principle.

The answer must be to reject shame as a moralizing principle because it simply is not. When a person rejects shame in this way he will begin to notice an awareness of the dynamic of shame and a compassion for the people deceived into thinking shame is a necessary force for good. In the example where the boss shamed the father and the father shamed the son, no one in this chain was aware of their true motivation. With awareness, however, a person caught within the throws of shame who is about to pass their shame on to another person can catch themselves in the act. They can ask themselves if this is the right thing to do. That would be an act of true morality and responsibility.

Here is my challenge to the reader of this post. The next time you feel yourself caught in the throws of shame, stop yourself. Gain an awareness of your true motivations. Have compassion for the person you are about to pass your shame onto. Have compassion for yourself for most likely being the previous recipient of someone else’s shame. Know that shame has no compassion or awareness and the true shame of it all is that our society feels shame to be a moralizing principle when it is anything but.

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