Following the public launch of OpenAI's ChatGPT in November 2022 (and then Google's Bard and GPT4 in March 20223), many have speculated about how "AI" prompt-generated text is reconfiguring our relationship to the written word. Commentators worry about a flood of machine-writing; a "Textpocalypse" of "ongoing planetary spam" characterised by a plausibly human yet boring "High Wikipedia" style. Effects are already being felt across the digital literary sphere: the eminent sci-fi and fantasy magazine, Clarkesworld, announced it was pausing submissions amidst a flood of AI-generated spam, and genre writers who self-publish on Amazon feel forced to use AI to boost output and maintain income.

Amidst this speculation and reaction, rather than focussing on the implications of how text is written by machines, I instead want to focus on the conditions that lead to how text is read by machines. Look, for instance, at this recent March 2023 buyer's guide from The Verge, "Best printer 2023: just buy this Brother laser printer everyone has, it's fine." It contains three brief paragraphs that pithily describe why you should buy the printer, followed by an affiliate link for purchasing. For all (human) intents and purposes, the article ends here. Except, it is then followed by this interjection:

And here's 275 words about printers I asked ChatGPT to write so this post ranks in search because Google thinks you have to pad out articles in order to demonstrate "authority," but I am telling you to just buy whatever Brother laser printer is on sale and never think about printers again.

An ironically long section title introduces these "words about printers," where the writer warns: "Don't read it unless you are a lonely Google search robot." Six paragraphs of bland ChatGPT-generated copytext follow, including advice like "consider your budget and running costs." In total, 353 words are "written" for the machine reader, while only 309 words are written for the human reader. More than half the words are only included as fodder to boost how the "post ranks in search." More than half the words are neither written nor meant to be read by humans.

This is an early(ish) example of Search Engine Optimization (SEO) at work in the wake of "AI" prompt-generated text. We can loosely define Search Engine Optimisation as the process of improving the ranking of a website in search engine results by making changes to the website's content, structure, formatting, and links to other websites. This could include changing a website's text (like lengthening a page's title to be more descriptive and contain more keywords) or making more technical changes (like adding meta tags in a site's html code or streamlining URL naming conventions for each page on a site). Given that SEO ranking is determined by bots trawling and indexing websites to feed algorithms, SEO depends upon humans producing and structuring text that is machine readable. Websites that conform to SEO guidelines are easier to scrape (a process used by large language models like GPT to "read" text on the internet). So, the cultural norms around SEO structure the interplay between human writer and machine reader.

The Verge's wry introduction is subversively upfront about using ChatGPT to boost SEO. However, this is unlikely to be the norm for less ethical websites as prompt-generated text becomes widespread and unquestioned. How should we reckon with this new phase of prompt-generated SEO-boosting writing? How is this similar or different from how SEO has shaped writing in the past? And what does this mean for digital literary culture?

For the beginnings of some answers, we can look backward to SEO's historical interactions with the essay form. The essay as a literary form both conforms to and resists a homogenising reclassification as simply "content." Because of the essay's modular nature, it moves easily in our "atomised" online media landscape where readers view individual articles rather than buying a whole magazine or newspaper. Essays, especially shortform essays, are easily read as part of a scroll, shared in chats, and hyperlinked to each other. In this respect, the online essay has functional similarities to the viral tweet, the blog post, the listicle, and other text-based forms of shareable "content" that respond to platform systems and cultures built around algorithmic recommendation. However, while many content creators engage with these systems in a bid for virality, the decision to write essays rather than tweets signals a literary aspiration that isn't reducible to a desire for internet clout. (And frankly, there are much easier ways to achieve internet fame than through essay writing). Under such conditions, the essay is doubly important for how it maintains its glamour as a self-consciously writerly activity, but one which the technical affordances of the social internet make widely accessible. It is a literary form saturated with anxieties about traditional cultural sorting methods getting swapped out for models of "virality-as-resonance". This tension points to the vexed imagination of writing as personal expression that also seeks to disguise its own position as an economic product.

Tracing the culture and logics of Search Engine Optimization can help us unpick this tension. The earliest use of the phrase Search Engine Optimization appears to have been in February 1997 by a firm called Multimedia Marketing Group the same year that Larry Page and Sergey Brin changed the name of their Stanford web-search project from "Backrub" to "Google". 1997 was also the year that Jorn Borger coined the contraction of web logs to "weblogs" (soon to be just "blogs"), signalling that a new era of online personal writing was taking off.1 Two years earlier in 1995, one of the earliest online-first magazines was launched: the San Francisco-based Salon. In the same year, the USA's Telecommunications Act of 1995 was passed"Tellingly," writes media and technology scholar Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, this Act, "which deregulated the industry and laid the groundwork for the commercial Internet, also sought to regulate the content of the Internet for the first time."2 Here in the mid-1990s, we see key drivers of the "attention economy," with its various implications for advertising, media, and publishing, kicking into gear: the rise of online magazines, the expansion of web search, the dawn of blogging culture, and the legal infrastructure for a commercialised internetall alongside the rise of content regulation.

In 2003, Google launched AdSense, the program by which Google pays websites to host ad space, and then auction this space off to the highest bidder. By the end of 2022, over 40.5 million websites used AdSense. Hand-in-hand with AdSense's rise, spammy websites filled with keywords and so-called "thin" content proliferated as the SEO industry kicked off in earnest and tried to game site traffic. In 2005 and 2006, Google launched Google Analytics and Google Webmaster Central, providing detailed information on how website traffic flowed. Without wanting to reduce complex factors to one simple cause, this increasingly granular web-traffic information can be seen as a key driver of the atomisation of media formats. Whereas previously it was much harder to determine which specific article(s) would drive magazine sales, now media organisations could tell which pieces had the highest viewcounts, and which converted those into ad-clickthroughs or subscribers. The logic of "eyeballs" as advertising as income solidified, and media organisations started to pursue virality as a commercial goal. Tellingly, Buzzfeed was also founded in 2006, signalling a new type of online-first publisher that popularized certain short forms like listicles and clickbait puff pieces. The rest of the media industry rushed to catch up: in 2009 the BBC announced that BBC News headlines would be longer "so that people using search engines to look for the story can find it more easily." By 2013, mainstream news articles were puzzling over the obscene popularity of the listicle and a degraded media landscape.3 In the same year, The New York Times proclaimed "Essayification of Everything".

The New York Times article is part of a well-documented flurry of literary punditry about the essay's status in the mid-2010s. In 2015, Laura Bennett in Slate Magazine acerbically denounced the online personal essay's "First-Person Industrial Complex". She describes a boom of viral essays which function as "solo acts of sensational disclosure" conditioned by "blunt-force click-baiting"and that for many of these writers, all that this harrowing disclosure will lead to is "a lifetime of SEO infamy". In 2017, Jia Tolentino declared in The New Yorker that "The Personal-Essay Boom is Over"; and in 2020, Anna Wiener's tech industry memoir, Uncanny Valley, was described reprovingly as "the perfect product of another aspect of digital culture: the personal essay." Reflecting on Jezebel's practices in the 2010s, essay scholar Jane Hu describes how "personal essays on women's media sites were increasingly capitalizing on intensely intimate acts of self-exposure by freelancers that were less avenues or auditions for more writing gigs than extractive one-offs."4 Coaxed by SEO pressures, this gendered aspirational labour powerfully shaped the voice of online culture criticism with sites like The Toast (2013-16), The Awl (2009-18), Gawker (2003-16), xoJane (2011-16), and The Hairpin (2010-18), among others.5

This boom in sensationalist personal essay writing, however, coincided with the more institutionally and culturally respected rise of the contemporary essay in various guises such as creative nonfiction, narrative nonfiction, and lyric essays. Thomas Karshan and Kathryn Murphy have recently read this as evidence of a "resurgence" of the essay from the 2010s onwards: pointing to writers like Maggie Nelson, Leslie Jamison, Claudia Rankine, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Mark Greif, Brian Blanchfield, Olivia Laing, Adam Phillips, John Jeremiah Sullivan, Hilton Als, Eula Bliss, and Emilie Pine as examples.6 While these writers are acclaimed for their essays in print, all have important online work as well, and this is key to their success. Taken together, the essay form in the internet age is seen as both compromised and spammy as well as an eminent site of literary prestige.

These discussions about the "personal" part of the essay coincide with SEO's continued emphasis on personalization. SEO is increasingly tied to personal devices, historically individuated, and locally specific; focussed on feeding us what it thinks we want and filtering out the rest. A 2020 investigation by data journalists at The Markup showed that 41% of the first page of Google Search results was taken up with Google's own tailored products (info snippets, bios, price comparisons, flights, maps, etc.) Contrast this with the first page's original format of 10 "blue links" that led away from Google as quickly as possible. Here we see as a micro-drama the move away from earlier cyber-utopian, masculinist-heroic descriptions of the "searcher" as adventuring laterally across a vast uncharted internet "Wild West."7 Now the searcher hardly travels beyond the first page. Search has become increasingly personalised, even hyper-personalized.

In addition to algorithmic personalisation, the history of SEO is premised on there being a policeable boundary between "optimizing" versus "cheating" a system. In SEO lingo, these are referred to as whitehat (permissible/respectable) and blackhat (forbidden/bad faith) tactics. A whitehat tactic might be writing a blog for your website with several highly-googled keyterms in it (like "best lawnmower" or "garden supplies"). A blackhat tactic might be spamming chatrooms and forums with comments that say "100%-best-cheap-high-quality-lawnmower-free-delivery," when there aren't even really any lawnmowers for sale. As the logic of SEO cemented, the need to savvily navigate SEO guidelines and norms became increasingly important for those who wanted to maximise their visibility while staying on the "right" side of the whitehat/blackhat boundary. This boundary is often obscured, changeable, and ill-definedan opacity that serves Google as it tries to stay one step ahead of spammers, and runs what amounts to huge socio-technical experiments with little public oversight.

This whitehat/blackhat analogy is useful for thinking about the essay as both eroded to the level of clickbait and elevated to a prestige form. Some types of writing are considered "cheating" the system (listicles, clickbait, spam, misleading headlines) and some are considered "respectable" optimization (viral book review on controversial work, quirky cultural deep dives, intriguing personal essays). A normative divide emerges between strategic and suspect, in ways that resemble what Google tries to do with their SEO updates that penalise "bad" practice. Perhaps our allergy to clickbait essays is informed by our desire to rationalise our own online lives by the same metrics? We are online, but not that kind of online. The longstanding practice of denigrating sensationalism now becomes a way of resisting being a data subject.

In already pressurised labour conditions, then, the essay writer must navigate this blurred line between unprincipledly spammy versus respectably optimised writing. The many types of online writing discussed here, from listicle to book review, are not strictly essays. But if we are sliding indiscriminately, we are also following in the wake of hundreds of years of essayists, scholars, and theorists defining the essay by its indefinability, expansiveness, flexibility, and slipperiness.8 This versatility in itself tells a story about how the idea of the essay keeps the door open towards literary prestige at a time when many writers are forced to become content producers rather than essayists. Essay writers grapple with the logics of SEO as they try to optimize viewcounts without foreclosing the possibility of literary prestige.

Responding to these conditions, the contemporary essay then wrestles with this precise problem of how to maintain the distinction between essay writing and internet content creation. Representative here are Virginia Heffernan's Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art (2016); Jia Tolentino's Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion (2019); and Roisin Kiberd's The Disconnect: A Personal Journey Through the Internet (2021).9 Each author is a woman who worked for online publications. Their careers have depended on their being successfully attuned to SEO-inflected writing systems and timelines. Virginia Heffernan ran a blog for the New York Times before becoming a national correspondent for Yahoo!News and is still a contributor to WIRED. She wrote a series called "Glass Menagerie" about Google Glass headsets, as well as popular internet culture pieces about Netflix binges and the history of how "to google" emerged as a verb. Tolentino is currently a staff writer at The New Yorker, with previous roles including deputy editor at Jezebel and contributing editor at Hairpin (both online publications). She has written extensively about online culture, including essays about vaping culture, "mom merch" memes, and the rise of "Instagram face". Kiberd was an online culture columnist for Vice UK, writing pieces such as "A Brief History of Skeleton Memes" or a deep-dive into subreddits for children estranged from their parents. Each writer participates in a literary culture that encourages you to keep a list of pitch opportunities in an open tab at all times, with one eye on the real-world stakes, ready to demonstrate that what they write is "necessary", "urgent", and "timely". Tolentino describes how working to the timelines and "eyeball" targets of online publications taught her not to "belabor": "You can work within this idiom of, 'These are the thoughts that I have right now,' and you can figure out how to use that sort of weightlessness to your advantage rather than have it undercut the quality of your work".

Each writer demonstrates an eagerness for writing that is both literary and "engaging." The result is often a type of writing that opens with an attention-grabbing gambit in line with the logic of SEO, and then spends the rest of the essay trying to exceed it. In "Love, Death, and Begging for Celebrities to Kill You" (2019), Tolentino muses on the contemporary Twitter trend where fans make inventive, hyperbolic quips about wanting celebrities to kill them (like asking Lady Gaga to "Snap my neck and hide my body" or Harry Styles to "run me over with a truck"). She consults Petrarch, John Donne, Freud, Twitter fan page moderators, and a dominatrix to puzzle out whether this trend shows that "young people really love celebrities" or "that we're craving unmediated connection so desperately that we would accept it in the form of murder. It's also possible that we simply want to die." The very triviality or nicheness of subject matter becomes a counterbalance for deeper insights, bringing with it the quotable aura of controversy, of the "hot take".

Meanwhile, in Magic and Loss, Heffernan explicitly lays out that this sort of glibness is essential for getting closer to describing what the internet really feels like. In a "1992 Flashback" to completing her Ph.D. in English Literature, she recalls her dad calling her prose "glib" and "meretricious".10 His criticism makes her question the utility of "rigorous academic prose" in contrast to "pop idiom" critique. Heffernan suggests that these "grubbier" modes of critique - "considered suspect in university settings"- were not just personally more appealing, but also necessary for keeping step with the rise of internet culture: "The Mount Vesuvius of digitization was faintly rumbling, but most of us were determined to block out the noise. Sure, there was email, but texting and tweeting had not yet made glibness compulsory."11 In other words, her dad failed to recognise that Heffernan needed glibness in order to write about internet culture. By Heffernan's reckoning at least, glibness has won.

For its part, Kiberd's magnificently titled essay "Bland God" roves across Mark Zuckerberg's bland wardrobe, normcore, and how Silicon Valley normalises surveillance. An unserious quip about finding a second-hand Facebook hoodie is her way into her analysis. Her essays on vaporwave, Monster Energy Drinks, and sleep optimisation start-ups lurch between trivial and tender profundity. A vaporwave song "sounds like it's being played on broken machinery [...] Something is taking place, somewhere, but we're too exhausted to care."12 This attention to vaporwave's dreary cocktail of community, exhaustion, and yearning opens into a wider evocation of the internet's absurd affective states. How can you truly connect with people through music when the internet makes music "an agent of surveillance"? Accordingly, Kiberd speculates: "There are no subcultures anymore, only groups of sad people convening on the internet. Only young people, poised on the cusp of becoming old, inheriting a world that will likely be uninhabitable."13 Here, Kiberd uses a meme-worthy subgenre of synthetic music to gesture at the cloudy gaps where connection fails to beget community.

With writers like Heffernan, Tolentino, and Kiberd, writers who straddle the line between tech/online culture journalism and literary essayism, we see the emergence of an algorithm-inflected essayism that shows an awareness of, and navigation through, a middle-ground between SEO clickbait and hefty criticism. However, these essays's clickbait-adjacent cheekiness is not their only evidence of SEO culture. We could see, for instance, Kiberd's bringing together of Mark Zuckerberg's blandness, normcore hoodies, Facebook's surveillance, Philip K. Dick novels, and Paris is Burning (1990) as a record of her online "Search" session turned into a literary artefact. Rather than letting SEO frictionlessly provide machine-assured results to us, the essayist can narrativize the effort, lucky breakthroughs, and uncertainties involved in searching for knowledge.

For Kiberd, showing this labour and effort is central to her project as an essayist. In 2016, after reporting for Vice UK about online alt-right groups and the rise of Trump, Kiberd began losing sleep, isolating herself and eventually attempted suicide by overdose. She makes it clear that her essays are hard-won: a wrenching back of control as she looks plainly at the systems that subsumed and eroded much of her life. She writes that "Technology attempts to tell its history and our own, rewriting the past with each new iteration. It filters and deletes. It updates and erases its tracks. It is constantly rushing onward, forgetting the past". Technology "has shaped my life's story, and its work will never be done, not until, I believe, it has mapped my soul. In writing, then, I must attempt to convey my soul first."14 Kiberd hopes that the human-written essay can foreground (and perhaps even enact) the wrenching effort, missteps, and chance encounters that lead to the formation of human thought.

These historical coordinates allow us to place the emergence of SEO-boosting prompt-generated text inside a larger story of how internet writing conforms to, resists, or subverts the pressure to "optimize" for machine readability. The writers I've discussed show the essay form as capable of emphasising (at stylistic and structural levels) the felt presence of how a thinking mind has produced a piece of writingand how it has subverted, conformed, or resisted the logics and pressures of platforms. The essay can contain its own "making of" story, in which the writer can historicise their own writing, indexing the processes, labour, contingency, and causes. This functions in opposition to prompt-generated writing. Against the rapid proliferation of prompt-generated writing/spam, the essay writer's ability to record and narrativize the labour and processes of human thinking provides one foil, perhaps, to machine-generated text that appears "frictionless", "effortless", and of diffuse and indeterminate origins.

This act of encoding the causes and processes of a thinking mind into the essay can, of course, also be understood as a formalist style. And this style could then be readily emulated by prompt-generation. However, as many have pointed out, this thinking mind is often reinforced by the writer's continuing online presence, where we can see a writer's essay as one part of an ongoing development of thinking. If a writer uses ChatGPT to generate an essay, and it "hallucinates" that they grew up in London when they grew up in Sydney, it's highly likely that this will be destabilised by their biographical note, author page, or Twitter profile, et cetera. In this way, the internet essay's modular nature allows it to be attached to a human thinker as an ongoing unit of thought.

Maybe at its best, the contemporary essay can highlight alternative values to the machine-recommended stream or prompt-generated text. It can act as a record of a human-curated search (both in the sense of search for meaning and in the sense of an online Search). If this is too much to ask, then at least we might be able to see the contemporary essay as a way to inhabit someone else's algorithmically-curated stream. In doing so, we can perhaps marginally and briefly puncture the inescapable processes of hyper-personalisation to see what someone else's internet-inflected experience of information feels like.

Charles Pidgeon (@CharlesPidgeonA , is a writer and doctoral student at the University of Oxford's English Faculty. He researches contemporary Anglophone writing about the internet and is particularly interested in cultural histories of how writers confront and conceptualise informational overwhelm. 


  1. Jane Hu, "The Essay Online," in The Cambridge Companion to The Essay, ed. Kara Wittman and Evan Kindley, (Cambridge University Press, 2022), 266, []
  2. Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, "Digital and New Media," in A Companion to Critical and Cultural Theory (John Wiley & Sons, 2017), 390. []
  3. See, for instance, Steven Poole, "Top Nine Things You Need to Know about 'Listicles.'" The Guardian, November 12, 2013, who facetiously asks: "Is the very fabric of written culture coming apart? Is global prose dissolving into a choppy sea of bite-sized jokey paragraphs?" []
  4. Hu, "The Essay Online," 271. []
  5. Brooke Erin Duffy, Remake, Remodel: Women's Magazines in the Digital Age (University of Illinois Press, 2013), 90-102; Hu, "The Essay Online," 269-75. []
  6. Thomas Karshan and Kathryn Murphy, eds., On Essays: Montaigne to the Present (Oxford University Press, 2020), 28. []
  7. Fred Turner, From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism (University of Chicago Press, 2006), 6. []
  8. Karshan and Murphy, On Essays, 3 describes how, since its origins with Montaigne, the essay has always been "miscellaneous and anti-systematic": "concerned with the quotidian, or the trivial". []
  9. Virginia Heffernan, Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art (Simon and Schuster, 2017); Jia Tolentino, Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion (4th Estate, 2019); Roisin Kiberd, The Disconnect: A Personal Journey Through the Internet (Serpent's Tail, 2021). []
  10. Heffernan, Magic and Loss, 6. []
  11. Heffernan, 6-7. []
  12. Kiberd, The Disconnect, 76. []
  13. Kiberd, 93. []
  14. Kiberd, 20. []